An All-Nighter at The Vista: Greg Heisler's 50 Portraits

EDITOR'S UPDATE: Ilford Imaging just dropped a TWO-HOUR video from Heisler's presentation/class that was done just as this book launched. It is embedded below, and it's awesome.

As cool as Gulf Photo Plus is in Dubai is every year, perhaps the very best part of the experience is the late-night conversation over beers at the nearby rooftop bar, the Vista. There, people leave the classes (and instructor/student roles) behind and simply talk photo until the wee hours of the morning.

An assumption is made that all at the table are just photographers. So the f/stops and shutter speed stuff is dispensed with in favor of everything that is the tapestry of photography. The resulting conversations are long, in-depth, very Inside Baseball and often funny as hell.

And a night at the Vista what Heisler's new book, 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer's Photographer, feels like.

(Click book pics for bigger versions.)

All over the country, photographers are today are hearing sound of a diesel UPS truck, followed by the satisfying ka-thunk of a coffee table book landing on their doorstep. If you pre-ordered from Amazon, your evening plans have just changed.

I pre-ordered on February 08, 2013, but I have been waiting for this book for 20 years. And it was worth it. Editor Julie Mazur, then of Amphoto/Random House, has coaxed from Heisler exactly the book a photographer would want to read.

It is remarkably open and honest, both from emotional/personal and technical/photographic points of view. And as beautiful as the photography is, you will not find the pictures the main takeaway from 50 Portraits.

That last sentence feels strange and somehow sacrilegious to write, but it is absolutely true. And the title is actually a good representation of the book's focus. I have sat across from Greg in those long conversations at the Vista, and this book feels like exactly that. The pleasant surprise is that he is actually a very good writer, and you can hear him sitting and talking with you as you read it.

This is not a lighting book. Although, to be sure, there is a lot of lighting information in it. Perhaps more value in lighting education than any book I have ever read. What this is, is a 360-degree experience.

Each of his fifty portraits gets its own little mini-chapter. The segment leads off with the photo, run full-page if vertical and double-truck if horizontal. The accompanying copy begins with the thought process leading up to the photo — all of the thousand little things that happen before you press the shutter. You are there, with him, inside his thought process.

And in so many of the portraits, I could see the multiple instances in which I would have failed to come up with the solutions to make great pictures. It's disheartening, in a sense. Like watching someone effortlessly navigate all the way through a video game that had repeatedly stopped you.

Except, it's not effortless. What you get from this is a true sense of the work ethic (or "thought ethic?") that being a great photographer requires. And there is so, so much pre-thinking that goes into consistently being able to make great photos. That may be the biggest takeaway from this. It has already changed the way I prepare to shoot.

There is also an emotional openness that is required for intimate portrait photography. This is so alien to me, and I am slowly learning that it is something I need to nurture.

On the other hand, it is gratifying to see the hard work and thought that goes into making these photos. It would totally suck if there was just a "great photographer" gene, and I didn't have it and never would.

The second written portion in each segment is "Thoughts on Technique," to which many here will be tempted to skip ahead. But don't. The first section sets it all up — it puts you there, and gets you thinking. Only then are you ready to consider the more technical and photo-related solutions.

Finally, Heisler includes what he unofficially calls the "Moron Section" in the back of the book. (As in, "For more on this photo…") There you'll find camera types, lenses, film, exposure, lighting gear specifics, etc.:


Oh, and here's that video I promised:


How to Absorb This Book

50 Portraits feels like Heisler is writing to his twenty-year-old self. It's the book you'd write if you wanted to put all of the important stuff into one place, as opposed to just another book on photo technique.

You're a photographer. So the first thing you'll do is flip through it and look at the photos. You'll see many of his most famous images, interspersed with ones you have never seen before. Or have seen, and did not know Heisler took them.

After that, the challenge is this: Do you pop a cold beer and blow through it in one long sitting? Or do you read (and re-read) it slowly, learning as much as you can from one chapter at a time.

I'd vote for the latter. In fact, I am going to slowly go through it at the rate of one photo a week. And just for the record, if I were teaching a photo class in college, this would be my text and I would teach it in chunks, drawn out over the semester.

50 Portraits is the opportunity to rent the brain of perhaps the best living portraitist today — and to do so to a remarkable extent. That this book costs less than $25 is almost ridiculous. (List is $40.) Be glad it doesn't cost what it is worth.

I know that many of you have also pre-ordered and will be seeing it for the first time today. After you have had a chance to digest it, I'd very much like to know what you think via the comments.

Gregory Heisler's 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer's Photographer is $24.48 at


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Blogger Cian 1 said...

Amazon UK will be delivering mine in December, so damn you right to hell for reminding me I won't have this till then.

October 22, 2013 2:41 PM  
Blogger LudaCliff said...

Thank you for the preview! I pre-ordered on 2/13/13 after you mentioned it on your site. My copy is shipping out today. Looking forward to the knowledge!

October 22, 2013 2:47 PM  
Blogger Lloyd Grace said...

Cool that you got the first Amazon review David.

October 22, 2013 3:24 PM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

Ah, it hurts so much to be italian sometimes!
I pre-ordered it basically the day it was announced and I'll have to wait for my copy to cross the big pond.

it's going to be one of those books that I'll read over and over and that I will NOT lend to friends (but since it's a great idea for a gift, my friends don't probably sweat it too much)

October 22, 2013 3:26 PM  
Blogger Stephen Marsh said...

My copy is sitting across the desk from me, still in it's Amazon box. I've been looking forward to it since February so I'll have to seriously resist the temptation to skim. 1-2 'chapters' per week sounds about right!

October 22, 2013 4:13 PM  
Blogger Naina Redhu said...

Mine shipped yesterday! Waiting to receive it!

October 22, 2013 4:29 PM  
Blogger Jason Schultz said...

Mine shipped today after I preordered from your original post. I can't wait to get a glimpse into Heisler's mind. The price is a total steal.

October 22, 2013 4:30 PM  
Blogger Paul S said...

OK David, where do I send the invoice? You just convinced me to order a copy, I will be damned if I am paying for it....

October 22, 2013 4:42 PM  
Blogger Robert Davidson said...

UPS tracking says that my copy is "Out For Delivery". I am impatiently waiting for its arrival. This week is a great double header for me: attending your excellent seminar yesterday, and this evening with Heisler (well, with his book, anyway.)

October 22, 2013 5:32 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 22, 2013 5:34 PM  
Blogger A Scrubb said...

I forgot I ordered my when it was announced all those months ago. I saw the Amazon box when I when I got home not knowing what it was. I opened it, flipped the through the first few pages then set it down. This is going to be a great read and just flipping through it would be an injustice.

Looking forward to a great read.

October 22, 2013 5:48 PM  
Blogger Mark Suddaby said...

This would make the perfect christmas present for me...except I'm not sure I could hold out that long!

October 22, 2013 5:49 PM  
Blogger Pixiepurls said...

I loved the Joey L book you recommended before. I just ordered the kindle version of this. Hoping the pictures look beautiful on the ipad mini, or rather hoping they have it optimized for the retina display... tho I doubt it! I can't believe how long it is, looks as though a lot of time was spent on it. Thanks for the rec', as always!

October 22, 2013 5:50 PM  
Blogger Sid Hastings said...

I've long loved the cover photo, when it first ran i SI it changed how I looked at portraits and story telling. But again, you can say that about any number of Greg Heisler photos.

October 22, 2013 5:52 PM  
Blogger Tim Kamppinen said...

Just got mine! Thanks so much for the heads up on this book. I preordered immediately after reading your original blog post. Can't wait to dig in.

October 22, 2013 6:13 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

My copy is being prepared for shipment. Just got it ordered for my birthday.

While I'm not a professional, I'm looking forward to reading it just to see 'inside' how Mr. Heisler puts together his amazing photos. And I hope to learn how I can apply that to my photography.

October 22, 2013 6:39 PM  
Blogger graham said...

Ordered mine back in February when you mentioned it. It arrived last week (Wednesday, I think) - lucky me! It's been a great read - took it with me to a wedding I went to over the weekend. I just can't put it down!

Thanks for the tip so many months ago!

October 22, 2013 7:08 PM  
Blogger mizmdjammer said...

Mine arrived at dinnertime. I will endeavor to digest it slowly as you suggest but I fear I will be tempted to stay up until the wee hours of the morning devouring it.......

October 22, 2013 7:26 PM  
Blogger Eric the Red said...

Hi David, mine is chugging along and will be here in about 10 days. I am going to strive mightily to adhere to the one-a-week plan too, but I am weak . . .

October 23, 2013 1:41 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I preordered on Feb. 18th and unfortunately won´t receive it before saturday, because amazon germany has decided that that´s how it´s going to be, somehow. Not to mention that I have the week off and would have all the time in the world to read every sentence twice.
Slightly frustrated here. :|

October 23, 2013 7:02 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey S Baker said...

Last night I cuddled up with Luis Sarria, Muhammad Ali, Ron Turcotte, O.J. Simpson, Carl Lewis and Greg Louganis and had to force myself to put the book down after beads of sweat formed on my head reading about the Louganis shoot. Talk about nerves of steel. I felt sick reading it.

Fantastic Master Class.

The takeaway is how to combine "What would Heisler do?" with your own vision.....or I could just throw my cameras and strobes in the ocean and go sell insurance. Sigh.

October 23, 2013 8:21 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I have started to buy all my books in the kindle format. I even went back and bought several of my favorites so I can access them at anytime on my iPad.

I just got it deliver but haven't OPEC it yet but can't wait. I like the for dummies section in the back like a cheatsheet from college or high school.

That way you can formulate your plan of attack then see if you are close.

October 23, 2013 9:30 AM  
Blogger stan chung said...

I want it! LOL

October 23, 2013 3:49 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

"If you pre-ordered from Amazon, your evening plans have just changed."

Oddly snuff this is EXACTLY what I thought this AM when UPS dropped this book off!

I did a 16 hour road trip (thats ONE WAY!) to hear him speak for two days in Calgary a few years back and it was so worth it.

October 23, 2013 3:52 PM  
Blogger Chris Banks said...

Just ordered a copy..thx for the review David!

October 23, 2013 6:37 PM  
Blogger Ronald en Mieke said...

just ordered my copy, hope it will arrive soon :-)

October 24, 2013 7:13 AM  
Blogger Tracy Comer said...

Is it sad that I purchased the hard copy and Kindle edition?

October 24, 2013 9:49 AM  
Blogger Marc Durocher said...

I was thinking or purchasing the Kindle version and running the Kindle on my IPAD (with retina). Has anyone tried this? How does it look?

October 24, 2013 1:52 PM  
Blogger Jason Beaver said...

It's here, it's here!
"This is an unpleasant portrait. It's too sharp. The colors are garish. The lighting is harsh. It was all that I'd hoped for."
Can't wait to read this one cover to cover.. Then start over.

October 24, 2013 3:20 PM  
Blogger Iden Pierce Ford said...

I am embarrassed to say that I did not discover Heisler until you posted about him. Head in the sand here looking at portraiture by 17th century portrait painters, the noir years of film, and certain contemporary photogs for my inspiration and style ideas. So thank you for turing me on to him, I ordered the book months ago...Sounds to me like you see him as a sort of Napoleon Hill of portrait photography...I know, strange analogy. But in fact if you study his work over and over, you start to get it after a while. So yeah, thanks for your most informative blog and education.....

October 24, 2013 6:45 PM  
Blogger Jon Uhler said...

Just got mine. This book is awesome. So glad I didn't go Kindle version. This is a real book, not a soft cover book like most are doing today. You really need the hardcover. It is a work of art.

October 25, 2013 10:03 AM  
Blogger Wally said...

Over the years, you have gotten me to spend my money on a lot of complaints about this book. I ordered the day you posted about it, just got it, made it to Ed Harris and had to write. I love this book.

October 25, 2013 2:28 PM  
Blogger Bert McLendon said...

This is the first photography book that I've read where I actually feel like I was on the shoot with him. I know that sounds weird but it feels like I just went through the anxiety or a shot not working the way he planned and "seeing" it appear on the wall (Ron Turcotte shoot). The anxiety of showing up and almost losing a chance to shoot someone, and when he recovers, having to work around something that could have killed any other shoot (Luis Sarria). It's also the first Photography book where the author mentions the heartbreak of walking away from a shoot without getting the shot HE wanted. I've felt that way so many times. Sure the client loved the images they got but I've felt so heartbroken that I didn't get the shot(s) that I've wanted. What if I did and the client saw those!?!? Heartbreak. Photography is so much like golf. The closer you are to the hole, the bigger the heartache when you miss, but it's that one great shot out of 100 crappy shots that will keep you coming back to play the next 18.

October 26, 2013 1:21 AM  
Blogger Mark Doro said...

David, thanks for the review, mine has shipped......waiting, waiting....

October 27, 2013 5:01 PM  
OpenID Daniel said...

"I am going to slowly go through it at the rate of one photo a week."
Didn't work for me- I was reading the book and thinking to myself, If I where sitting with Mr. Heisler at the Vista and he was telling stories of his shoots I wouldn't get up from the table after one story and leave waiting for the next time to hear more. No I would stay all night long there which is just what I did- What a wonderful book!
... and now I will read it again, one portrait a week, but this time pay close attention and really think it through...

October 28, 2013 10:07 AM  
Blogger Daniel Sabourin said...

Just got mine today, what a brick.
Looks gorgeous.
Ordered it when I saw your comments about it.

October 28, 2013 4:53 PM  
Blogger Bob Kidd said...

50 Portraits is meant to be held in your hand as you look at the images, read the text and it marvelous. Thank you for putting me onto it.

October 30, 2013 7:33 AM  
Blogger Javi said...

Hi David! I got my pre-ordered copy of the book last week, and started reading it the same day. After a few chapters I stopped, grabbed a pen and paper and started over again so I can now write down all the brilliant and clever tips that Greg tells from his own experience. Sometimes while reading the book I remember Greg's class in GPPLondon and I recall how he told us some of those stories himself. You're right, it's not a lighting book, but it's the book we all (portrait photographers) need, and it's plenty of good information about planning a portrait, about gaining your subject's trust, and about focusing on making that connection that makes a good portrait. I haven't finished yet, but this is probably the best photography book on my shelves.
Regards from Barcelona!
Javi Aguilar

November 07, 2013 7:02 AM  
Blogger magneticart said...

This is definitely the best book I purchased in 2013 and possibly the best book about portrait photography I ever bought. Thank you, David, for your "matchmaking skills", as explained in the acknowledgment section, which helped this book publication. Highly, highly, highly recommended reading.

November 07, 2013 9:27 AM  

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