Last month I was asked to shoot a campaign featuring the Valentino luxury sneaker – Rockrunner. As a ‘sneakerhead’ I was very excited to be working with such a quality shoe and wanted to bring out the Rockrunner’s personality by complimenting it with subjects and environments that contradict the notion that luxury shoes are only made for walking red carpets.. As I had complete creative control (very rare) I decided to shoot my subjects wearing the Rockerunner in scenes that evoke questions of mystery and intrigue. Creating pictures that leave the viewer with more questions than answers often leave a stronger impression and have greater impact, so I decided to shoot the entire campaign in low light environments, resulting in a cinematic mood and tone.
One of the most difficult challenges every photographer faces is shooting in low light – often referred to as ‘difficult lighting’. In the last few years camera manufacturers have shifted their focus from increasing the amount of megapixel output to maximising performance in low light by improving noise reduction at high ISOs using improved sensor technology and better in-camera image processing. A lot of my work happens to be in such difficult lighting situations and my tool of choice is of course ‘still’ the Leica SL.
I’m often asked what camera I use and why, and the Leica SL has been my answer for almost 2 years; and needless to say, I’m very satisfied. It’s not perfect, no camera is, yet I feel it’s the closest to perfection I’ve used in a professional camera to date. The combination of features of the mirrorless format combined with professional build quality, fast and accurate auto focus speeds, a great sensor and Leica’s incredible new SL lenses make for a compelling system for the working professional. Leica’s decision to reposition the price of the SL makes it more inline competitively to the top pro SLR’s, and only adds to the camera’s allure as a superior Leica system that carries forward Leica’s reputation for performance and quality that has reigned over the last century.
After deciding on the low light concept, I had to source locations that looked ‘timeless’ and best suited the vision I had in my head. The locations were based in Bangkok, Thailand, and were perfect as they had plenty of character and didn’t have any modern elements that could date the pictures in years to come. I decided to combine the existing light in the locations with bits of LED light, which would either serve as ‘key light’ or ‘accent light’ depending on the scene.
Each shot had their own challenges, so my lighting decisions were adjusted to each scenario.. My models combined influencers and customers of the Rockrunner shoe so they already had experience with the product and passion for the campaign which was great to see. My goal of each shot was to position and pose each of the subjects into a scene that could have come from a movie, using combinations of colour, light and shadows to replicate a cinematic mood.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SENSOR, PROCESSOR AND THE LENS
Shooting in this cinematic context requires the right combination of equipment. Lighting aside, to capture high quality images suitable for such a campaign, I would need the following:
- A camera sensor capable or recording high quality files without compromising colour and detail. This is quite common with many cameras that overdo the noise reduction in-camera.
- A camera lens that has a zoom feature for efficiency and is of the highest resolution possible. This enables me to use noise reduction in post processing without losing detail in my images as they would be of the highest resolution out of the camera, without the need for digital sharpening.
- In-camera processing that assists in recording high resolution files quickly, with maximum detail recorded by the lens and accurate colours from the sensor.
As I used a combination of lighting and smoke, it was important that the lens I chose could record as much detail as possible, because having had a lot of experience shooting concerts and productions, I know all too well that these scenarios often push a lens to it’s limits and usually results in images with too much flare and haze, with sub-par quality that wouldn’t give me the desired look I was going for. The SL 24-90mm lens performed like a champ! Firstly, having a zoom lens enable me to change the angle of view, and more importantly, the perspective - quickly.
Historically, lens design has always favoured fixed focal length lenses for image quality as they’re easier to make with less lens design compromises. They’re also smaller and lighter which make for a more comfortable shooting experience. Well modern lens design has now put the power of fixed lenses into zoom lenses, like the SL 24-90mm lens. This has been achieved by creating larger medium format-inspired lenses with maximum performance for 35mm cameras like the Leica SL. Many would ask why this has occurred and the answer is in the market’s demand for increased MP in 35mm sensors. The more megapixels that come from the traditionally sized 35mm sensor require better resolution from lens technology and the only way to achieve this was by increasing the lens size so that there is less compromise in the design. This is a technique that has been employed by many brands, and Leica was the first to do it to a zoom lens. While I tend to prefer lighter and smaller lenses, I find the SL 24-90mm lens size to be similar to a popular SLR 24-70mm lens and well balanced on the SL body.
PUSHING THE SL TO IT’S LIMITS
The real test for most digital camera manufacturers is to create a sensor that maintains high quality all the way through their range of available ISO settings. In the Leica SL’s case we are talking ISO 50-12,500. A low light image is usually associated with ISO ranges from ISO 800 up. In the old film days, photographers had very little options available to them in low light as 35mm film’s quality limit topped out at ISO 1600, with most photographers choosing to stay under ISO 800 where possible, often risking camera shake due to slower shutter speeds being used. Above that they could either use flash or put the camera away and take a mental picture.
Digital technology has taken low light photography to new heights and I wanted to exploit this innovation with the SL by shooting the entire campaign between ISO 1600-12,500. Most of the pictures ended up being around 3200-6400 and as expected, the quality was outstanding. Of course, I use the SL like this daily, so it was no surprise, but hopefully this article will truly highlight the importance of having a combination of quality sensor and lens that enable us as photographers to carry on shooting in any situation without feeling like we’re compromising image quality due to low or difficult lighting.
If you look at these pictures closely, you will see that they are vibrant with plenty of detail, with a mood and tone that brings the shoes to life and gives them their intended character in this narrative. While the purpose of using high ISO is to provide faster shutter speeds to guarantee sharpness without any camera shake/subject motion, using higher ISO’s means that you can blend your added light with the available light. This is the key to creating natural looking light. The biggest mistake made by photographers in low light is using too much light to overpower the existing light with the goal of keeping the ISO down, but all this does is underexpose the background and create an unnatural look.
The key to creating these images was to establish what the existing light is providing and then make decisions as to how much light is needed, where it is needed and how it should be shaped. The SL’s sensor and processer does wonders in low light by capturing colours accurately, without adding much digital artefacts and maintaining colour fidelity all the way up to ISO 12,500. The icing on the cake was the resolution, provided by the SL 24-90mm which is very consistent throughout the zoom and aperture range, allowing me to shoot at any fcoal length or aperture without worrying about a quality loss, like most zooms.
I’d also like to add that the incredible electronic viewfinder (EVF) provides a wonderful viewing experience, and shows the exposure in real time. The latest firmware update allows us to see the exposure without having to depress the shutter halfway, and this makes shooting efficiency much better as you’re able to see the exposure changes you make in manual mode - instantly. The SL also focuses accurately and swiftly too due to the fact it doesn’t rely on cross-type sensors like SLR cameras. The focus point can be placed anywhere in the frame and focus will be achieved as fast as any camera on the market with perfect accuracy. This makes the SL not only a fast and formidable tool, but fun to use. If a tool isn’t fun to use and doesn’t aid the photographer to complete tasks efficiently, the entire experience becomes hindering to the work being done and the SL never failed me in this department.
The Leica SL produces some amazing results, especially in low light, and really inspires the operator to elevate their photography skills to the next level. I’m often asked if a Leica will take better pictures, and my answer is always the same – “No”. Why? Because while the camera records the ‘image’ its ALWAYS on the photographer to take better ‘pictures’. The Leica SL is a true working tool, and produces the best looking images I’ve seen to date from the 35mm format. I’ve been waiting for such a tool from Leica since I started shooting my first professional digital camera – the Nikon D1, and I’m glad Leica took their time because they got it right, the first time.
While I’d still love a faster recording buffer, better AF tracking and faster start-up times, these have all been improved significantly through firmware updates and Leica continues to dedicate much time to existing users, which is an area often forgotten in a world where camera-makers are always just focussed on producing the next camera 6-12 months down the track. This is a good thing considering Leica update their cameras around every 3 years, making their cameras a smarter, longer term investment. So while I’m excited to see what’s coming next, this is the first time owning a professional camera where I’m feeling this satisfied so long into its life cycle.
It’s no secret I’m a Leica Ambassador, so I do urge those of you to go see the SL and test it for yourself. The SL truly is a ‘do-anything’ cameras and great for almost any kind of user. It also makes a great companion for M users, and is also easier to focus fast lenses like the Noctilux too. With the Leica SL’s new price repositioning in full effect, there’s been no better time to jump on the SL and experience the beautiful viewfinder, stunning lenses and amazing image quality for yourself.