My Week With Heisler, Pt. 2

Editor's Note: Contributor Sara Lando continues her three-part series chronicling her 10-day stint as an assistant/mole with Gregory Heisler in Dubai. This is part two. Part one is here.

By Sara Lando -- "Lighting is a lot like cooking. You have a gazillion different instruments and what you use will depend on what you want to eat. Also, you don't learn how to cook by eating at restaurants. You have to cook."

When Heisler was talking about this during his lecture, I thought it was cool and made sense. But it was probably only when we stepped into Cavalli Club that I got to realize how much "having to cook" was going to be put into test.

He was entering the club for the first time himself: for a series of reasons, we weren't able to scout the location beforehand and he only got a glimpse of the place from some cellphone footage. When we stepped into the club, the first word that came through my mind isn't one I'd feel comfortable reporting.

The place was pitch black.

At the Cavalli Club

The first thing Heisler does when he steps on location is to kill all the lights and see what's left. In this case, what was left was a place where 3200 ISO gives you 1/5 at f2.8 to get this:

I bullied the class into carrying the gear and placing it carefully on the floor. Let me spend a couple of words about this. A photographer on location needs to be efficient, so all the gear needs to be out of the way, but at the same time easy to find and reach in a pinch.

So keep your modifiers next to other modifiers, lenses next to lenses etc. Bring a piece of cloth, spread it on the floor if necessary, and carefully place your stuff on it to keep it clean.

You don't want to be scratching the marble with your c-stands, you definitely don't want to place your beloved lenses on a wobbly table, where they can be knocked to the ground. Be consistent in how you position your gear, and you won't waste time finding your light stand and trying to remember if you actually took it with you.

Also: never lean a stand against a wall. It might seem obvious to most of you, but I've seen people do this over and over and you don't want to have to explain black marks on a white wall or a chipped marble floor when your stand will slide and scare the beejesus out of everyone banging on the floor. And it will.

At Cavalli, this was even more important, since we would be practically be working in the dark.

While Heisler walked around holding his camera and looking at seemingly random stuff, I exchanged some words with the model, who was a bit annoyed because of some misunderstanding about the timing that had her waiting there for more than an hour (and on the verge of leaving).

The male model was a no-show and we managed to find a last minute substitute, but the whole situation was quickly starting to look like a disaster waiting to happen. Most people (me included) would have tried to save the day by rushing the shoot and lean on the safe side, setting up an octa and calling it a day. But Heisler seemed to be immune to stress: he had found 3 or 4 different possible shots and he was walking us through his thought process.

He was definitely going to use the chandeliers in the shot, and he was now deciding where to put the subjects so that the whole scene would make sense. One of the suspended lounge bars seemed to offer the most interesting point of view, so he started using one of the students as a stand in to test a possible lighting scenario: he asked me to place a gridded beauty dish gelled green under the guy's face. (Hmm... really?)

I couldn't help but think he had gone insane. But when I assist I don't question anything: if he'd asked me to skin the guy I would just have made sure not to ruin the marble with his blood. (Joking. But seriously: always bring a piece of cloth).

A Profoto zoom reflector gelled with a double CTO was coming from above-left and a The RFi 3' 90 cm Octa gelled with a single sheet of CTO was positioned camera right, feathering some light into the male model. Another zoom reflector gelled blue was carefully positioned and moved around, just to get the best reflection on the couch's leather, turning what would have been a black blob in the photo into a sleek way to guide the eye towards the subject.

He wasn't trying to light the whole club, he was just crafting a bubble of perfect light around the subjects, letting everything else fall into place.

Taking cues from the place, he was building a story that made perfect sense and looked effortless at the same time. Once Heisler was happy with the setup and we called in the models, the actual photo shoot lasted maybe 15 minutes and there wasn't much direction going on.

It was very clear what he was going after and his suggestions to the models were so subtle they probably thought they were the ones deciding what to do. Even though they did have some freedom and weren't actually adjusted into a specific pose, each time they started to fall out of the light bubble or go in a direction that wasn't the one Heisler was chasing, they were gently reined back, until the final photo had taken form.

Their mood shift in front of the camera was impressive too: because he was putting so much effort into making them look cool, theywere flattered and giving their best. They had huge smiles when they left the set, and they hadn't even seen the final image yet.

Yeah, the final image. The guy is supposed to be an old fart, right? I'm the young, hip kid who's supposed to know what's cool and what's not. I would have shot a boring photo of people standing there using an octa and he came out with something that might work for the next GTA cover.

That was the moment I planned to sell my camera and find a real job and also I completely understood what's so great about him: he doesn't settle, he doesn't hold back. It doesn't really matter if this was a workshop rather than the set for a TIME Magazine cover, that was the shot to be made in that situation and he worked until got it.

I also realized why his photos seem to resonate with me so much: they are extremely well crafted, but not polished. Ambient light is imperfect, if it's too polished, it looks fake, it screams "photography".

If you look at the final image, it makes total sense for a splash of green light to hit the guy's face: it could be the light from the bar, it could be a plasma screen with something badass going on or an array of slot machines. What you definitely don't picture here is a photographer in a t-shirt 2 feet away from the subject.

Heisler photos seem to begin when Heisler disappears.

NEXT: At Almas

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.


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Blogger Doug Birling said...

I can totally see the GTA use, great intensity to the image. Was the image shot with a wide angle lens? I ask because the woman seems so far away when on the couch, and I assume it's because of the lens.

What a great experience though, watching a master at work.

September 23, 2013 8:25 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yep, WA lens, because of the tightness of the environment, I'd think.

BTW, comments are moderated, so you do not see them appear until I moderate them into publication. So I did not publish the other five versions... ;)

September 23, 2013 9:46 AM  
Blogger alim said...

Sara - once again, your words flow with such effortlessness. Your descriptive style of writing makes me feel as I were standing in the same room with you & Heisler.

Love the cooking analogy opener. Will have to bank that one :)

One of the things that resonates most with me is the comment about "doing what makes sense" and more so, being immune to the stress when piecing it all together.

I think many of us fall into the "stress" trap and do what's easy because we fear the uncomfortableness. Going to that tried and true method, is like our safety net or one dish that we like to cook the most.

Though this "dish" is not a bad, it just prevents us from trying new and possibly even greater things. Sure the dish will take time to evolve, but it can only happen through practice and smart-risk taking.

Your last quote definitely sums it up well, "Heisler photos seem to begin when Heisler disappears."

Thanks for shedding some light on a true master. Looking forward to reading 'At Almas' soon.


September 23, 2013 11:40 AM  
Blogger Felipe Manga said...

Now I'm curious, what's the EXIF on the final photos like? If 1/5s at ISO 3200 is necessary to get the ambient, what does that become once you add flash? 4s at ISO 200, F4? Well, I guess that's what the tripod's for.

September 23, 2013 12:21 PM  
Blogger Gorky M said...

I always wanted to be featured on the Strobist! I never dreamt it would be like this - the guy in the orange t-shirt... looking over Gregory Heisler's shoulder into his camera.
I have been long wanting to capture the essence of those days on my own blog but could never find the words what the experience meant to me. Sara has done it so beautifully.

September 23, 2013 1:40 PM  
Blogger Gorky M said...

+Felipe Manga - the exact EXIF would be f5.6 -1 second at ISO 100. Gregory Heisler "would do anything to stay at the native ISO!"

September 23, 2013 1:48 PM  
Blogger Gorky M said...

+Felipe Manga - the exact EXIF would be f5.6 -1 second at ISO 100. Gregory Heisler "would do anything to stay at the native ISO!"

September 23, 2013 2:03 PM  
Blogger Shawn Ruyffelaert said...

I'm with @Felipe on his question too, but I know EXIF is kind of looked down upon (totally situation dependent etc...).

So here's a rewording of the question (into multiples) that's not so much "what were your settings":

-How did you manage to balance flash and ambient in such a dark club?
-Did you use slow shutter speeds, and did that cause a concern of motion blur on the models?
-Did you crank up the ISO, if so was noise a concern (did technology/sensor size impact this decision)?
-Did you have to keep the aperture wide open? If so, weren't you worried about DOF of multiple models on different planes? I know when I shoot at f/2.8 on APS-C I can't really ever get two people not on the same plane in focus.

Those are the decision I would struggle with, and I'm wondering how the masters handle them.

September 23, 2013 2:15 PM  
Blogger Alex Grodkiewicz said...

you know that feeling when you feel super inspired and simultaneously like a giant failure?

...that's what I feel right now...

September 23, 2013 2:18 PM  
Blogger Alex Grodkiewicz said...

you know that feeling when you feel super inspired and simultaneously like a giant failure?

...that's what I feel right now...

September 23, 2013 2:18 PM  
Blogger Connor Katz said...

Its interesting for me to look at this situation. For me, as someone who uses Photoshop a lot as part of the image creation process I tend to see things in unique "layers". So in this situation I see the background and then the subject. Im certain that if I were trying to make this same shot, even having the same equipment on hand (and the vision to make the shot of course) that I would have shot the background and subject as unique images. Lighting and shooting the background first and then lighting and shooting the subjects, and combining them in post. Two ways of going after the same image but a different mindset, interesting to see.

September 23, 2013 2:55 PM  
Blogger Brian Whelan said...

Excellent article, the writing is as much a piece of art as the photography and so easily followed, Thank you for sharing both, Brian M.Whelan, Dublin Ireland

September 23, 2013 2:59 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I having been shooting a lot of trail races lately. The length of these race vary in distance from from around 30 to 100 miles long. (Yes, people run 100 miles continuously.)

I change locations on the course multiple time throughout the day, and the most important thing I do when getting to a new spot is, be bored.

Every spot I choose to take a photograph generally has some obvious landmark. When I first get to a site, I try to take as many photos as I can so that I will get bored with the obvious as soon as I can. Because, this is when the fun really begins.

Once sufficiently bored, I start walking around looking for what's not obvious. It often involves heading into areas that are not necessarily advertised as accessible to the public. This is important because once the runners appear, I usually have about 4 seconds to take photos before client is gone.

Not settling for the "Well cooked" scene is highly recommended.

--Michael Friedhoff

September 23, 2013 3:52 PM  
Blogger Mathew said...

Great work Greg, and great report Sara.

I'm struggling to see the effect of the double CTO zoomed-reflector high camera left. Can anyone held shed some light (so to speak) on what this particular light is doing?

Connor - I totally understand your p/shop layering/composite approach, and I do that sort of thing often too. One of the great—and authentic—things about these images are the blue and magenta light bleed from the chandeliers on the model's arms and faces - something even trickier to achieve in a composite I'd have said.

September 23, 2013 10:03 PM  
Blogger Tom Hohl said...

Wow killer lighting idea. Just wandering like the others about DOF and ISO issues. Love the colored lighting idea. Genius.

September 23, 2013 10:11 PM  
Blogger dave moser said...

Thanks for posting David and Sara. That Greg Heisler is one cool cat. I heard once that when he did a shot of author Tom Wolfe he took forever, posing Mr. Wolfe in front of a background of live flames. Mr. Wolfe was apparently none to pleased. Fact, fiction?

Can you -- Sara or David -- please explain where the greenish foreground light emanates from? I do not see that noted in the text.

Thank you!

September 23, 2013 10:39 PM  
Blogger Felipe Manga said...

@Gorky M-
Are you sure? Going from 1/5s to 1s is 2+2/3 of a stop, then from 2.8 to 5.6 is another 2. From ISO 3200 to 100 is yet another 5 stops.
Total: a bit over 9 stops of underexposure. That background should be totally black! o_O
Or is my math way off?

The F5.6 on a WA lens makes sense for the DOF, though.

September 23, 2013 11:41 PM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

@Alex Grodkiewicz that's EXACTLY how I constantly felt for the whole time

September 24, 2013 4:25 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey S Baker said...

Gobsmacked. Motivational lighting tour de force.

September 24, 2013 9:50 AM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

@mathew: in the second photo it lights the model on the couch

@dave moser: it's the gridded beauty dish from below. You can see it right below the dude's elbow, but the light isn't pointing directly at him (heisler feathers a lot and with great subtlety)

@Felipe: the photo I shot at the beginning is what we saw when we stepped in: as you can see, the leds on the chandeliers were not turned on, there was just some weird ambient magenta light. With the chandeliers on it was lighter, but still pretty much a nightmare (he was shooting at 1 or two seconds to have ambient light show up in the frame).
To add to the nightmare: the official lighting guy wasn't there (I think those things can do all kind of tricks in sync with music and stuff), so we had this poor dude trying to figure out how the lights worked. After a lot of frustrating failed experiments, he then managed to find the PERFECT setting, but he touched a button a second later and that particular intensity/color could never be replicated again. If Heisler's heart crushed, he didn't show it.

September 24, 2013 11:21 AM  
Blogger dh said...

Thank you for clarifying.

September 24, 2013 10:05 PM  
Blogger Mr Green said...

Hi David I am the chap from Singapore whom you bumped into in Covent Garden just now. It's real nice to meet someone who appreciates a knocked about Minolta CLE! Keep in touch and let me know if you are ever in my neck of the woods. Best. shashi

September 25, 2013 9:39 AM  
Blogger Felipe Manga said...

@Sara Lando-
Ah, now it makes sense! Thanks for the explanation! :)

September 26, 2013 10:36 AM  
Blogger Patrick Downs said...

Thanks for this post, and for the link to Heisler's new book (I just ordered it). He's so good.

September 27, 2013 7:56 PM  
Blogger Tenisd said...

Yes, the green dish is working so great because of the other green lights in the back. They can not be seen in the first 4 shots.
Awesome article, thank You.

September 30, 2013 5:37 AM  
Blogger swedishrico said...

Very well written and interesting article, thanks a lot! I'm curious, what workshop was it, i.e. what organization/company arranged the workshop? I'd love to get the chance to do a class with Gregory so if it is a reoccurring class any information you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

All the best


October 01, 2013 7:21 PM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

@swedishrico it's Gulf Photo Plus
Don't know yet if Heisler is going to be in the 2014 lineup (keep an eye on the site), but I highly recommend the whole event.
The 2013 teachers were impressive, the event is very well organized and the atmosphere is great. I don't know of any other event like this.

October 07, 2013 12:31 PM  
Blogger swedishrico said...

@Sara Lando, oh, for some reason I thought tjat The workshop was in NYC. I'm familliar wit GPP as I attended a cpl of years back. Thx a bunch for your answer.
All the best

October 09, 2013 7:10 PM  

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