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Legendary Photos: The Stories Behind 9 of Gregory Heisler’s Iconic Portraits

Go behind the scenes with a master portrait photographer
Photo of Liv Tyler

Have you ever wondered about the stories behind some of the world’s most iconic images? Our series “Legendary Photos,” features photographers from Canon’s Explorer’s of Light program, past and present, giving us behind-the-scenes insight on how they captured these unforgettable moments.

For this edition of Legendary Photos, portrait photographer Gregory Heisler shares the stories behind nine of his classic portraits.

(Editor’s note: You can see previous installments of Legendary Photos on Ryszard Horowitz here, on Art Wolfe here, on Walter Iooss Jr. here, and on David Hume Kennerly here.)

Liv Tyler (Above)

This Liv Tyler image was part of a cover shoot for USA Weekend magazine, for which I employed three different camera formats to create three completely different types of portraits. Some of the shooting was done with a tripod-mounted 6x7cm medium-format camera, resulting in the clean, simple kind of studio portrait most often required for magazine covers. Next, I made a handful of exposures with an 11×14-inch view camera. These were black-and-white negatives strictly intended for the platinum/palladium contact prints I was making in my darkroom at that time. The big camera was slow to work with, and it required patience and quiet concentration from the subject. But it yielded velvety prints with an exquisite, subtle tonality.


Ultimately, Liv’s terrific, youthful energy was best captured with a 35mm Canon EOS camera and specialized lens only available for that format. The Canon 90mm tilt/shift lens allowed me to tilt the plane of focus to emphasize her incredible eyes. It had to be carefully utilized to produce the desired effect, yet it was handheld, so it permitted great spontaneity. While it’s already an f/2.8 lens, the tilt makes it look like an f/0.0 lens (!) because of the unique, beautiful bokeh it delivers in the out-of-focus areas of the image. But it doesn’t look like a trick or gimmick; in fact, it is the completely natural, organic quality of the image that makes it feel so lovely.

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