Gregory Heisler has made portraits of everyone from A-list celebrities to top-tier athletes for publications like Time, GQ, Sports Illustrated and a ton more. His new book (which is certainly worth picking up), Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer's Photographer, dissects 50 of his photos, including talk about technique and his overall approach to the artform. He took some time to talk with us and share some of his strategies for making portraits truly worthy of your subjects.
I’ve heard that you do a lot of preparation before a shoot. How do you typically get ready?
I never get to a shoot just winging it. I would be very frustrated working that way. I almost always have a very figured out idea. Many times, I’ll actually rough-in the lighting in my studio and do a practice run. So, when we arrive on location, we have a jumping off point. Sometimes we adhere to it very strictly, and sometimes we completely veer away from it, but it gives us a point of departure.
How much research do you do about the person before you shoot them?
I try to talk to the subject before we start shooting if we have time. I may well have read a piece that the photograph will be accompanying if it’s already written. That’s always very helpful because they sort of need to work together.
With that kind of preparation, do you still find that things go wrong?
The truth is that things never cooperate. That’s the name of the game, particularly when you’re shooting on location. In the studio, you’re in control of your entire environment and people are walking into your world. They’re expecting to hand themselves over. When you’re working on location, you’re in their environment. You’re in their world. They walk in feeling like they’re in control of the entire situation, at least initially. It becomes a bit of a negotiation to get them coaxed into your hands.
What is your personality like on-set? That seems like a crucial thing when you’re trying to form a fast connection.
Everybody works differently. For me, my father was a salesman, so I’m a real talker. I kind of chat people up. There isn’t a lot of time in my shoots. It’s not like I have time to have lunch with them and talk about their work. It’s really quick.
What can you do with a subject that clearly feels uncomfortable? Are there any techniques you use to help them loosen up?
I try to tell them exactly what to expect. That puts them at ease right away. They come in not knowing how long it’s going to take and they’re worried that it’s going to be uncomfortable. For them, it can be like going to the dentist. If the dentist tells you that you’ll only feel a pinch and how long it’s going to take, you’re put at ease a little bit. I paint a pretty clear picture about what the shoot is going to be like and tell them what I’m aiming for. They usually relax quite a bit.
If someone says to me, “Look, I only have 10 minutes,” I say, “OK, we’ll have you out of here in five.” That also helps to take some of the pressure off and allows them to go into it knowing that the end is in sight, even though we haven’t started yet.