Zen and the Gregory Heisler Workshop

Here is the first of my review the Gulf Photo Plus 2014.   For me it was almost like a pilgrimage because I’ve read so much about it from David Hobby’s blog.  David was instrumental in getting me back into photography after a fifteen years absence.  He had nothing but praises for GPP and honestly, it was everything it advertised to be and more.

Let’s start chronologically, I took the workshop of Gregory Heisler.  Not just any old chap.   Someone at GPP (I honestly can’t remember who) described him thusly: “There are photographers, and there is Gregory Heisler.”



The Sixth Patriarch Cutting the Bamboo, by Liang Kai, Southern Song Dynasty, 13th century.

This is a famous Chinese painting depicting Hui Neng at the point of enlightenment.  This 7th century Zen master who espoused spontaneous enlightenment.  As opposed to, say, gradual enlightenment, whereby through a life of mediation, reading scriptures, or asceticism, Hui Neng believed that enlightenment can be attained suddenly, and even during mundane moments in daily life, e.g., while chopping bamboo.

(Bear with me, I’m getting somewhere with this)

So, to me, Gregory Heisler is a photographer that has achieved photography Nirvana.  He has attained No-Self.  His style is No-Style.  His style is like water, formless, shapeless, but at the same time. able to take the shape of any container.

In photographic terms, that means your style is what the photograph, or story, or subject dictates.  First, you have to master the technical aspects so thoroughly that it becomes second nature, then after that, you can be free to just focus on the subject in front of you.

(Or you could just set the camera to AUTO everything, yikes!)

Guru Heisler’s workshop was not very much hands on.  The reason was that he wanted to impart as much knowledge as he can over three short days and we don’t gain much knowledge by if we simply click our own cameras based on his lighting setups.

CAM00368 Day1

Gregory Heisler demonstrating using Home Depot lights, i.e. photography’s equivalent of chopping bamboo.  Incidentally, the dashing model is also a photographer, check out his work here.

So our intrepid and infallible coordinator Melissa Beattie (I’m a fan of her photography) packed the whole class into a van and we went all over Dubai.

heislerDay1 difc-

This is my only shot of Melissa and me.

We shot two models at the DIFC, a chef at his Italian restaurant high up in a skyscraper, a French milliner in her beautiful home, a musician with crystal-encrusted violin, and a guy with tattoos all over his body.




This social misfit got his portrait taken by the great Gregory Heisler.  So did the tattooed guy next to him.

It was a very intensive workshop and half the time I’m frowning hard, trying to process Sensei Heisler’s words.  He was a very good communicator, patiently explaining his thought process and the hows and whys of his lighting setups.  The guy knows his way around f-stops and shutter-speeds.  But more importantly, he has a way of communicating with the subject, so it was a great learning experience to watch him in action, in person.

Us grasshoppers kept bombarding him with questions about f-stops and ISO settings, which he obligingly shared with us.

But the wise words of Bruce Lee comes to mind…

“It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

Actually, Bruce Lee was paraphrasing an important Zen concept.

So, yes, learn about photography, get technically proficient.  But don’t get fixated on the f-stops, PDAF vs CDAF wars, the dogmas, the manifestos, or (*gasp*) the Annie Leibovitz BTS videos, or you’ll miss the point.

That was my biggest takeaway from Master Heisler’s sermons, I mean, workshop.

And guess what?  Singaporean photogs are in luck.  The mountain is actually coming to Mohammed.  GPP is coming to Singapore on May 3rd and 4th, so you don’t have will till GPP2015 in Dubai!  I still can’t believe it, but yes, Gregory Heisler will be here, and so will Zack Arias and Joe McNally.

There’s even an early bird discount, which ends March 31st, so mai tu laio!






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