The View from Above Toni Felsner shoots medium format aerial photography with the Leica S

Medium format photography is a world unto itself. While offering a true-to-life perspective, the detailed intricacy of medium format images often goes far beyond our ability to appreciate that, which we see around us. The Leica S sets the bar when it comes to quality and sharpness, producing images that captivate. We caught up with product manager Toni Felsner, who shared with us his series of medium format aerial photos, shot with the Leica S, and spoke about the beauty of our world when viewed from above, as well as the meditative effect of viewing such wonderfully intricate images.

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You are product manager for the Leica S but how did you first get into photography?

Back in the day I was fascinated by skate and snowboard photography – American magazines like Thrasher and Transworld – a lot of fish-eye lenses, hard strobes and a rough authentic street style. I decided to do my studies in Image Engineering and Media Technologies at the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne Germany, as a perfect mix of hands-on photography, engineering and marketing. At the same time, I started working as an assistant and digital operator for some great photographers, which was a good time for me. I learned about all aspects of photography, composing and lighting and worked with many different medium and large format camera systems. Most importantly, I got in touch with Leica M rangefinder photography for the first time, which is quite challenging in the beginning when you’re just familiar with SLRs.

How would you describe your photography and who or what has influenced your style?

Actually, I shoot everything I find interesting. In this case I found the “landscapes from above” series very timeless and meditative – everyday issues seem completely relative when you look at things from a wider perspective.

Nevertheless, portrait photography is definitely my favorite subject – it’s a great thing to make people look beautiful, just the way they are. I’m definitely not a street photographer but I try to combine technical photographic knowledge and light techniques with spontaneous reaction to a scene. A very good photographer once told me that if you want to get better “you just have to look, look and look”. So I always look around in all directions, from photography legends such as Sander or Newton to contemporary masters like Meisel, Klein or D’Orazio, as well as the high speed photo consumption on Instagram.

Where does your passion for black and white photography come from?

To put it simply, I just like the reduction of human vision to gray tones. For me, it reveals the essential nature of the subject.

What is it about medium format photography that you appreciate the most?

I can mainly comment on the medium format camera I use most of the time – the Leica S.

I really love that the images appear quite organic – almost analog – not simply a uniform electronic formation of pixels.

For me, the images I shoot with the Leica S seem to have a real soul to them. The photos are extremely deep because of the high dynamic range and the intense sharpness fall off at open aperture. These are factors that create the signature Leica bokeh and separation of different levels within a single image.

How did you capture the aerial shots of various geographical features? And how did you manage to create such depth to your images?

I rented a helicopter and huge strobes! No, I spend some time in planes and normally I try to get a window seat because I’m really fascinated by the view of our beautiful planet from above. The depth is created by the light and the contrast of the actual colors and the surface structure – the reduction to dark gray tones amplifies the whole effect. Remember the “day-for-night” effects of old Italo-Western movies? I really love these twilight moods.

Shooting from a plane at open apertures requires certain capabilities from your camera. How is it shooting with the autofocus of the Leica S in such conditions?

It is no problem to shoot an aerial with a Summarit S 70/2.5 at at least 5.6. It is definitely a harder challenge if you shoot close-up portraits with open aperture with a Summicron S 100/2.0. The photographer has to maintain a high level of concentration to be precise because of the extremely shallow depth of field, similar to that of large format photography. Having said all that, I really rely on the Leica S autofocus.

When framing your compositions from these aerial perspectives, do you favor the viewfinder or display? And why?

The direct and most important connection between photographer and subject is the viewfinder. I’m definitely not a display photographer. Maybe this is because I started photography back in analog times. Besides this, the Leica S optical viewfinder is so large and brilliant that I prefer it over an electronic display on the back.

Some of the images in this series work with the abstraction of your subjects, to the point where the images themselves could be described as abstract tonal compositions. How much of this effect is created in the post-editing process? And how do you go about editing your work?

Unfortunately, I’m not extremely patient with post-production so I try to keep it straight and simple. I use Adobe Lightroom to fine-tune exposure, contrast and cropping – creating something you might term a look or style but I do not Photoshop my compositions, adding or erasing objects or replacing the skin structure of portraits.

An undeniable advantage to medium format photography lies in the production of large-scale prints. Do you print your work? And how much do you consider the final physical form your images may take while shooting?

I love the visual impact of large prints and medium format photography creates some really powerful results. There’s something special about viewing a 2m x 2m print. You can get kind of lost in the detail. It’s a meditative way to view photographs and you can lose track of time while viewing the intricacy of a single shot – it never gets boring. These aerials made with Leica S are so rich in detail that Instagram is not really the right medium to show the full effect of the images.

You obviously travel a lot with the Leica S. How is it shooting and traveling with the camera?

I really enjoy having the camera with me. I know that it’s worth it because of the superior quality, which still manages to impress me again and again. For that reason I consider myself very lucky to work for Leica. I think you have to use your product heavily to know it inside and out and to make it better and better. Of course, I also use other Leica cameras like the Leica M, Leica Q or Leica SL too, depending on the occasion.

The “Leica look” is a hard-to-define characteristic of not just your photography but also so many of the iconic images taken with Leica cameras over the years. How would you describe this aesthetic?

I think what the Leica community calls “the Leica look” is based on the fact that Leica develop all disciplines in-house. Beginning with the lens design to the development of the imaging sensor and the imaging pipeline and the color characterization. The Leica Look is a combination of extreme clarity and sharpness, natural color and skin tone reproduction and of course the depth of the images and the Leica signature bokeh. Leica S is definitely the flagship of the Leica look.

What can we look forward to seeing from the Leica S-System in the near future?

At Leica we have been working very closely with photographers and assistants for many years now and we have a very hands-on approach to our products, which means we can source a lot of innovative ideas directly from the field. You can be certain that there are many great things on the product roadmap and in the development pipeline. All I can say is that we can’t wait to show them to the community.

Finally, what advice would you offer to anyone interested in exploring medium format photography?

The only problem with medium format photography is that if you get used to the quality you will never be satisfied with anything less!

 

You can see a combination of Toni’s aerial, street and portrait photography on his Instagram.

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