Darren Centofanti: Capturing Performance Bikes with the Leica S-System

Darren Centofanti, a native of Adelaide, Australia, is a sought after fashion, advertising and glamour photographer. With over 25 years of professional photography experience, he travels the world on commercial assignments and is currently based in India. His advertising clients include Puma, Adidas, Nokia, Levi’s, Wrangler, Lakme Cosmetics, Smirnoff, UB Group and Reliance. He is also a regular contributor to magazines such as Elle, L’Officiel, Marie Claire, Maxim and FHM. Below, he shares some images from a recent ad campaign featuring cricket legend Jonty Rhodes.

Q: These high quality images were all shot as part of an ad campaign for Montra Performance Cycles. Can you tell us the story behind this assignment and how you came to feature Jonty Rhodes, the famous South African cricketer?

A: Yes, the images were part of an ad campaign featuring Jonty and various Montra performance bikes for TI Cycles India. Jonty is their brand ambassador and a very credible one, especially with people on this side of the planet who are cricket crazy and Jonty being a legend of the game. Regarding Jonty, he is a fit cat and highly adventurous and outdoors spirited too. It’s great to photograph someone who is in prime form, both physically and mentally.

Q: Evidently you shot all but one of these images with the Leica S-System. Which S model and lenses did you use and what specific features and characteristics of this camera (aside from its outstanding image quality) did you find especially useful in executing this assignment?

A: I shot these images with my S2 from 2010. The lens was predominately the 35 mm with some images being shot through the 70 mm also. The S2 is second nature to me, so I approach all my shoots with this accompanying me. If I had to find three good reasons why, I would say the large viewfinder allowing me to see everything in clear detail was critical and the environment was really dirty and dusty so to have a camera that is sealed is also important. Most importantly though, the medium format look and depth in the end result.

Q: This scenic image of Jonty and his bike posed on a rocky shoreline with magnificent side-lighting was taken with a Leica M. Why did you decide to use the Leica M for this shot, and which lens did you use? Do you think that this image has some identifiable quality that differentiates it from the Leica S images in this portfolio, and do you think you could have shot this portfolio using either camera? How would you characterize the different personalities of the S and the M?

A: Yes, this image was the only one which I chose to shoot through my M, with a 35 mm Summarit lens. The day prior to the shoot we went to see locations and light timings, etc. I usually carry my M for this because it is so compact and still gives amazing results when shortlisting the images with the client at the end of the day. The reason I shot this through my M instead of my S is hard to put into words honestly. It’s a vibe, an understanding of the type of image I wanted to create as the final output. The M has a very amazing “lost in time” render quality about it which can manifest a beautiful portrait to almost any image featuring a person. This “postcard landscape portrait” of Jonty needed to have a surreal honesty about it, which the M provides.

For the record, I use an M as a backup camera for my S2. It’s light and compact and allows me to pack a body and three lenses into the same case as my S2 gear. This gives me two different personalities in my camera bag, which is a great feeling going into any shoot. My kit is a Leica S2 with the 35 mm, 70 mm and 120 mm lenses and the Leica M with Summarit 35 mm, Summilux 50 mm, Summicron 90 mm lenses.

Q: How do you think your experience as a Leica Akadamie instructor has influenced your photography? And what advice would you give your students on covering an assignment like this?

A: I don’t think being involved with the Leica Akademie has changed my approach to making images in any way; however, it has been a great experience to meet with other photographers and share their experiences and understanding of Leica lenses, etc.

My method and approach to any shoot has always been the same – good planning and being 90 percent prepared so on the shoot day the remaining 10 percent allows for some spontaneous creativity to creep in and elevate the final image that has already been created in the mind.

Q: How did you go about selecting the location for this shoot, the mountain region of Mahabaleshwar in India, and what do you think made it the perfect place for capturing this portfolio?

A: It needed to be close to Mumbai because Jonty had some other commitments on his short India visit. Mahabaleshwar is about five hours drive from Mumbai, give or take an hour based on the steep roads climbing up the narrow mountain roads. We wanted an extreme type of location that still involved roads because the client manufactures road bikes as well as cross country mountain bikes.

Q: You noted that these images were retouched slightly in post-production and that you added some warm tone. Aside from cleaning them up, what were some of the other enhancements you implied, and why did you decide to add the warm tone?

A: These images are predominately for the Indian market, where the sun and heat shines for 11 months in a year, so that is part of the reason I gave the warm tone to the images. The heat tone subliminally makes the workout he is doing on the bike look harder, tougher and more extreme. Jonty’s skin and hair tones are warm also, so it made sense since we are featuring their brand ambassador to go with the colour tones that enhance him and the activity best.

Also, slight retouching was needed only … we are talking about a real character of a man here who only needs to be seen as he is naturally to make an impression.

Q: One reason this image is so fascinating and dynamic is the tension between the oblique angle of the bicycle, the line of the road, and the way both interact with the horizontal line of the mountains in the background. Also the dramatic side lighting makes the subject pop off the background. Do you agree with these observations, and were you consciously aware of and trying to control all these elements or did you simply press the shutter release when you saw what you wanted in the viewfinder?

A: It was a tricky location but all the angles, lines and depth in the background were visually fantastic and I had to shoot there. Despite it being the main road into Mahabaleshwar, I was lying flat on the road with a sharp corner behind me. The locals of Mahabaleshwar know this hill well and turn their motorbike engines off when descending, which made for some scary moments of quiet bikes gliding past us at top speeds and lots of trucks too.

Visually, riding on roads is considered relatively safe, so to give an extreme look to the workout we needed some contrast lighting and the angle of the bike needed to look like it was being pushed hard to get up the hill. Which is all true and being the first shot of the day I was a little worried about thrashing our brand ambassador. The image was shot on minimal focus f/4, which is tricky with movement. I had a chalk cross on the ground which my assistant would scream out when to press the button. My other assistant was covering my butt from the traffic coming from behind me. We also had a production boy running through the background with a smoke machine to soften the background tones slightly and add atmosphere, hence the crispness of the tones on Jonty allowing him to pop off the background. It’s always a team effort.

Q: These two shots were obviously taken with the bike in motion and convey the visceral sensation of riding. However, based on the exquisite detail in the spokes of the wheels and the legs of the rider, it’s obvious that they were taken at a high shutter speed. Will you please provide the tech data for these images? Also why did you decide to freeze the action instead of possibly shooting at a slower speed to emphasize the feeling of motion?

A: The image on the left: f/16 @ 125/sec 35 mm lens and the image on the right: f/5.6 @ 125/sec 35 mm lens.

The bike and Jonty weren’t actually moving; for a number of reasons (maximum bike detail, minimal focus point, sun position behind the subject, etc.), I chose to shoot both subjects static. I was shooting with a mix of flash and sunlight. I wanted the flash position on Jonty to be consistent in every image, so that there was a shadow of the helmet around the eyes (more extreme looking). Jonty would put both feet up onto the pedals and as he was starting to tip over I would press the button, giving him just enough time to put his foot down and rescue himself and the bike.

In the left image, the soft fluffy weed positioned behind the back wheel was intentional. When I did my recon I noticed that this particular little weed looked like a puff of dust and was much lighter in tone and softer in texture compared to the other weeds around it. So now you know all my tricks!

Q: This is really a classic environmental portrait showing Jonty Rhodes astride his Montra road bike and it is the only image in the set that conveys something of his personality — self-assured, competent, confident, and focused. Do you agree with this assessment, and what did you do to get him to reveal himself in this way?

A: You have described Jonty to a T and everybody sees him this way. I would also like to add that he is one of the nicest and most humble guys you could ever meet, despite his legendary status in the cricket world. I have known Jonty as a mate for a few years, so it was quite easy to get him to convey his natural attitude towards me and my camera. I have photographed Serena Williams in the past and she is another with very similar characteristics.

Q: What do you think you accomplished in creating this portfolio, do you think you fulfilled the assignment, and what was the reaction of the client in seeing these images?

A: The client was a big part of the shoot, and it’s always a team effort so I think everybody was very happy with how the images unfolded during the day. From my end, I love the images and I’m really proud of them. I had a very clear idea on how I wanted to capture the performance of the various bikes along with the personality of Jonty – all went according to plan.

Q: How do you see your work, both personal and commercial, evolving over the next three years? Do you plan to explore any other photographic genres such as landscapes, architecture, etc? And can you tell us anything about future projects that are on your agenda for 2015 and beyond?

A: I have a bunch of shoots lined up in the next month which are taking me to some really exciting locations; beyond that I don’t think much further. Honestly I don’t like to talk too much about things I haven’t done yet. I like to do the work first before I open my mouth. The next phone call could professionally change my entire direction for the future; that’s the life and mindset of a freelance photographer really.

Thank you for your time, Darren!

– Leica Internet Team

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