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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 Tim Burton

Tim Burton, 1993

I had just returned to the Los Angeles studio from the shop where I’d be getting all the rental gear for my upcoming shoot with director Tim Burton. While there, I had become fixated on a gizmo I’d never seen before: a fiber optic wand. It was a slender, snaky, rubberized tube that attached to a strobe in order to project a tiny, tight, beam of light. It was flexible and could be contorted into all sorts of strange shapes. The contraption I had seen sported several of these wands slithering out of a dome that attached to a strobe like the tentacles of an octopus. I was enthralled.

What if these wands weren’t only used to light my subject, but could be the subject as well? For some reason, they had the unsettling quality of many of Tim Burton’s visuals. I could have imagined them in one of his films (or sprouting, Medusa-like from his head). They almost looked alive.

Back at the studio, we arranged these wrigglers using a stand-in to allow space for our subject. For a background, I chose a 4×8-foot sheet of plywood for two principal reasons. The first was that, when photographed in black and white, it lost its “plywood-ness” and became abstracted into an organic-looking surface with lots of random movement that echoed that of the “tentacles.” The second was that it was available (sometimes it just works that way.) When Burton arrived at the studio, I showed him a test shot of the image using the stand-in. He liked what he saw enough to agree to insert himself into our strange setup.

Technical Digression

Broadly speaking, photographic lighting falls into two categories. There is lighting that is inspired by and emulates ambient illumination, replicating it for the technical requirements of the camera. While much of the lighting I do falls into this category, every now and again I’ll make an image that uses lighting for its own stylish sake: lighting that isn’t necessarily anchored in reality but that just looks cool and feels right.


In 1990 I was working on an advertising campaign in which I had to make studio portraits of several well-known designers, including a graphic designer and an interior designer. For the graphic designer’s portrait, I’d wanted the image to look as two-dimensional as possible since that was the nature of his expertise. Back in my assisting days, I’d seen a couple photographers work with an unusual light source that I hadn’t encountered before: the ring light.

The ring light had always been used as a “key” or main light, providing the principal illumination for the subject. Because its light radiated from all around the lens, though, it seemed like it would be the ideal “fill” light; being essentially shadowless, it would have no directionality, seeming like it came from everywhere and nowhere. It would establish a foundation of illumination, making the subject visible but leaving the directional shaping to the main light, which would define the character of the image. Best of all, when used in this way the ring light had a beautiful strangeness to its look, imbuing the picture with a somewhat disquieting, illustrative quality. Depending on the proximity of the sitter to the background, it also left a quirky telltale fingerprint: a ringlike penumbra surrounding the subject. I set up a test with my assistant as a stand-in for the designer and marveled at the result. (Apparently, he did too, for he’s used it exclusively ever since!)

But I suffer from lighting A.D.D.; once I hit on a new technique or solution, I get bored with it and need to move on to the next one. Consequently, I’ve only reused the ring light a couple dozen times in as many years when it seemed appropriate. This was one instance when it worked like a charm, lending Mr. Burton’s portrait the unsettling feeling found in his films.


Tim Burton Photo Data

Camera: Sinar-P 4×5 view camera

Lens: 300mm F5.6 Fujinon-W lens

Film: Kodak T-Max 400 black & white film, ISO 400

Exposure: f/45 for 1/60 sec., EI 200

Lighting: Profoto ringlight, Elinchrom fiber optic strobe, Balcar fiber optic strobe, Broncolor fiber optic strobe

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