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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 Muhammed Ali

Muhammad Ali, 1988

We had just finished shooting the portrait that ultimately ran on the April 25, 1988 cover of Sports Illustrated. Earlier, though, he’d sat silently on his sofa at his old farmhouse in Berrien Springs, Michigan, seemingly in a stupor as he watched a television show while we set up our cameras. He didn’t appear unwell or unhappy, though; if anything he seemed at peace inside his own head, isolated from the world by his trauma-induced Parkinson’s. It was that quiet, peaceful but powerful aloneness I wanted to somehow see in the portrait I’d yet to make.

Sometimes the best you can do is to be a spectator to your own creative process as it winds itself out and wraps around an idea, a feeling. I remember walking farther and farther from the house just to get some space. We were frozen. My assistant Howard Simmons had been standing in the snow for a long time as we finessed the light. I remember waiting many long freezing minutes for Ali to make his way from his house to our little spot, moving incrementally in a painfully slow shuffle through the snow.

When he finally arrived, stone cold and expressionless, he looked silently at me as I explained the scenario: there would be a tiny little spotlight shining on him; if he moved, he’d be lost to the light, so he would need to stand stock still. I couldn’t tell if he heard me. He betrayed nothing. I climbed up to the camera and exposed a few rolls of film. As I watched him squinting over the snow, I thought I could see his lips begin to move. I hopped down, made my way over to him, and leaned in close. In a hoarse whisper, he was saying, “You’re crazy, man. You’re crazy.” He looked right at me and smiled. “But you love what you do, don’t you?” And with that, he abruptly wheeled around and took off at a trot for the fireplace warmth of his farmhouse.

Technical Digression

It’s not moonlight. This picture was actually made in the hazy sunlight of a late afternoon. It’s not digitally manipulated. The technique that creates this effect is only available to still photographers because it combines flash (or strobe) illumination with daylight.


An electronic strobe emits a momentary burst of light: literally, a flash. So, no matter what shutter speed your camera is set at, the strobe doesn’t care. It spits out its flash of light and is done. The flash intensity or brightness is measured in f-stops. If a flash puts out f/8, then it’s the same bucket of f/8 light at one second of exposure as it is at 1/250 sec.; the f/8 component doesn’t change. If you set it at f/11 then the flash will appear darker; at f/5.6 it will look lighter. So, your f-stop camera control is like a rheostat for your flash exposure.

The shutter speed, then, becomes a rheostat for the ambient light, independent of the flash. They are two completely separate variables. So, if I have f/8 strobe light falling on my subject, the background can be at any of a wide range of shutter speeds without affecting it. If it’s a sunset, f/8 for 1/60 second, might make the sky look airy and bright, while an exposure of f/8 for 1/250 second might render it deep and rich. But my subject, lit by only the flash, gets f/8 either way and is unchanged! So, again, the shutter speed acts like a rheostat for the background, while the aperture is like a rheostat for the flash. This is powerful stuff.

For this image of Ali, my little spotlight flash is illuminating him with f/16 of light. I set my f-stop at f/16. When my shutter speed was 1/30 second, the sky and the snow were pure white; not very dramatic. When my shutter speed was 1/125 second, they became a light gray tone. Now it starts to get interesting. Finally, when I changed my shutter speed to 1/500 second, the snow and sky darkened to a charcoal gray. Moonlight.


I used a medium-format camera that can “sync” with the strobe at 1/500 second. With a new feature called “high-speed sync,” some camera and flash combinations can synchronize even at 1/8000 second, opening new realms of creative expression.

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