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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 Dale Earnhardt Jr

Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2002

We stood there looking at each other on the banked track in the fading light. No car. I was supposed to return with a picture of him with his iconic red racer. He’d been making cell phone calls to determine its whereabouts; apparently the driver of the transport truck had gotten lost and couldn’t find the racetrack. (These sorts of little wrinkles happen all the time in the world of editorial photography.) Earnhardt had only been there for a short while, so he wasn’t impatient, if anything he was being most apologetic about the disappearance of his car. It was a dreary day; the gloomy overcast sky had been threatening rain all afternoon.

I set up a couple of lights and photographed him walking toward me on the track, then just standing there. They just looked like nicely lit pictures of a guy walking on the track and then standing there. The car still hadn’t arrived. Part of what I’m doing is figuring out my picture by making pictures. I’m also just killing time. I set my camera down on the ground while I marshaled my thoughts and paced around a bit. When I bent down to retrieve my camera, I reflexively had a look through. (It was a camera that you look down into rather than viewing at eye-level.) What I saw were his two legs about three feet from the camera, angled impossibly out of the frame!

Since the camera was resting on the surface of a steeply banked racetrack, its “level” was actually about thirty degrees from normal. Dale Jr. was just standing there comfortably but, from the camera’s perspective, his body seemed to be tilted at such a crazy angle that it looked like his shoes had to be nailed to the ground to keep him from falling over. I asked him to just stand in a perfect profile, then I backed up a few feet to get his whole figure into the frame. There may have been no race car, but there he was, italicized for speed.

About an hour later, the transporter finally showed up with his car, unloaded it onto the track, and we discovered, appallingly, that it was out of gas!


Technical Digression

Day-for-night. Rods and cones. Our retinas are jam-packed with two types of light-sensitive neurons. Surprisingly, the vast majority, called “rods,” over 120 million of them, don’t see color at all. They’re incredibly good at discerning subtleties of brightness and shade and can even see in the dimmest light. The ones that see color are the “cones,” of which there are a paltry six million by comparison, but they require quite a bit of light to do their job. So as the sun goes down, as the cones hand off seeing responsibilities to the rods, our vision shifts from glorious color to measly monochrome, which we often perceive as somewhat cool in hue.

Day-for-night (or in this case, day-for-dusk) is an incredibly useful technique whereby the quality of light that exists from dusk through to dawn can be simulated or enhanced with a combination of underexposure, which magically transforms sunlight into moonlight, and bluish color rendition, which tends to drain the juiciness from those sunny reds, yellows, and oranges. Overcast days can be a blessing as there’s a more muted palette to begin with and no harsh shadows to complicate matters. Add a dash of blue, dim the exposure a bit, and you have instant dusk all day long.

What helps intensify the illusion of dusk is the sense of believable lighting on our subject. Rimming the racetrack are powerful floodlights on high poles. It only makes sense that they would illuminate our hero. They’re literally bare, harsh lights casting crisp, hard shadows, so it follows that our lights should have the same appearance. And they do because, even though they’re strobes, we’ve left them as bare, harsh lights. (There are no umbrellas or softboxes at a racetrack!) And they’re mounted on tall light stands to mimic the not just the character, but also the direction of the floodlights. We buy the overall look.


The final step is that we make our lights extra warm in color by adding orange filters (full CTO) to them. That allows us to make our white balance extra cool (the “light bulb” or tungsten setting, approximately 3200K) without turning Mr. Earnhardt into a blue-faced zombie. So, we warm up the lights, then cool off the white balance to simulate handing off the image from the cones to the rods, to achieve day for night.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Photo Data

Camera: Fuji 680 II, 6x8cm medium format

Lens: 65mm F4 Fujinon


Film: Fuji Astia color transparency, ISO 100

Exposure: f/5.6 for 1/15 sec., EI 100

Camera filtration: Wratten 80A blue filter

Lighting: 4-Profoto 7-B battery-powered 1200 w/s strobes, all with narrow-beam reflectors

Strobe filtration: 1full CTO and 1 half CTO on all heads

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