Gregory Heisler on Photographing Muhammad Ali

By Gregory Heisler

© Gregory Heisler

Below is an excerpt from Gregory Heisler's book 50 Portraits, in which he talks about making these two portraits of boxer Muhammad Ali. Check out "Gregory Heisler Shares the Techniques That Go Into His Portraiture" to read more excerpts. 

We had just finished shooting the portrait that would ultimately run on the April 25, 1988, cover of Sports Illustrated … Here was The Champ, the biggest and most gregarious figure of his era. 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 [disease]. It was that quiet, peaceful but powerful aloneness I wanted to somehow see in the portrait I had yet to make.

… I remember walking farther and farther from the house just to get some space [and] 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: 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 on its tall tripod 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 into the snow, 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.

Thoughts on Technique
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.

… [Your] f-stop camera control is like a rheostat for your flash exposure … the shutter speed has no effect, because the flash is just an instantaneous burst of light. 

The shutter speed, then, becomes a rheostat for the ambient light, independent of the flash. They are two completely separate variables …

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

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