Alex Dani, born in 1984, first picked up a disposable camera at the age of 15 and worked his way to becoming a full-time professional photographer four years ago. He attended the Victor Marushchenko School of Photography in Ukraine and has worked with clients such as L’Occitane, Fnac, illy, Nasha Karta and Top Media Communication. He splits his time between Spain and Ukraine. In this interview, Alex elaborates on the purpose of his photography, which, as he describes, “is to capture real moments and real people.”
Q: You last appeared on the Leica Camera blog in March 2011. What have you been up to professionally since then? How do you think your portraits have evolved over this period?
A: For the last two years, I participated in more than 200 photo sessions. I worked on my technique, my understanding of light and improving my photo skills. I’ve collaborated with Spanish event agencies, Ukrainian advertising agencies and photo studios.
I think I now manage to have more good photos from each shoot. My portraits are neater, more soft light. I always use an assistant now and very often parents are involved in the shoot. I give more commands, like what to say to the kid, when to give him an ice cream, etc. We work faster, sometimes we can do the whole photo session in 10 minutes. Also it is easier for me to take photos of two, three or even more kids at the same time. I just know what to do and I can predict child’s behavior.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: Vivid and colorful, 100 percent lifestyle. I enjoy taking beautiful shots, in which children look natural. And many years later when a child grows up, I want him to look at his photo taken by me and say, “Wow, I was such a lovely kid”.
Q: What are some of the challenges you find when shooting children?
A: Children are unpredictable. One day we can shoot for 10 minutes, the other for two hours. The child’s mood calls the tune. You can’t be prepared for what may happen or not during the shooting. I love my job; it’s never boring!
A: I am a very conservative photographer. I tried a lot of cameras, looking for the one that would really suit my needs. The moment I found the M-System, I was absolutely satisfied.
Let me explain what is so special about it. Focusing – I don’t need autofocus, because it is too slow for me, especially when shooting kids. I always focus on eyes or eyelids, only manually you can get that. Also, the skin on a baby is different from an adult, so sometimes I misfocus on purpose and Leica glass makes skin even smoother. That only works with children portraits, but I like the result. Kids run and move a lot. My assistant, with a reflector in his hands, and I have to change positions, move, run – we always need to be in front of the child.
The most important is the smile and natural look of a child, so I have to change the shutter speed as fast as possible. I can feel the shutter dial without looking at it. I always use the same aperture – wide open, to blur the background. A year ago I read an article about Leica lenses saying that they are better on wide open aperture, while the other brands produce better results when stopped down. So I guess intuitively I found the better option for me. When I use the Leica M-System for advertisement work – it is the reverse – the aperture closed and the same shutter speed. It is really easy to use a Leica M9 in studio because of its CCD sensor – the details are excellent, you can be close to the model, the camera is small and handsome, there are no barriers, nothing disturbs.
Q: You noted that when you use your Leica M9 to create advertising images in the studio you shoot at stopped-down (smaller) apertures rather than wide open, but at the same shutter speed. Is this because you want greater depth of field or enhanced detail to create another kind of look for your clients? Can you give us a brief description of one of your typical studio lighting setups?
A: The magazine requirements mean greater depth of field, you need f/8 and more. The Leica 90 mm f/2.5 lens has very small depth of field and in an advertisement photo you need to have all objects be very sharp.
Studio shooting implies professional models, because it can go on for hours. A regular child can’t sit for more than five minutes in front of the camera. Children need to move and play, but you can’t move strobes at the same speed as their movement. So I prefer to either use less strobes for shooting or use professional kid models. For advertising images, I use different lighting setups. Everything depends on the task, but the main rule is the softer the light, the better.
Q: All but one of the charming child portraits in your portfolio were shot in the vertical orientation with the subject pretty well centered in the frame, yet they show a remarkable diversity. How do you manage to capture such individuality of expression while using a relatively standardized shooting technique? Do you talk to or interact with the children or encourage them in any way or are you more or less an observer who simply watches what they do and waits for the perfect moment?
A: I know what children like to do, how they play games, their reactions to teddy bears. My purpose as a photographer is to create a relaxed atmosphere and be nearby with my camera, while bearing light and exposure in mind. It is only a matter of time until the children will show their individuality. Children are always sincere. It is easy to take photos of them. The difficult part is the parents and not letting them interfere in the process of shooting.
Q: Another aspect of this group of portraits is the beautifully soft lighting that complements your young subjects perfectly. Do you simply look for ideal natural lighting situations and backgrounds? And what do you ask your “assistant with the reflector” to do in order to achieve the kind of lighting effects you want?
A: The assistant with the reflector is actually my brother. We have mutual confidence and an understanding of what to do in every second of the shoot. He knows how the light works and can be a pretty good photographer by himself. We have to take photos of children in almost any conditions and weather, because our shooting depends on the mood of the child and his or her biological clock. Some children are more active in the morning, others need a good rest and breakfast and only then they will smile and pose.
I noticed one of the Leica M9 peculiarities – when I take nice shots while the sky is cloudy, it converts into one big softbox and it is especially nice for baby skin when the aperture is wide open. The trick does not work so with adults. Also, we like to take photos when there are clouds and the sun goes in and then appears again. We have several seconds of perfect light. If the sun is bright, then my assistant has more work to do. He has to move alongside me to catch light in the direction of the child. Children’s eyes are not so sensitive to the light and when we use a reflector they can even smile looking at this big round thing.
A: The one child was being quite naughty and the mother said that some food would cheer him up. I’ve never ever seen a child eat so accurately and deliciously. My assistant and I wanted some rest, but the child began to eat with the fork. It was amazing. I picked up my camera, my brother grabbed the reflector and we just waited for the perfect moment.
The other photo was more difficult. The child wanted to go to the fountain and his parents obliged. I had to get my feet wet in order to get the shot. The child looked into the water for a while and then started to splash it. I did not have much time so I had to raise the ISO and use a slower shutter, because my assistant didn’t have time to reach me and obviously did not want to get wet. I was lucky to have his head sharp, and everything else a bit blurred. I think it is a very touching photo.
Q: This one horizontal image in your child portrait portfolio shows a young blond-haired boy in blue holding a green apple and looking up with a priceless expression of bliss and bemusement. What, if anything, did you do to capture that expression, and what does this picture say to you personally?
A: As you might have noticed, I like to take photos of children while they are eating. Every child has their favorite food. The boy in this photo really liked apples. There was a plate on the table full of apples and I knew it was only a matter of time until he would ask for one. We put the table and his chair a bit closer to the window, in order to have more light on his face. When finally he grabbed an apple, I just took some shots. He had red shoes on his feet, but the color of his shoes was a bit distracting so I decided to concentrate only on his emotion and take a horizontal photo. I believe this photo shows the sheer bliss and happiness. The children always remind us how many good things are in our world, we just need to remember it.
A: I think a child’s behavior is a reflection of the parents, especially during the first years of their life. The father of the younger girl (in the photo on the left) is a musician, producer and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. His child is active and impish. The mother of the other girl (in the photo on the right) is a very sincere and understanding person, but at the same time works a lot and has business acumen. Her child is clever beyond her years, serious and obedient. She listened to all my commands, the perfect model. But we found out that she has one weakness – teddy bears. She was quite happy when we gave her one. This is the first shot of the series. I let children do what they like or what parents forbid them to do. I want a child to be all smiles and eyes shining with happiness.
Q: How do you see your work evolving over, say, the next three years or so?
A: I want to concentrate on what I do best – showing true emotions. I want to take Zara Kids ad campaigns, editorials for Vogue Enfants and other European magazines. It would be nice to find an agent or agency that’s interested in my approach and style. We shall see what we shall see.
Thank you for your time, Alex!
– Leica Internet Team