My Week With Heisler, Pt. 1

Let's say for a moment that you found yourself embedded as an assistant with arguably the world's best living photographic portraitist. And let's also say that, beyond your primary duties as an assistant your secondary goal was to be observant as possible and report back on what you learned.

That's exactly what happened to Italian photographer (and occasional Strobist contributor) Sara Lando, who as you can see above was not at all excited about her assignment at Gulf Photo Plus earlier this year. She looks almost bored, dontcha think?

This post marks the first of a three-part series on what she learned from her experience. Today, the intangibles: the stuff you'd never consider because you are too busy worrying about a gridded beauty dish or something…

By Sara Lando -- Some days it's kind of hard not to brag about the fact that my job is better than yours, for example the day David wrote me asking if I was interested in spending 10 days in Dubai assisting Gregory Heisler and then write about him for Strobist. You might be the guy tasting samples in the Nutella factory, and I'd still be all "in your face dude!"

Then I got really anxious about it: I'd have 10 days to make an ass of myself in front of a genius. What if I'm too stupid to really "get" what he's teaching? What if I have him *right there* and forget to ask the right question because I freeze? What if I ask the wrong question and he punches me in the face? [Editor's note: Or what if, at the end of the week, you somehow manage to throw a glass of water in his face in front of 350 people?]

Long story short, I came back with 25 pages of notes and a blown mind. And even though prior to GPP I had read and watched everything the Interwebz had to offer about the man, having him in person was a whole new level of awesome.

Before I go into the more technical stuff you probably are waiting to read the most, I'd really like to spend this first post introducing the non-technical Heisler. Because who he is as a human being explains a lot of what he does as a photographer, in my opinion.

There's a small anecdote that got stuck in my mind. On the second night we were sitting at the Vista Bar and the waitress came to take our orders. He ended up ordering a "Bombay Dirty Martini, up." And even though he received something completely different the first time, he thanked the waitress. And when people weren't noticing, he silently sneaked away with his glass and came back five minutes later holding a proper Martini glass, filled with the exact drink he wanted.

In the following days I have witnessed the same thing over and over: he would set for something complicated in a situation where it could have been a recipe for disaster, and then he just didn't settle for anything else and got where he wanted, always with kindness, without making a fuss out of it and in a very quiet way.

Which is another thing that really struck me: see, Heisler is a very tall man. I could probably use his shoe as a sleeping bag. Yet he has a way of making himself small, unnoticed. Let's be clear: he owns a shirt decorated with cartoon banjos, he's not trying to blend in, or something, but he's not there to be the center of attention, nor are his photos: his subject is.

He said in class that the photo shouldn't make people tell "who's the photographer?", but rather "who's the subject?". And if there is something he does beautifully over and over, is to make people want to know the person in the picture, and the story that goes with it.

These days, the talk with photography seems to be all about style and branding yourself, and delivering a consistent product for your clients and sure, that might be a great business decision... but.
But, to use Heisler's words, "if you have a style proactively... it's just a technique: if someone else does it, it looks the same". Technique is like a pair of gloves, that you can take off and put on whenever you need them. Your style is a fingerprint, and when it comes to style you get to recognize it in hindsight (so, if you've been taking pictures for 6 months, finding your style might not be what you need to do right now).

Of course you have to have the technique part down and dusted. You have to have plenty of techniques, because if two different pictures have nothing in common in terms of subject, assignment or story, they simply shouldn't be shot the same way. This simple concept alone completely changes the way I approach my jobs now: it's not about trying to express my voice, but rather finding the best way to use my voice to tell a story.

Each photo, according to Heisler, should be built on the 5 Ws:

1. What's the assignment?
2. Who's the subject?
3. Who's the picture for?
4. What's the story?
5. WHOA, DUDE! (I might have added this one, but it was consistently there, so I'm just reporting back)

He has no "personal work", in the strictest sense, but each photo he shoots is taken as if he was shooting it for his portfolio. My first thought was "the horror! Personal projects are essential for an artist!", then I remembered that Michelangelo and Leonardo's masterpieces are commissioned works (don't know about the other ninja turtles).

The whole point is taking the risk to present your idea to the client and in Heisler's case, since he has usually thought about it way more than they did, they use it. Isn't that why they hired him in the first place?

That's also why you won't see him snapping photos to keep as memories: he just can't take pictures lightly.

For a whole week I've seen him taking pictures to show as a "quick example" to the students, and then getting sucked into tweaking and changing and "do we have a gridded beauty dish? I think it might look better this way. Maybe with a double CTO? Thanks". He sees the potential and it seems like it's painful for him not to bring it to life. Once he's after a photo, he just cannot let it go.

Photography, for him, is being an observer of the world and then come up with his personal response and he takes this task very seriously. Seeing him at work was fascinating: if he was a lens, he'd be a 10-600 zoom.

He walks on set and he is wide open. He doesn't commit to anything, he just observes and thinks. (This might be a good time to go watch the video of the 2012 GPP shootout. That's not for show: this is exactly how he works. And if you're assisting for him, you are on the side, having an heart attack.)

He looks at something and he's taking into consideration something else that might work better. When time is running out I tend to run around like a headless chicken and shoot everything, hoping something good will magically appear in my camera.

He might freak out a little inside (and I learnt to tell "happy-nice-Heisler" apart from "leave-me-alone-nice-Heisler"), but he doesn't let time mess with his cool and he doesn't commit to something he's not happy with.

(Heisler's tip for location scouting: only stick a tripod under your camera AFTER you have decided your frame. Once the tripod is there, you stop moving around, you stop experimenting with possibilities and you're stuck with a photo that might not be the best one to take.)

Exploring the possibilities is something that comes up over and over when he talks, like the concept of "finding the opposite picture". If the first thing he thinks of when he arrives in a room is "frontal light", backlit picture it is. If he thinks of a shot from above, he ducks.

But once he has decided, his field of vision becomes that of a sniper. His focus shifts to "insane" and he keeps at it until the photo is done, which usually happens very quickly, with very few shots. He's completely present.

If you just see the photo shoot or just happen to watch a video of him telling how a specific picture was taken, you might find yourself under the false impression that he's just very talented (which he is) and knows what to do (which he does). What I had the privilege to see is all the stress and hard work that happens before the curtain goes up: for the first few days he was sick, sleep deprived, tired as a dog, yet he gave his all the whole time and never complained once when his bossy italian assistant cornered him every time he was on a break to ask him about details for the next shoot.

I'm pretty sure he still watches his back every time he steps out of the door, to make sure I'm not there waving a schedule.

Him and the sight of McNally on the elliptical after a LONG exhausting day made me realize that talent might be a great thing to have, but if you're asking the gods of photography to grant you a wish, ask for stamina. Or stubborness. Or relentlessness.

And I also realized that their generation can still kick my generation's ass and then go out for drinks while we stay home and whine.

You might get the idea that Heisler is a very serious human being, but the truth is, he's one of the funniest people I have met. He could transition into stand up easily if the photography thing didn't work out ("When I first heard of 'historgrams' I thought it was an operation my mum did when she turned 50". Also, did I mention banjo shirt?) and this is a great asset to have when you're working with people.

I've witnessed the same thing with NcNally, Arias, Hobby, Harvey... there is a particular mix of wit, curiosity, sense of self worth and humility that makes them cheeky without ever be offensive, that makes them adventurous enough to be trying new things without being reckless and flunking the job.

When I think back at the experience and try to answer the question "what makes a great photographer?" I must say the technical know-how is there, but it's not the answer I'd give you.

And I'm still not completely sure what my answer would be, but I know I met a great photographer: let me tell you about it.

NEXT: At The Cavalli Club

Sara Lando is a commercial and portrait photographer based in Italy. Her previous series for Strobist include On Photographing People and On Being Photographed.

This series on her experience of being embedded as an assistant leads into the launch of Heisler's new book,
Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer's Photographer, which will be released on October 22nd.


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger Mike Mahoney said...

The more I learn about Heisler, the more impressed I am... truly a master craftsman. Wonderful article, Sara... very much looking forward to part 2 and 3!

September 09, 2013 11:11 AM  
Blogger alexander solla said...

I am jealous beyond words. What an experience! Seems like you were perfectly ready for this opportunity. Thank you, David, for making this happen.

September 09, 2013 12:17 PM  
Blogger alim said...

Wonderfully written article Sara! Ditto to Dave on making this happen.

Some great insight and wisdom shared. Really looking forward to reading parts 2 and 3.

I think I am going to read this article again to extract all the gold nuggets :)

September 09, 2013 12:31 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Looking forward to meeting him, david, zac, and joe in london in a couple of weeks at GPP :-)

when I use my google account to comment, why am I unknown?


September 09, 2013 12:32 PM  
Blogger dom said...

Even vicariously your talent for seeing the fundamental workings of photography comes through. I don't want to take any credit from Ms. Lando, she did an exceptional job (thank you!) but great choice in her and great format for the stories.

As I get older and try different techniques I come face to face with a need to organise myself into more cohesive units; style, approach, techniques. It's posts like this that help me do that; remaining true to myself but exploring new thoughts. I look forward to the rest eagerly.

Thanks, as always, for the awesome.

September 09, 2013 3:07 PM  
Blogger Steven House said...

Nothing to see here apart from sycophancy. I'll look in on 2 & 3 though just in case.

September 09, 2013 3:45 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I always enjoy Sara's work. She is one of the most observant people I know. Which is why I am usually scared to be around her...

September 09, 2013 3:53 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Unknonw (Tom)-

Not sure about that one -- although you appear to be using your Blogger account rather than your G+ account. Maybe they are not the same (or not yet linked)?

And yes, see you in London!

September 09, 2013 3:54 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Thank you for your comment. Indeed it warms my heart to know that some of this site's readers have reached Peak Knowledge, and have nothing left to learn.

September 09, 2013 4:08 PM  
Blogger Karen Bobotas said...

Such an insightful post, Sara. Sounds like a fantastic learning experience as well as just a great time had by all! So many tidbits to absorb through your storytelling and Gregory Heisler's approach to his photography. Thanks David for sharing these stories with us.

September 09, 2013 7:02 PM  
Blogger Nionyn said...

Great stuff, and really well written too.
Thanks Sara - and thanks, David, for offering Sara the assignment. :-)

September 09, 2013 8:34 PM  
Blogger Wonderwall said...

Awesome intro!
Look forward to the next two...

September 10, 2013 1:39 AM  
OpenID bimchum said...

Awesome! Just awesome. I loved the 5th one among the 5 most essential Ws for taking any picture. Superbly written and an extremely informative post about someone "Godly" at art :) Thanks for this DH!

September 10, 2013 7:04 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I was in one of the Heisler classes that Sara assisted. Her account is adding to my experience of that class. It's a testament to the quality of both her capacity for observation and writing.

And at the risk of making her blush, I'd note that Sara was assisting Greg, taking notes, AND herding a bunch of overeager photographers (us students) at the same time.

September 10, 2013 7:11 AM  
Blogger Richard Wintle said...

I've really enjoyed Sara's previous posts, so it's nice to "see" her again. And with this subject matter...!

Looking forward to the future installments. Sara's writing is always fresh, fun, and informative.

September 10, 2013 9:31 AM  
Blogger rpccube said...

Oh dear!
Steven, as with the arts and academia, sycophancy is the lubricant and sine qua non. The not part being ones own progress if it is ignored.
Sara is a very nice and enthusiastic lady and your comment was fair, if a little premature. We should wait for the next two episodes before deciding.

September 10, 2013 11:02 AM  
Blogger Matthew R said...

very insightful part 1. I'm excited to read the rest.

September 10, 2013 12:12 PM  
Blogger John said...

Sarah Lando's a dynamo. Fun piece!

September 10, 2013 12:43 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

This will be a great series! Thanks!

September 10, 2013 12:46 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

Two observations from a student in Greg's GPP2013 class (I'm the one behind Greg perpetrating a horribly irreverant photobomb in the second picture):

1) Sara's analysis of his character is so wonderfully accurate. Greg was so "gentle" in spirit when dealing with us -- whether as a group or individually -- but underneath the kindness of his approach one could sense that his pursuit of excellence is relentless.

2) I think it might be important for readers to know that Sara herself is a wonderful person to be around, and it was clear to the rest of us that Greg trusted her. Not just as a pair of helping hands, but also as a kind of "facilitator" -- she made sure that we, the students, had: a) caught on to the latest nugget of wisdom Greg had dropped; b) were standing where we needed to be to see what Greg was seeing (without being completely in the way); and c) never had an empty hand when gear needed to be moved. She did all of this with a well-balanced mixture of kindness and steely resolve. It isn't that Greg is arcane in any sense (just the opposite -- he's approachable, affable, and accesible), but in short, Sara helped us understand Greg's genius and vision.

David, I think your intuiton about people (which is clear to your readers) paid off in manifold ways when you helped make this pairing.

This was such a great read, amd I'm looking forward to the Cavalli Club bit.

As always, thanks for everything!

September 10, 2013 1:45 PM  
Blogger Taras said...

547"if he was a lens, he'd be a 10-600 zoom" with a constant aperture of f2.8 Ahhh

September 10, 2013 1:58 PM  
Blogger Mark Davidson said...

This article is a delight and illuminates so much of what makes a person successful. Sycophancy is NOT part of this article but rather a realization on the writer's part that the person is a remarkable individual that has characteristics at odds with what passes for talent and fame today.
Mr. Heisler has an unassailable track record of achievement and the description of his personality, character and skill in no way can be construed as sycophancy.

September 10, 2013 3:24 PM  
Blogger Iden Pierce Ford said...

Nice article, so how does he do it? Ohhh the answer must lie somewhere between that intangible thing we call creative inspiration, good luck, and superb technique. It takes time to get all that if we ever do. Thanks for sharing

September 10, 2013 4:39 PM  
Blogger داریوش said...

Hi, amazing article, loved it. But a quick question about the location, where is this Gulf? do you mean Persian Gulf?

September 11, 2013 2:44 PM  
Blogger داریوش said...

Hi, amazing article, loved it. But a quick question about the location, where is this Gulf? do you mean Persian Gulf?

September 11, 2013 2:46 PM  
Blogger Iden Pierce Ford said...

David, just wondering if Heisler has jumped on the "get rid of all your slr cameras and buy a Fuji" band wagon?

September 12, 2013 3:14 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Nope. He would likely first jump on the "Sell your DSLRs and get an 11x14 Deardorff view camera.

September 12, 2013 5:30 PM  
Blogger MSGDLD said...

Thanks Sara! I really appreciate knowing the man behind the lens. I think it adds a dimension often ignored. It doesn't take personality to do landscapes, but I think personality is extremely important to any portraitists. Superb example on how to treat helpers (and others) also. Rather than an egomaniac barking orders, he's humble enough, and knows people well enough, to treat them well.

I don't see sycophancy, in recognizing the importance of the personality behind the camera. Also Stephen, the day I stop learning is the day I'm buried.

September 18, 2013 12:02 PM  
Blogger Neil Alexander said...

I've had the privilege of attending workshops with both McNally & Hobby and if there was one take-away that stood out above everything else, it was their persistence in getting the photograph they envisioned and wanted.
Absolutely inspiring.
Great post too.

September 20, 2013 9:40 AM  
Blogger Neil Alexander said...

I've had the privilege of attending workshops with both McNally & Hobby and if there was one take-away that stood out above everything else, it was their persistence in getting the photograph they envisioned and wanted.
Absolutely inspiring.
Great post too.

September 20, 2013 9:40 AM  
Blogger arbus said...

I came across a recording I made of Gregory Heisler back in 2006 when he gave a talk. Considering it was recorded with the camera in my MacBook, it's surprisingly OK. It's about 2 -1/2 hours. See

December 08, 2013 10:29 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home