My Week With Heisler, Pt. 3

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 three. Part one is here.

Whenever I spend enough time shadowing a photographer, I end up lusting for gear. Don't judge me: you probably wouldn't be reading Strobist if you didn't have the same problem.

A week spent with Heisler had me definitely interested in playing around with gels, made me want to trade my octabank for a strip light, definitely added a tilt-shift lens to my wish list, but what impressed me the most is what he calls "the unsung hero of light modifiers": the narrow beam reflector.

Unsung Hero

If you look at it, the Profoto Narrow Beam reflector is just a chunk of metal that you can zoom in and out, using the numbers on the side of the head as a guide.

Why should you care? Because whereas a gridded reflector allows you to control light but ends up eating some of it in the process, the narrow beam reflector focuses the light while increasing its intensity at the same time.

Again, why should you care? Because the fact that it increases the light output allows you to dial down the power and increase the amount of images you get out of one battery charge; because creating a powerful, focused beam of light allows you to move further away from the subject and work with sharper shadows, overpower the sun or light a person from several stories down with a single light source.

I still didn't care until I saw this put into practice.

At Almas

The world's largest diamond exchange, which features a glass floor, in Almas Tower in Dubai is a stunning location (and was the tallest building in the city, until the Burj Khalifa was completed). The natural light flooding the place is just gorgeous and it's almost impossible to take a bad picture in there. But what about taking a photo no one has already taken?

Going after the "opposite picture" seems to be a great part of Heisler's approach to photography: if the first thing he thinks is "soft light", he's going to use hard light. If he thinks "frontal light," he's probably going to have a backlit subject. His parents must have had a great time trying to make him do stuff.

Forcing himself to not only think outside the box but to shatter it each time, is definitely the best way to avoid falling back into your comfort zone and shooting the same photo over and over again, forever, amen.

His first idea might have involved several lights, but we found out pretty soon that only one of the air sync units was working and that there was too much ambient light to slave the second head properly. We also were low on batteries, because apparently another group had poached our gear (I'm looking at you Keatley!)

I should have imagined Heisler was up to something weird when he started looking through the glass floor with intention.

Several stories down there was a sidewalk, running around the tower. Before worrying about finding access to it, we needed to test if the light would reach in the first place.

So I took the generator, the head and the reflector and counted how many "big steps" I had to take to get to the furthest corner of the room. Measuring about 1 meter per step, I reached a distance of about 70 meters before popping the flash so that Heisler could take a reading.

It worked.

Sophie (the other assistant) and Drew (borrowed from McNally and promptly put to good use) were sent on the sidewalk with the light, now gelled with a CTO. We coordinated using cellphones, making sure the light would be hitting a specific spot, avoiding all of the metal beams the floor seats on, and the ugly shadows they would have created.

Since the model would be wearing traditional clothes, a student wearing a traditional white kundura was asked to work as a stand-in. Over the course of the week, Heisler stressed several times how important it is to use someone as close as possible (in terms of size, height and clothing) to the final subject to test the lights and this becomes even more important when the light setup uses is very precise.

Finding the right pose was extremely important for this shot: the model would have to lean forward enough to be hit by the light coming from below, but not so much that the pose would end up looking like an awkward bow. The final image was going to be one of a powerful man in a powerful place and the simplicity of the pose was perfectly balanced by the graphic elements of the location.

The direction of the light was definitely not a traditional one for portraits, but to use Heisler's words: "I would definitely sacrifice vanity for the drama, even though I would never take a picture of anyone that I wouldn't like to be taken of me."

It's a thin line and I think one of Heisler biggest strengths is to be able to balance on this invisible wire with grace, pushing for the most spectacular image possible without sacrificing his subject on the altar of his photography.

There was one last thing missing from the picture: the city coming alive all around. And we only had to wait a little while for the light to go down to have the perfect chromatic contrast for the warm light hitting the subject (and the "diamonds" hanging from the ceiling: almost invisible in natural light, they became a subtle yet strong accent once lit from below.)

(Click pic for 1024-px version.)

This is a photo that wouldn't have been possible with another light modifier: there wouldn't have been enough light to reach the subject and still be strong enough to overpower the ambient with a CTO gel in front of it without going crazy high with the ISO settings.

Day to Sunset

But it was probably a much simpler shoot that made me definitely fall in love with the narrow beam reflector once and for all. A simple headshot in broad daylight became a gorgeous sunset shot in less than 30 seconds.

A narrow beam reflector positioned far away and quite low on the horizon, a double CTO gel to mimic the setting sun and you basically have the golden hour in your pocket without having to actually bother using a watch to show up at the right time of the day.

What's not so simple, is to know how intense the light should be, when to hold back with the warmth and when to push some more and all this seem to be extremely easy for Heisler.

But if you spend more than an hour with him, you realize why that is: he never stops looking at light, observing different lighting situations and then storing them in the back of his mind, comparing them to the insane amount of data he already has, so that he'll be able to use the information when he needs it.

He's obviously in love with light and photography might be for him just the purest way to capture it.

I'm writing this to show I know that a light modifier, a roll of gel and a wide architectural lens used for portraits won't turn me into Heisler... but I sure can cosplay a little bit while I learn how to.


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 Karen Bobotas said...

Sara, Great series with Gregory Heisler and once again you have given us an interesting and informative read. Many thanks to you, David and Heisler.... keep them coming!

October 07, 2013 9:23 AM  
Blogger lance couzens said...

this has been a great series - thank you for sharing!

the framing in the first pic is so close to being symmetric, i'm finding it a little distracting that it's not... was the positioning of the light below a limiting factor that dictated this framing, or just artistic license, or...?

October 07, 2013 12:26 PM  
Blogger alim said...

Sara, fantastic series indeed! Thanks for sharing your experience with us and for making it such an enjoyable and informative read.

Hats off to you & David for making this happen.

Maybe one day I will be fortunate enough to meet Heisler himself :)

All the best,

October 07, 2013 1:08 PM  
Blogger Ben Hollingsworth said...

Lance, I agree completely. I'm fine with asymmetric architecture, but when it's soooo close, you may as well make it perfect. Sara, was this a conscious decision by Greg?

October 07, 2013 4:17 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Plus, I thought we were always supposed to use Rule of Thirds.

October 07, 2013 5:54 PM  
Blogger lance couzens said...

it's all a matter of taste, and i'm all for breaking, ignoring or even following rules - to each his own. that said, i think it's instructive to hear how a photographer of mr. heisler's stature approaches such decisions. i thought it a reasonable question, but maybe i didn't frame it properly (haha - see what i did there?).

October 07, 2013 6:42 PM  
Blogger Nionyn said...

Another good and very worthwhile article - thank you, Sara.

To those questioning the not-quite-symmetrical composition: do you see that shadow running just off-centre along the floor (just to camera-right of the subject)? Could that be from one of those steel beams beneath the floor, mentioned in the post? If so I guess Heisler would have wanted to avoid its shadow on the subject, as Sara suggests in her article - and might explain why the subject is placed exactly where he is.

Anyway, I don't care. When I grow up I want to be Gregory Heisler. :-)

DH: Plus, I thought we were always supposed to use Rule of Thirds.
Bleh. I don't use the rule of thirds 'cause I can't count up to three. Or should that be "down to a third"?
If I had a pound for every maths exam I've failed, I'd have five pence. ;-)

October 07, 2013 9:24 PM  
Blogger base said...

The Almas Tower portrait is an excellent lighting for the setting, but I find the lighting on the subject's face disturbing. The nose shadow makes it appear he has no nose. Dramatic lighting can enhance or distract. The latter is the case for me. I would not wish to be photographed this way.

Do the masses like the portrait? Or do they like the scene? Or if I posted the same sort of image, would mine be criticized as unflattering while the master's is praised? I do wonder if Heisler had posted that portrait anonymously, would everyone have ripped it for the underlighting?

October 08, 2013 1:09 AM  
Blogger Lev Grobman said...

Of course we're supposed to use the rule of thirds. Plus, it's totally the wrong les for portraits. :-P

October 08, 2013 3:12 AM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

@base: I can't speak for Heisler, here, but from my experience during the week, I can be quite certain he doesn't think too much about "the masses" when he takes a picture.
Try to please everybody, and you'll end up with a bland picture no one cares about.

There's one rule for writing -from Kurt Vonnegut- I think can be successfully applied to photography too: "Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."
Heisler doesn't shoot photos "for himself", and rarely the subject him/herself is the one commisioning the portrait. If this was shot for a magazine, there would have been a brief behind, a specific point of view, a concept to explore, an article to go with the photo.
The hard thing about working in a workshop environment for someone who works on assignments, is that you end up demo-ing a concept without a real background, with a subject who has to "pretend" to be something else, for the sake of the demonstration.

Photography is a language and all the rules are there as guidelines, but they can be ignored if you're trying to say something specific.
If what you're trying to talk about is power, for example, a very flattering soft light on his face (and maybe a little photoshop too, just here and there, to make sure he's happy and he looks like he's 20 years younger) would have been maybe more pleasing but would have expressed exactly the opposite concept.
There is another shot from the same series, a closeup taken with a wide angle lens (!), in which the subject is near the edge of the frame and looking out (!!), another thing that would usually be considered a no-no. Asked about it, Heisler shrugged and just said he considered this particular rule... ahem... kind of bullshit. I must say, for that specific image I found it made sense (even though I still think most images I see around, benefit from the rule itself).

And BTW, some people tried to do what you suggest in an italian photography forum: they posted some images taken by Cartier-Bresson up for critique and amateur photographers were raging about camera shake and image stabilization. But in my opinion that says something about the people rather than Cartier-Bresson.

October 08, 2013 4:26 AM  
Blogger George Salt said...

The Almas Tower shot is undoubtedly very clever, and an excellent shot from the technical perspective. But the pose that's been required is both Fagin-esque and with the under-lighting it creates an almost pantomime Grand Vizier appearance.

October 08, 2013 5:35 AM  
Blogger Mike McClelland said...

curious, is there a link i missed to this item? i looked on their site, but am not finding it. thanks

October 08, 2013 9:05 PM  
Blogger Heipel said...

David, "always supposed to": LMAO.

October 09, 2013 7:50 AM  
Blogger Justin Grafton said...

The glass floor shot is simply amazing to look at..I'm so jealous you got to spend all this time with him! He is a master for sure...Thanks for the series!

October 10, 2013 12:19 PM  
Blogger Phi Tran said...

well said, Sara. Thanks for the series. I'm mostly interested in the story of how the shot is being planned and the lighting and CARE LESS about the composition (although I agree that the compositions for these shots could be improved).

October 10, 2013 12:33 PM  
Blogger Reactivestills said...

just so you know David, i would consider you to have way more talent!

October 12, 2013 9:26 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Just so you know, I would have to disagree with you!

October 13, 2013 8:07 AM  
Blogger Darren Eger said...

Sara, brilliant articles and thanks for sharing your experience.
I think I enjoy the comments as much. The eternal struggle to make things perfect as if perfection exists.
I like the composition as it is as much a part of the story as the rest of the shot. If it were more symmetrical, I would find it less interesting.
The image is engaging and tells a story from Gregory's perspective. It's perfect. That someone else might approach the same scene and subject differently means that it is merely different but equally perfect. That's what makes photography so interesting; perspective.
The image engaged me and made me want to explore it more. Did I really care about it's "lack" of symmetry? No way.
Rules are guides to ensure that we start with a solid base. After that, PLAY.
Thanks again Sandra

October 14, 2013 4:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Really wonderful series and makes me want to start saving for GPP. Thanks for the great write ups! And yes I will always remember to bring a piece of cloth.

October 14, 2013 2:54 PM  
Blogger Paul Bennett said...

These posts have been fantastic. Eloquent and informing. More please!

October 15, 2013 7:45 AM  
Blogger Paolo said...

Sara, David, last night I had this dream. Sara was sitting at a table in a street cafe' with a guy that worked as a barber on the street. You pass by and he gives you a hair cut or shave your beard. Something like what happens on the streets in India or other locations like that. They were waiting for the model/client to show up, and here is Greg Heisler coming over and sitting down for the photo shoot. Then you, Sara, start shooting Greg's pictures while he's being shaved right there on the spot. I thought I had to share this with you guys!! Maybe you can use this as an idea for the next GPP challenge! Keep up the good work you guys!!

October 21, 2013 6:26 PM  

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