Raised in Adelaide, Australia where he exhibited a passion for photography at an early age, Darren Centofanti had the good fortune to hook up with a top advertising and fashion studio where he learned his art and craft from the ground up, starting in his teens. By 1995 he had became a full-time freelancer working around various cities in Australia, but still based in Orange Lane Studio in Adelaide where he got his start. In 1999 he began working on a project with Eastman Kodak and was sent to India, Korea and Thailand to host a series of seminars showcasing his work and helping to launch some new Kodak color transparency films into the market. For the past 10 years he’s been based in Bollywood (Mumbai, India) where he’s a made a lucrative career by creating brilliant fashion and advertising images for major brands and fashion-oriented magazines. An inveterate medium format shooter who was always attracted to the Leica mystique and the superb performance of Leica cameras and lenses, his dream finally came true with the introduction of the Leica S2 and he is now firmly committed to the Leica S-system for the foreseeable future. Here, in his own unvarnished style, is the story of that commitment and how he attained the pinnacle of his profession.
Q: What specific characteristics of the Leica S2 system lead you to conclude that it is so perfecly suited to your work as a fashion photographer that you intend to stick with it for a long time?
A: Although I’m into fashion, I don’t want to be changing my reliable, expensive and beloved camera gear around every couple of years because it’s “out of date” and get a new model that talks a different language — I hate that attitude on the part of most mainstream camera makers. I prefer a faithful workhorse that reward professionals for their investment. Leica finally ventured into the medium format territory — something that I’d been holding out for — and I know that they have developed the S-system that will provide a reliable future. It’s part of the brand identity. I want to know that if I’m paying top dollar for something that in 10 or 20 years time I will still be able to comfortably rely on the equipment to deliver the results I want. Up to this point with the digital revolution I don’t think we have been able to say this and that’s why I used a Mamiya RZ, the last 10 years with a Leaf digital back. I see stability in Leica and in the S-system, and I feel that the S is the pinnacle for the future. There has been talk about how Leica hasn’t released certain S lenses into the market because they aren’t yet 100% up to Leica standard, but this is not a negative for me. It is really comforting to know that Leica is making this system perfect, because when Leica makes something perfect it is impossible to surpass. For me this makes for a sound investment for the future as not much in this system can change for the better apart from firmware upgrades. The 37MP DNG capture is fast and as large as I will ever need professionally, the lenses are amazing for many reasons and the design and user-friendly ergonomics of the camera are very comfortable. With a variety of lenses still to come it’s only going to evolve into a more complete system, so that’s why I decided to jump in now. Honestly the 35mm, 70mm, 120mm and 180mm lenses cater to all my needs already and the CS (leaf shutter) lens option also adds something unique to my fashion work.
Q: Who are some of your clients and please describe a typical fashion assignment that you have completed recently. Aside from pleasing the client, what are some of your goals in executing a fashion assignment to your standards?
A: I’m based in Mumbai, India; however, I shoot a lot of advertising images for ad agencies and direct clients from all around India and abroad. Fashion magazine editorials and covers keep me busy in between the big assignments. When shooting for the magazines I have a distinct style of shooting, but it has variations so I try to give each magazine I regularly shoot for a specific style, which I dedicate only to them. It helps establish their branding and their distinctive look. The same approach goes for ad shoots. You often end up shooting for competitive brands whether it’s sportswear, denims, liquor or soft drinks. A fashion shooter needs to be proactive from the beginning of an assignment — it’s important to invent a unique eye-catching style and then dedicate it to the brand that’s investing in you. Hopefully if your image projection of their product yields good results in the market, the style of photography carries on through future campaigns for that brand. That’s the goal for me when shooting for regular advertising clients. This is something that your best clients want you to achieve for them also. There are many, many brands over the years that have successfully achieved this through their photographer — Benetton and Guess instantly come to mind as good examples
Q: Do you think that part of the reason for your success is that you have an identifiable style or approach? If so, how do you think the Leica S2 fits in with that — for example does it help you achieve the “controlled, but spontaneous” look that so many fashion photographers aspire to?
A: Yes the “controlled but spontaneous” attitude is very important for me — it’s an approach that every photographer who shoots with models must keep in mind from the beginning. I have definitely embraced that way of shooting from an early age and feel that a lot of my images have been noticed because of the additional creativity that occurs in front of the camera once all the other systems are firmly in place. My strength is color and I have always been recognized for having eye-catching images because of my creative use of color. For me black and white imagery seems easy because you are already giving the viewer one less distraction in perceiving the story behind the image. A good shooter has to use color in such a way that it enhances an image rather than destroying it. I think that is why I often build my images in front of the camera, so I can control this element. I keep a Pantone color book in my camera bag and carry it for all my pre-production meetings. It’s often a color that inspires an idea for me — it’s my favorite tool.
Leica lenses have always been talked about not only for their sharpness, but also their ability to reproduce beautiful color. That truly is equally impressive for me. Taking different film stock out of the equation, we now rely on digital to do the right thing by us in terms of reproducing subtle shades and color tones. The S2’s 16-bit DNG files give so much more depth and true tone to some of the trickiest colors that film could never reproduce very well— for example deep jade greens, skin tones, true grays, and blues.
Q: What kind of pictures do you look forward to shooting with your new 120mm Leica lens? Other than the four lenses currently in the S-system line-up what lens do you hope they offer next and why?
A: The 120mm lens is the classic studio fashion lens for full length and half body shooting. The macro feature allows you to focus at a minimum of around two feet onwards so it really lends itself to being a fabulous beauty and hair lens also. The central (leaf) shutter option of shooting with flash at 500th/sec is a great one too. Indeed, this is the feature I’m most looking forward to when shooting energetic full-length fashion images with flash.
The next lens on my wish list would be a wide shift lens. I know it is traditionally an architecture lens, but when I shoot fashion images on location/outdoors with wide-angle lenses I find myself being distracted by background shapes that are distorted due to my camera angle — I like lines to be straight. Shift lenses allow you to shoot models at high and low angles without the usual barreling effect.
I’m also very keen to see a grid-type focusing screen made available for the S2. Since most of my images are “built” in front of the camera, I rely quite heavily on the straight lines and “proportion boxes” in the viewfinder to compose my images.
Q: Since you learned photography in a hands-on way, doing traditional darkroom work, etc., how do you think analog and digital photography compare and why do you find the digital medium so fulfilling?
A: I feel the comparison between film and digital photography is no longer a quality issue, but that each medium has a different feel. I still shoot with film if there is a certain look I’m going for — for example shooting ISO 3200 B&W. Obviously technology has brought so many fantastic opportunities of making photography easier and better, but digital is only an execution tool for me. The making of an image is still a hands-on process that entails quality lighting, building sets and working with talent. Ultimately it’s still a skill that remains old school despite the opportunity to fix or enhance things using Photoshop.
Lighting is photography, so the digital progression with camera capture and post work is just another tool in the kit. The most fulfilling thing about digital is the speed of results and getting to keep each and every frame without having to hand over all the beauty to the agency/client as in the old days of roll film. This was often heartbreaking and put you in the tricky position of cheating the client by keeping the best frames for yourself.
Q: You mentioned that you fooled around with Leica M cameras from time to time. What was that like and does it have anything to do with your current commitment to Leica?
A: It was a bit of a treat really and very limited because those Leicas weren’t mine. I knew the cameras were top of the line, like a Euro sports car. I think all photographers aspire to having Leica as their trusted capture device because of the build quality, incredibly sharp lenses and the aura surrounding the brand. I have never been someone who was interested in labels for the sake of show; however, I have always been interested in quality. At this point in my career, with a lot of hard work behind me, I deserve the best gear I can get my hands on — like the Leica S2. It’s a personal and professional reward that my clients also benefit from.
Thank you, Mr. Centofanti!
-Leica Internet Team
To see more of Darren’s work you can visit his website: http://www.centophoto.com.