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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 Hugh Grant

Hugh Grant, 1994

“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. They’re never “just themselves,” certainly not in front of a camera. So, as the photographer, you have four choices: be satisfied with whomever they show you; tell them exactly what to do (this can be dangerous); distract them with music and chitchat; or just do nothing and silently bore them until (hopefully) something natural happens.

For this shoot of Hugh Grant, part of a fashion essay in GQ magazine, I had started with option 3. Grant had been responsive, even, as he said, “a bit hammy” for the camera. It had been a mutually beneficial relationship: he’d 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 4. 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 4×5 camera for a hand-held 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. Mr. Grant seemed truly lost in thought because he took no notice of the activity taking place around him. I said nothing, fumbled with my camera for a few minutes, silently watched, made a few exposures, and then left him to his coffee.

Technical Digression

I love using light I can see. With continuous light sources—tungsten, fluorescent, HMI, and even LED light sources—you can readily evaluate their effect without using light meters, Polaroids, or digital test shots. You can see them with your eyes. You can pay more attention to your subject, since half your head isn’t hurting with numbers you must rely on (because you can’t see what you’re getting). This allows you to make large and very small, subtle changes on the fly during a shoot. It’s quite enjoyable to fine-tune visually rather than being completely dependent on light meter readings and test shots.

Actors respond particularly well to continuous light sources because that’s what they’re familiar with from working on film sets. I’ve shot on film sets and there have been times when I forgot that the light coming through the window wasn’t from the sun at all! It’s surprising what a profound effect this can have.


When mixed with existing ambient light, continuous light sources can bring just 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. I’d have needed to stick a light meter in Mr. Grant’s face and take repeated readings as I adjusted the flash intensity. Instead, my assistant popped outside, clicked on his continuous little quartz light, and stood some distance away from our window, adding just a bit of emphasis to Mr. 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.

Hugh Grant Photo Data

Camera: Vintage Graflex RB Super-D 4×5 single-lens reflex


Lens: Vintage190mm F5.6 Kodak Ektar Auto-Diaphragm

Film: Kodak T-Max 100 black-and-white negative film ISO 100

Exposure: f/5.6 for 1/60 sec., EI 100

Lighting: Bescor 250W battery-powered tungsten light augmenting window light

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