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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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