A doctor with a passion for great photojournalism takes his photography seriously enough to make it a lifelong quest.
Based in Seattle, Washington, Ashwin Rao is a physician who specializes in sports medicine, caring for athletes and active people with injuries at the University of Washington, and working closely with the Seattle Seahawks football team. Through his work connections he started shooting sports images with an SLR before making the switch to a Leica M9, now his favorite digital camera: Indeed, despite the technical challenges he recently mounted a 40-year-old 135mm Tele-Elmar on his M9 to cover a collegiate football match. Now a dedicated photographic enthusiast and active member of the Leica community, he takes his inspiration from the work of great photojournalists like Sebastiao Salgado, and prefers the “more measured” rangefinder experience of framing, composing, and creating. Rao’s engaging images of people also reveal a strong sense of structure and abstract pattern, which he attributes to his background in painting. Here, in his own eloquent words is the story of his photographic journey and his heartfelt Leica connection.
Q: Though you do pursue photography in a photojournalistic and “laid back” manner, at least some of your work seems to revolve around capturing abstract patterns that suggest meanings other than “slice of life” photojournalism. Can you comment on this observation?
A: That’s a fascinating observation! I am always curious and excited by how others might view and interpret my photography. So much of what I wish to do is draw the viewer into the photograph. I truly hope to make a photograph a visual representation of a memory that I have, and I hope to draw the viewer in with strong themes that tap into their own experience. I enjoy capturing abstract images in the pattern of life’s episodic chaos. I think my background in painting has allowed me to see in this way. In turn, I have found that photography has influenced the way that I see the world. Whereas little details may have passed me by in the past, I now find myself looking for that hidden beauty in the mundane. In a sense, I feel that I walk through the world seeing things as a series of photographs waiting to be captured. For me, it’s an exciting way to see the world. Expressing larger themes by means of patterns and abstractions may bring more meaning to my own work.
Q: You stated that you would rather pursue photography as a committed serious enthusiast, as an “elaborate hobby” rather than as a profession. Do you think your “artistic passion” would be compromised if you decided to turn pro?
A: Wow, that’s a tough question. Essentially I worry that turning this passion for photography into a principal profession could compromise my drive to photograph the world around me as often, and with as much joy, as I do now. I use photography as an outlet for my creative drive, which isn’t always accessed in my daily life as a physician. In that sense, keeping photography as a passionate hobby, albeit one that I strive to excel at, allows me to pursue it with a no-strings-attached manner that I can fully embrace and enjoy. Once photography becomes a profession, one might be constrained by the needs and desires of one’s clients. I have found this to be the case when shooting weddings. Every client has their own perspectives, their own views, and their own beliefs of what their perfect wedding album might look like, and once a contract is signed, these expectations are expected to be met. For me, these imposed expectations can become burdensome in some instances, and for this reason, I have stayed away from committing to photography as a career.
It also doesn’t hurt that I love my career in medicine and take great pride in my successes and evolution as a physician. I am not forced to make photography anything more than an outlet for my creative expression and enjoyment. It’s very liberating to be allowed that privilege. Someday this may change, but for now, I am happy with this choice.
Q: You mentioned a number of great photojournalists that have influenced your work, including Bresson, Robert Capa, Weegee, and Salgado. What is there about their images or their general approach that you incorporate in your own creative quest for images?
A: I think it is the ability of all of these photographers to capture the spirit of the moment, which transcends the technical details of a photograph, has compelled me to study their work and model some of my own style in this manner. All of these photographers are so technically proficient that what remains for them to do is masterfully capture the moments in front of them. They all do so in grand fashion, yet with a sense of intimacy. Bresson’s work encompasses the scope and scale of 20th century history. He was able to be in all the places where the world was changing, using the relatively new medium of 35mm photography in a masterful and novel way. His photographs put me right there, in that moment in time, and his images are filled with the powerful emotions that fill those moments. Capa’s and Weegee’s work is so refreshingly bold even today, certainly harsh, uncompromising, and uncomfortable. I could never imagine myself photographing in the same circumstances in which they did, but their respective takes on life, death, and the in-between is both startling and powerful. They chose to shoot some of humanity’s less proud moments, yet captured these moments in striking fashion. Salgado’s work is so pointedly patterned, yet organic and filled with the passionate struggle of existence, it’s almost overwhelming to experience his photography, and I have to be prepared. His style seems to be very modern to my eyes, and it seems that many have tried to emulate the creative vision that is truly his to own and master. With all of these photographers, I find myself shaking my head, wondering, “How did they see this?” To study the masters leaves me so much room for growth, and I can never be satisfied. This drive, this lack of satisfaction, is a large motivation for me and motivates my growth as a photographer.
Q: You said that you found the focusing and framing of the Leica M particularly conducive to your style of photography. Can you elaborate on this, and is there anything else about the Leica M that is an asset in your kind of work?
A: I find that using Leica Ms can be immensely challenging, but in turn, immensely rewarding. When I first purchased my first rangefinder, I was a bit daunted by making adjustments to shutter speed, aperture, along with metering properly, to really just get the technical details straight. Over time, and with practice, setting these parameters has become second nature, and I am left with the joy of ultimate control over how my image is captured. The image seems to flow from the experience of composition. The camera doesn’t get in the way at all, unlike SLRs which often hunt for focus, are bulky, and require more careful handholding. Carrying around a Leica is discreet, unobtrusive, and once learned, easy! You can focus simply on capturing the moment in front of you.
I am also a huge fan of the using frame lines. For reasons that have been discussed ad nauseum on the forums and by other experts, it’s great to be able to see what’s coming in and out of frame prior to pressing the shutter release. One can anticipate the moment better in this manner, and I find this to be a great strength of rangefinder cameras.
I also like the size and weight of Leica Ms. They feel just right in the hand, not too heavy, not too light. They are elegant photographic tools, and they let you know it.
Finally, the rangefinder focusing scheme is a great asset of this system, particularly in low light. With modern SLRs, one is forced to rely sometimes (indeed, quite often) on inaccurate autofocus or infrared focus-assist actions to achieve proper focus in dark settings. With rangefinders, the focusing patch allows this problem to be circumvented entirely. I find rangefinders to be far superior to SLRs in low light circumstances. One benefit offered by SLRs is their high ISO capabilities, though often there is are lots of digital smearing artifacts. Leica’s choice to exclude the anti-aliasing filter and limit the ISO to 2500 on the M9 essentially eliminates that digital smearing. Coupled with the fact that one can hand-hold rangefinders at lower shutter speeds, while focusing accurately in low light, the rangefinder can be a terrific tool for low light photography. Using the Leica M9 and a Lightroom 3 workflow really allows one to explore the boundaries of low light work into a realm previously reserved for Canon’s and Nikon’s highest-end SLRs.
As you can tell, I believe that there are many technical, physical, and stylistic advantages to using rangefinders. By no means is the M9 a perfect camera, but it is the best digital capture device that I have ever used, for all of the reasons listed above.
Q: Many photojournalists prefer to shoot with the 28mm and 24mm focal lengths on full-frame cameras like the M6 and M9, but you favor the classic 35mm, 50mm and 90mm combo. Why do you think that this is the case, and when do you use your 24mm and 135mm?
A: I generally like to get closer to my subjects, which are usually people, and frame them in the context of their environment. Using a 35 mm lens allows me to get a bit closer, while maintaining the storytelling aspect of this focal length. For some reason, using the 28 mm focal length makes me feel more distant, more removed, from my subject. The difference is quite subtle, but it bothered me enough to keep a 35 mm lens as part of my main travel kit, supplemented with a 50mm and 90 mm lens, rather than a 28mm lens. I find it fun to pair focal lengths together into a range that makes sense. For example, I feel that pairing a 24 mm lens with a 35mm, 75mm, and 135 mm lens, makes for a versatile 4-lens kit. Similarly, the 35/50/90 mm kit represents a versatile and comfortable 3-lens kit for me, and a 24mm lens can be added to the 35/50/90 kit as well to permit greater versatility in shooting.
I recently began shooting with my 24mm lens far more when I purchased the outstanding 24mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH lens. This lens is one of the most prized in my collection and is the rare beast that allows one to control depth of field at such a wide focal length. It really opens up creative possibilities in a way that I had not expected, and I suspect that I will be using it often to expand my own creative horizons.
I also bring along the 135 mm lens for sports and landscape work, when I need to capture far away action or compress landscapes or scenes from a distance. I find both 24 mm and 135 mm lenses to be more specialty lenses, while the 35/50/90 focal lengths represent the comfort zone for my typical style of rangefinder shooting.
Q: How do you see your photography changing and evolving going forward, and do you think the M9 will be your camera or choice or will you still be shooting both film and digital Leica Ms in the future?
A: Part of the excitement is in not knowing how things will evolve for me. So I believe that the answer to your question is: I don’t really know. And to me, that’s part of the excitement of the journey. At the beginning of my journey into photography, I thought that I would be entirely satisfied by using SLR cameras, but my creative expression has led me to a style of photography that primarily uses rangefinders. I suspect that I will continue to gain comfort and familiarity with the lenses upon which I have settled. I will continue to travel around the world as much as I can, my M9 close at hand, and see what I come up with. I plan to continue to study the works of the greats. I will continue to contribute to the forums to which I belong, view the works of others who inspire me, and continue to try to grow both my technical skills and my artistic ideas. I hope to continue to make friends in the community, meet up with these amazing people, and learn from their experiences.
One of the often-unmentioned benefits of shooting with Leica cameras is the online community of Leica enthusiasts and photographers. The Internet and instant connectivity has helped bring groups of like-minded enthusiasts together, and Leica photographers are no different in that respect. I have made many friends in the world of rangefinder photography, though commenting on images on forums, through purchasing gear from others, and from simply asking questions. I have found this interaction to really add to my positive experience. We don’t talk about this often, but the Leica community is an embracing community of passionate individuals striving for something great. That is great in itself, but I am also proud to be part of this community.
As for using the M9, I find the Leica M9 to be the best digital camera that I have ever owned. I am just about to acquire a second M9 body, to pair with my first. It is the tool that I can use as the natural photographic extension of my creative vision. It does not get in the way. Using the M9 inspires confidence. Leica has produced a winner, and perhaps the best confirmation of this is the fact that it’s still hard to find one!
Thank you for your time Ashwin Rao!
– Leica Internet Team