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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 Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps, 2004

How do you photograph a swimmer without a pool? And not just any swimmer, but Michael Phelps? I believed that he needed to be shot as a swimmer, in context, with a pool. Many accomplished photographers have certainly made iconic studio portraits, many in black-and-white, of athletes over the years. It can be beautiful, graphic, and striking to pluck the individual out of his milieu and isolate him starkly in a studio setting. But for me, there’s always something about incorporating a bit of the environment that grounds and enriches the image. The challenge is that the surroundings can begin to take over the picture; they can become the picture. So sometimes it’s better not to see all of it, but just to convey a sense of the context, a feeling for the place.

The goal was to photograph Phelps on location at the Stanford pool where he was training for the Olympics, but it was fully scheduled and unavailable. On to Plan B. But there was no Plan B, except that he would make himself available for a studio shoot.

I hate to rely on postproduction techniques, preferring to get it right in the camera whenever possible. It’s simply a different creative process.

When you create the finished image in-camera, the working process is quite different. It is a thrilling process in which you see the image take shape before your very eyes, in real time, in which every decision you make affects the next one as well as the entire picture. You are responding to changing circumstances and new ideas all the time in a constant improvisational riff. It’s the beautiful, unpredictable disparity between what you think you’re going to get and what you got. It’s always a little bit of a surprise and a little out of your control.

Technical Digression

It’s not water. There’s no pool. Phelps is standing in front of a canvas backdrop painted with blue acrylic swirls. It looks like a watery surface receding into the distance because of a tipped lens. Phelps looks like he’s illuminated by the very same imaginary pool of water through the magic of lights and colored gels. It’s a complete concoction.


I knew we wouldn’t have access to the pool where he was in training. I also knew I wanted a pool picture. I looked for photographs of pools that I might photocompose behind him, but as I searched, they all looked too real, too specific. I was stuck with the specific skies, specific angles, specific lighting dictated by the pool photos. I thought I’d try one step less real. I looked at colored seamless paper. It was blue, all right, but had no sense of reality, of a place, whatsoever. Sarah Oliphant’s backdrop #1175 worked perfectly, but the image as a whole still wasn’t convincing.

Somehow, I needed to connect Phelps to the “pool.” It struck me that he needed to be illuminated with “pool light,” as if he were standing next to an underlit pool at night, with cool hues washing over his body and showing off his sculpted Olympic torso. I knew two things. The light needed to come from below (where the “water” would be) and it needed to be blue (the color of the “pool”).

My initial thought was to simply place fluorescent lights flat on the ground beneath him to provide the cool glow. Their light was beautiful, but they were too dim for my 8×10 camera. He’d have had to stand still for a ten-second exposure. No way. I switched to strobes.


Several hours later, we had constructed three of our own custom-made softboxes, to the perfect size that sat low on the floor, out of foam-core board and diffusion gels. We cut holes in the ends and stuffed our strobes into them. Presto! We made one more and hung it vertically from a light stand to bathe his face and torso in warm light. We shot a film test, then carefully sliced them apart with a box cutter and tucked them into tripod cases for shipping.

There was one last tweak. The “water” backdrop still looked two-dimensional, a flat plane sitting at a fixed distance behind him. On a hunch, I tipped just the front of my 8×10 camera down just a bit to alter the plane of focus. By tilting the lens, the plane of focus shifted. Instead of running parallel to the camera and focusing on only the subject or the backdrop, it now cut through both my subject and the backdrop on an angle, causing both to transition from sharp to soft. In particular, it made the surface of the “water” look like it was receding away from the camera by growing blurrier from the bottom of the frame to the top. We took down careful measurements and light readings, packed everything up, and re-created our bone-dry “pool” when we arrived in California the next day.

Michael Phelps Photo Data

Camera: Sinar-P 8×10 view camera


Lens: Vintage 12-inch F6.8 Gold Dot Dagor, tilted for depth-of-field effect

Film: Kodak Ektachrome 100 film, ISO 100

Exposure: f/11 for 1/60 sec., EI 100

Lighting: Four Speedotron 2400 w/s bare flash heads into homemade strip softboxes, three with sky blue gels, one with full CTO gel; one Speedotron 2400 w/s flash head with 7-inch reflector and sky blue gel on background

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