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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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