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Gregory Heisler on Photographing Hugh Grant

By Gregory Heisler


Hugh Grant photographed by Gregory Heisler
© Gregory Heisler

Below is an excerpt from Gregory Heisler's book 50 Portraits, in which he talks about making this portrait of actor Hugh Grant. Check out "Gregory Heisler Shares the Techniques That Go Into His Portraiture" to read more excerpts. 


“What do you want me to do?” That’s the first question every portrait subject inevitably asks the photographer. You can’t reply, “Just be yourself.” Self-consciousness reigns. It’s even worse for actors, who spend their entire careers going to great lengths specifically to become someone else …

So, as the photographer, you have four choices: (1) be satisfied with whomever they show you; (2) tell them exactly what to do (this can be dangerous); (3) distract them with music and chitchat; or (4) just do nothing and silently bore them until (hopefully) something natural happens.

For this cover shoot of Hugh Grant, part of a fashion essay in GQ magazine, I had started with option three … [He] had happily played to the camera, and the camera had loved him for it. But then, while waiting for the next lighting setup in the now-defunct Cheyenne Diner in midtown Manhattan, I found myself staring at option four. He was alone in a booth sipping coffee, killing time, distractedly tapping his teaspoon. It was an authentic moment sandwiched between many not-so-authentic moments. Picking up my 4 x 5 camera for a handheld shot, I slipped into the next booth and motioned for my assistant to step outside and walk around to our window with a little battery-powered light. Grant seemed truly lost in thought, because he took no notice of the activity around him (a skill no doubt acquired on countless film productions, where set and lighting changes can take hours). I said nothing, fumbled with my camera for a few minutes, silently watched, made a few exposures and then left him to his coffee.

Thoughts on Technique
I love using light I can see. With continuous light sources—tungsten, fluorescent, HMI and even LED—you can readily evaluate their effect without using light meters, Polaroids or digital test shots; you can see it with your eyes. You can pay more attention to your subject … This allows you to make large and very small, subtle changes on the fly during a shoot …

Actors respond particularly well to continuous light sources, because that’s what they’re familiar with from working on film sets … A disadvantage is that [continuous light sources are] often not particularly bright … [but] they tend to integrate well with interior lighting sources such as window light, fluorescent light and lamplight, so it becomes easy to organically and naturally blend them with the existing ambient light … Finally, they’re kind to the subject, neither hot nor squinty-bright …

When mixed with existing ambient light, continuous light sources can bring a touch of sheen to a subject’s skin, pull out the texture in a fold of fabric or add snap to selected areas of a scene. In this simple portrait, the window light was nice and soft, but a bit dead. I could have used a strobe, but its flash would have punctured the quiet mood of the moment and would have taken longer to set up … So instead, my assistant popped outside, clicked on his continuous quartz light and stood some distance away from our window, adding just a bit of emphasis to Grant by making him a tad brighter than his surroundings, defining the shape of his face, showing the folds in his formal shirt and adding a kiss of highlight to his hair—all in a matter of seconds, without popping the bubble.

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