Darren Centofanti: The Leica S Experience

An acclaimed Australian fashion photographer creates his own vibrant reality using his innate playfulness and ingenuity…and being in the moment.

A native of Adelaide, Australia, Darren Centofanti exhibited an early passion for photography and 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’d became a full-time freelancer and for the past 10 years he’s been based in Bollywood (Mumbai, India) where he’s a made a lucrative career creating brilliant fashion and advertising images for major brands and fashion-oriented magazines.

An inveterate medium format shooter enchanted by the Leica mystique and impressed with the superb performance of Leica lenses, he became an ardent proponent of the Leica S2 and is now firmly committed to the Leica S-System for all his professional work. Not surprisingly, he jumped at the chance when offered the opportunity to put the exciting new Leica S through its paces at photokina, and actually used the camera on assignment for PUMA, the iconic sportswear company. Here, in his charmingly unvarnished style, is the story of that assignment that provides some remarkable insights into his creative process.

Q: The images of attractive young models frozen in mid-jump for the PUMA Wilderness shoot  remind us of Philippe Halsman’s famous series of jumping celebrities. Was the fast sync speeds possible with the new S series CS lenses a factor in taking these shots, or did you use some other technique?

A: Definitely the new CS lenses were the inspiration behind the shoot concept for PUMA’S Wilderness garment range. From day one, I was very keen on the CS lenses. When the opportunity came to test drive these new lenses that were launched at photokina, I jumped at the chance and so did the models! Being able to shoot fashion images with crisp clarity at 1/1000 sec is a great tool to have for studio work, but even better for shooting outdoors and mixing sunlight with flash. The restrictions and equations of shutter speed vs. flash vs. ambient sunlight are no longer complicated and restrictive.

Q: Part of the dynamism of your jumping pictures lies in the fact that the top of the image is so closely cropped at the top that a small portion of the subjects’ heads is missing. We assume this was intentional, but can you share some of the thoughts behind it?

A: Yes, it was totally intentional. Visually it just looks right to see somebody with space underneath them when they’re jumping, and it adds more energy and life to see the subject’s head just at the top of frame with a bigger space underneath—it’s the true story. Besides this was a shoot about the clothes and shoes, so why do we need heads!

The freedom of jumping with so much space in the frame was very important for our PUMA Wilderness shoot. We also wanted to represent an African element to the images without doing anything obvious with real life locations or props. Putting a scribble sketch onto the image post shoot tells a story that’s quirky and fun. It’s a work in progress situation so I can only share one image completed at this point. The illustration work was done by Flutterby design based in Bangalore, India.

PUMA is a unique company that works with creative individuals to produce creative with passion, and I’ve been lucky to work with them on many projects over the past few years. This was another good opportunity to do something different for a company that has its creative heart and soul in the right place, much as Leica does also.

Q. The jumping images you shot for Puma are great. What were you trying to achieve with them?

A: It just came out that way because I couldn’t find a better way to express life and spontaneity in a studio space. One thing about jumping is people don’t have their guard up,they are so busy physically and in the mind at the point of jumping that you get a very free real expression. A certain life enters into the models hair, face, body language and garments that isn’t controlled, which happened in this case. My concept was simple–get the models in the air, then advance the true storyline of the “brief” with a touch of Africa that adds some quirkiness and fun which is relevant.
Q: Your previous Rukinga shoot for PUMA is not the kind of venue usually considered ideal for a typical medium-format camera. What did you expect from the Leica S2 based on your experience?

A: The camera performed magnificently as I was hoping and expecting. I shot everything with the S system; it’s awesome to have such a portable medium format unit in these environments. I definitely tested the weather proof abilities with a lot of red dust and unpredictable rain!

As always before a big shoot abroad, I was a little nervous. What if something goes wrong with my gear, etc? I deal a lot with the Leica Asia Pacific office because I’m based in India and Australia. I got in touch with them before my trip and expressed my nervousness about going into the middle of Kenya without support — something that I have become very accustomed to with Leica. The team in Singapore assured me that they had my back wherever I went worldwide, and if I had any issues to call them for a quick resolution. The personalized service and warmth these guys give me on a regular and reliable basis is well beyond the cost of the camera. It’s gold.

Q: It is clear that PUMA is a company that places a high value on environmental sustainability and fair trade practices that provide economic opportunity for indigenous people in Africa. How important is that to you personally, and how do you think you can convey this in the images you shoot for them?

A: The images I shot for the “Rukinga” project in Kenya were very honest, all shot with natural light and there was no retouching of the images that appear on the website. The Leica “magic” lenses added a feel to the images – that was enough. Also, we worked closely with the people in the images to honestly capture what was really going on down there with the improvements that PUMA were making to the community thru Wildlife Works. You can see my “Rukinga Story” images on pumalovethyplanet.com

Q: How do you think the images on your African Wilderness shoot for Puma will differ in terms of content and emotional expression from your previous work, and how do you see your mission on this fascinating assignment?

A: Usually when I make images I spend a lot of time composing and building in front of the camera. The Rukinga shoot was the opposite; it was about capturing real moments without intruding into the space or changing the story of “real life” that was unfolding in front of me.

Q: These beauty images you shot with the new Leica S at photokina could broadly be called fine art fashion. Do you agree? Do you think the performance and handling characteristics facilitated this kind of shoot?

A: Fine art fashion does sound fancy, but I see it as a bit of fun at the end of a big day of commercial shooting! But on a serious note, the mystical nature of these beauty images is driven solely by the lens’ abilities more than the camera’s. All images were shot with the 180mm wide open at f/3.5. My intention was to test the new Elpro S close-up attachment, but my head-to-shoulders crop didn’t require it. Shooting with a medium format with the lens wide open, I was able to create extreme sharpness at the plane of focus, with beautiful “Leica glass” softness and blur in the other areas. Since it’s a long lens, the falloff was immediate and surreal even in areas very close to the sharp zone. This visual contrast gives the subject greater depth.

Q: The platinum-haired female model you used for the beauty images is very striking. She doesn’t really look like Marilyn Monroe, but there is something of Marilyn’s style and freewheeling impish spirit in her poses and expressions. Who is she and what were you trying to achieve?

A: The face in these images is a German model named Belinda Roedl and her makeup artist was Marta Santorova. Marilyn Monroe is old school and too sweet! Here I see more of a resemblance to Angelina Jolie in Belinda’s looks and character, especially her lips. Belinda has such a fabulous face for beauty work with her perfect form and variety of expressions. Her hair also was very flexible for styling despite being short, so we were able to achieve many different looks just by playing with it. Images of this kind are always a team effort. Ultimately, I’m capturing their art (makeup and model) with a twist from my side. These images were shot after the PUMA Wilderness shoot. We had an hour up our sleeve and everybody was keen to keep going on a different vibe. Some of the Leica boys were in the studio with beers and a few jokes, and there was a birthday in the room, so it became one of those fun shoots that create good energy.

Q: Why do you always shoot with the camera held in the horizontal orientation?

A: Well not always, maybe 90% of the time. With a medium format 37.5 megapixel sensor,you can afford to chop some and still have a big file. You can’t really crop a vertical into horizontal but it works beautifully the other way around. In my opinion the future trend of imagery is going horizontal – computers, billboards, hand held devices etc…so it’s best to start banking up on horizontal imagery asap. We see life in horizontal so it’s an easy concept to understand. I do like to shoot to crop though, I must admit. I need to see that finished piece when I’m making it.

Q: Did you have the opportunity to use the new S camera for any other assignments during or after your Photokina shoot, and what is you overall impression of the system, including the lenses?

A: No, I haven’t had the new S in my hands since that glorious day at photokina! However I did get to shoot 2 different sets of images with the camera on that occasion so I feel quite happy and honored to have been given that opportunity since the camera was pre-production. In the course of my day at photokina with the new S, I noticed the following improvements:

* The new CS lenses are fantastic and are clearly a “fast fascination” for fashion shooters like me.

* Option jpeg sizes that include smaller resolution files for giving to clients post shoot. I never trusted giving them the high-resolution versions!

* The new menu format is cleaner and simpler to navigate, though this is minor considering that the S2 menu was already quite simple.

* The ISO options have changed to film increments like 100, 200 etc. and the ISOs now go up to 1600, an improvement from the S2 that only went to 1250.

* The new flash sync cord system plugs into the side of the camera with the safety lock, a cool feature and something that works really well for studio photographers. Radio slaves are good but not always reliable, especially at high speed like 1/1000 sec when shooting flash. Cables are more direct and faster.

* For location shooters the GPS system integrated into the camera is actually a pretty cool feature for their image information and organizing. I would imagine this to be very useful for press and wildlife shooters who have a massive catalogue of images but can’t always place exactly where the images were shot.

Q: Do you find that combining photography and fashion results in a fulfilling experience for you personally?

A: Yes, and that’s why I’ve been doing it for almost 25 years! I started working for a professional studio at the age of 15. I left school at the end of year 11 to pursue a new life in a studio, which gave me the real education for what I do today. As for the business aspect, I’m learning every day. I don’t feel like I’m that good at it, but I guess I know I’m smart enough to survive.

Q: Can you say something about the ruggedness and durability of the Leica S on the basis of your field experience?

A: Well I haven’t done anything stupid yet, but I was hosting a Leica workshop in China where we really put it through its paces. It was very impressive and weird to see a bottle of water poured over the camera without any damage or ill effects. It makes total sense in this day and age to have a weatherproof camera and it took someone like Leica to make it happen. It’s great peace of mind for my investment.

Q: Many people have spoken about the outstanding bokeh of Leica lenses, an unquantifiable deliciousness in the out-of-focus areas of the image that’s one of the advantages of shooting with medium format in general. Do you have any comment on this?

A: Yes, medium format is special and combined with the famous Leica bokeh, it’s that indefinable quality that made these beauty images uniquely beautiful. And it’s only really captured though lenses with great glass that allow you to shoot wide open.

Thank you for your time, Darren!

- Leica Internet Team

Learn more about Darren on his website.