Canada has produced a lot of world-class photographers over the years, maybe none more prominent than Saskatchewan-born, Calgary-based Derek Heisler.
The seeds for self-taught Photographer & Conceptual Designer Derek Heisler’s career were planted while studying for his engineering degree in university when he decided to take on small graphic design projects on the side for some extra cash.
I often haven’t told the story of how I got into photography. Did it start with all these beautiful women? Oh god no. – Derek Heisler
As told in Derek Heisler’s 2012 blog post “Humble Beginnings & Landscapes”:
DH: “I needed a lot of stock imagery, so I bought a point and shoot digital camera, I believe it was a Canon A75. At the time, it was great for what I needed, however soon enough I found its limitations. I wanted more control, I wanted to control the depth of field and shutter speed. So on my first work term I purchased my first DSLR. The Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT. Originally I think I even bought the kit lens *shakes head*.”
“I read, read, practised, practised, experimented and read some more. I loved capturing nature and especially landscapes. I love to hike, so this was an excuse to do even more.”
“Soon enough, my female friends noticed my talent and wanted me to photograph them. At first, I wanted nothing to do with it. I bought this camera for landscapes not women haha. Sooner or later, I did give in. After a couple photoshoots I knew I needed to learn a lot more, so back to more reading, practising and experimenting.”
He shoots, he scores!
Derek’s first big break came when the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers commissioned him to conceptualize and shoot their memorable 2012 Edmonton Oilers Octane Cheerleading Calendar.
Appreciating the look and feel of some of Derek’s previous work with female models, the Oilers approached him to come up with a new look and feel calendar for that year.
DH: They had reached out to me to help them create a memorable Oiler Octane cheerleader calendar. They had seen some of my female work that I had done and wanted to create something that was unique and more cohesive with their brand than what they had previously done.
While the Oilers may have finished 12th in their division that year, the 2012 Octane Cheerleading Calendar featuring Derek’s work was a huge hit with their fans and became the fastest selling edition they had released.
Ultimately, Derek says, it was the experience of shooting this calendar that solidified how he now approaches his projects.
In advance of his upcoming An Evening with Derek Heisler workshops in Calgary and Edmonton, we wanted to learn a little more about Derek, so we asked him a few additional questions…
Have you always known you wanted to be a visual artist or did you dream of being something else as a child?
DH: I played with crayons but never consciously wanted to be an artist. What I wanted to be changed constantly. I wanted to be an RCMP officer for a period, then that changed to a Veterinarian. I worked a few summers at a large animal vet clinic out in the country near our farm.
I soon learned that was not me. Art came to me more subtly but naturally. I played a few instruments through high school and I loved to draw. My mom always had a lot of crafts to keep us busy as kids. Art and music balanced the math and sciences I took. I did take a photography course in high school basically to avoid metal shop. I loved it, but I didn’t pick up a camera again for quite some time after high school.
Do you remember when & where you took your first photo and what the subject was?
DH: High school photography class, Europe trip in 2002. It was of the basilica in St. Mark’s square in Venice.
What was your first job? (photographic or otherwise)
DH: As a farm kid, I worked on the farm from a very young age. In university, I did work at a camera shop selling cameras to the local pros.
Was there anybody in particular that influenced your path to creativity?
DH: I had a few drawing and music teachers that inspired me in certain ways. I didn’t have a lot of mentors which is why I think my creativity was ignited by people I was inspired by or wanted to emulate. There were quite a few photographers and filmmakers that really resonated with me. They had a darker look in their work, surrealistic almost.
DH: People like, Lionel Deluy out of LA, a French photographer that I’ve actually had the pleasure of interviewing myself. Tim Tadder, Dean Bradshaw, Dave Hill, Russell James, etc. Looking at their work showed me what’s possible.
What would you describe your “photographic style” as?
DH: Introspective portraiture. It reminds me of Greek sculpture, the literal posing in thought that is immortalised while capturing that individual’s unique essence. I feel there is a certain beauty and power in that process, it’s not simply showing up and taking their picture, the process involves understanding them so that you can capture them authentically.
That’s why I love to flip the mirror on my subjects, try to capture how I really see them in the
hopes that it might affirm, or change their perspective of themselves, which for me is priceless.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and what advice would you give to someone starting out based on your own experiences?
DH: Always be you. Your individual experiences dictate how you are around your subjects or how you approach your art. If you’re always trying to be someone else, or follow someone else’s work to a “T” you’ll always come up short.
Self-actualization comes from just being you, being true to yourself. Then your art will always be truly yours, not a reflection of someone else. You need to understand what you want to say and hold onto that tightly because that’s what will differentiate you from everyone else. Also, take a drawing course, understand global light and perspective. It will help you immensely.
Given the ever changing landscape of gear, and other tools, do you tend to be an early adopter of new technology?
DH: Well, I was, but I’m not so much anymore.
If there’s a specific type of gear, that’s going to solve a problem that I experience with my pre-existing gear then, yes, I will adopt it fairly early on in the hopes that those headaches will go away.
The danger is buying too much gear that you won’t use. We all do it or have done it and it comes down to understanding what you need to do your job. The best gear in the world doesn’t make a great photograph. A client hires you based on your unique talent so you need to understand what tools you need to do your work.
Tell us about the tools you currently use and why they are essential to you
DH: So there are specific tools I use, on a recurring basis more than others. Depending on the job, I’m either shooting medium format or 35mm.
I shoot 35mm for more fast paced work, a lot of frames, a lot of movements, such as with catalogue or some lifestyle photography.
For everything else, I try to shoot with medium format, specifically the Phase One 645 for the higher quality and the extra dynamic range that’s involved with that.
DH: Camera, laptop, light and modifier, those are the minimum, but depending on what you’re trying to create those essential tools will change. I do have some favourite modifiers and battery packs are nice due the mobility you get. Also, I couldn’t really go anywhere without Capture One Pro, when it comes to camera raw profiles, there is no better tool.
Of those, what is the one tool you can’t do without?
DH: A camera. 😉
On Clients & Imagery:
What kind of clients do you work with?
DH: Well there are two industry sectors that I work in, one is female fashion and introspective portraiture for publication, and the other (and that is growing for me), is tv and film marketing materials. From movie posters to images that would be used in web assets, and billboard for an upcoming tv series or films.
Where do you find your inspiration?
DH: Cinema, hands down. Symphonic classical scores are another great source of inspiration.
From concept to completion, on average, how long does it take you to complete an image?
DH: It depends on if it’s a personal project, it could take months or more. I’m working on a really interesting project with Warren Dion Smith. He’s one of the lead makeup artists for WETA. He’s worked on Lord Of the Rings and the Hobbit. This project has been almost to two years in the making. I’m here and Warren’s in Auckland New Zealand, and I’m excited to finally shoot the project this coming April.
If it’s a commercial/fashion job, you’re typically brought on around the 11th hour and that usually involves going through the concept and creative brief. Otherwise, it typically involves planning the shoot, getting the talent and everything, doing your pre-lights and tests, then choosing the final images and sending them off to the client, getting those final images selected by them, and lastly retouching. It could all be in the course of a week.
What’s the longest you’ve ever worked on a single image?
DH: I think the longest I’ve probably worked on an image was the Blood Brothers series we did for the movie poster. All of the elements were shot independently, so we had wardrobe set up and photographed the individual actors on white seamless background. Then I photographed all the elements like explosions like dirt canons on black backgrounds for plates, and we brought all those elements together into a single image. I probably spent a good portion of a day in Photoshop alone, taking all the elements we had photographed and bringing them all together digitally so they felt realistic.
What’s been your favourite past project to work on?
DH: Doing portraits with Bill Nye was entertaining and informative, to say the least! Working on the Blood Brothers movie poster was challenging and amazing to work with all the set pieces and props. Amazing to dive back into that era to capture those unique elements for that project.
What makes a project fun is really the people behind it. What makes things fun on set with the team is simply creating and loving what we do. When everyone brings their very best every day, it makes what we do amazing and worthwhile.
Any exciting projects coming up this year?
DH: Definitely the WETA project. We just brought on CGI artist out of Toronto to help work on the backgrounds of those images. I won’t talk too much about the concept of the project simply because it’s NDA right now.
There was a project I was working on that is being published this April in Ellements magazine out of New York. It was a warrior beauty set that inspired by MAD MAX. We aimed for that post-apocalyptic feel but executed it in a way that was beautiful yet tragic and visceral. I’m excited to see that in print and to be able to hold it. In our digital age, there’s nothing quite like seeing your work in print.
We’re taking on more and more tv and film advertising work this year. This is exciting because we can extend the audience’s experience to the marketing materials, which promotes cohesiveness.
If you know of anyone that is making a series or film, please reach out and we can talk about how to make it successful. It doesn’t matter how much blood, sweat and tears you put into your film if no one goes to see it.
What was the biggest mistake you made on a photo shoot?
DH: I photographed a lot of local models starting out. I was photographing two friends, separately but they both came together. I didn’t want one waiting for a few hours so I decided to alternate with both. Every time I had momentum with one model, I would switch and it would kill it.
Never again did I make that mistake…
You can find more of Derek’s work on his website: http://www.derekheisler.com/
As an internationally published and award-winning talent, Derek has devoted his skill to clients such as; National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, TED, National Hockey League, and SETI.
In addition to his creative pursuits, Heisler has done an array of charity work to support non-profit initiatives. Derek supports with emphasis, organizations that focus efforts to inspire science and knowledge, and sports, specifically the Special Olympics. Derek feels it is important to support culture and communicative change agents by creating imagery that is not only visually appealing but dynamically impactful.
Also published on Medium.