Jonas Bendiksen: Going to Extremes to Capture The Passion

Jonas Bendiksen, a Norwegian born in 1977, began his career at the age of nineteen as an intern in Magnum’s London office before leaving for Russia to pursue his passion for photojournalism. Over the years much of his work has focused on isolated communities living on the fringes of society. He has received worldwide recognition and numerous awards, and has been working regularly for National Geographic since 2004, the same year he joined Magnum. Here is the story of his amazing, heartfelt adventure photographing extreme skiing at Chamonix with what he thought was an unlikely camera: the formidable medium-format Leica S2.

Shoot details:

  • Location: Chamonix, France
  • Altitude: 3,800 meters
  • Snow Conditions: A meter and a half of powder
  • Intrepid Skiers: Bruno Compagnet and Giuliano Bordon

Q: These are spectacular and thrilling images shot at Chamonix in the French Alps, where the iconic Mont Blanc is located. Would you call the subject you’re covering here extreme skiing?

A: It’s called free ride skiing and it’s definitely in the category of extreme sports for sure. All the peaks around there are used for this type of skiing.

Q: Was this project an assignment or did you come up with this idea on your own?

A: It was an idea that was inspired by my personal passion for skiing combined with Leica’s concept of showcasing the effectiveness of the Leica S-series in extreme environments where medium-format digital cameras have not typically been used before. A lot of people think of the S2 primarily as a studio camera and initially, the S-system did make its first mark in the studio world.

Q: In other words, your mission was to establish the credibility of the S2 in high-speed action, harsh environments?

A: Put it this way: I’m a reportage photographer and when I heard that the S-series was rugged and durable and would stand up to adverse weather conditions, my first instinct was that it would be a great camera to use for reportage. Then I thought to myself, “What’s the worst case scenario for using a camera? What are the worst and harshest conditions? High altitude, fast action, wet, cold and icy. Let’s take the plunge!”

Q: Well, they say the Leica S2 handles like a 35mm-based DSLR. Is that part of the equation?

A: It is a digital medium-format SLR, but you can shoot it like any DSLR.

Q: I viewed the awesome video of your Chamonix shoot, and to see you wiping off the camera covered in snow says a lot. I don’t think too many other medium-format cameras could withstand such treatment.

A: That’s true, but we were doing that stuff for seven to eight days consecutively. It’s dangerous for cameras. And so is changing from outside to inside environments: from extreme cold to inside the hotel downloading the images. It withstood these temperature changes without any problems at all. I had a back-up body but I never touched it.

Q: Which lenses did you bring and which ones did you favor for this assignment?

A: I had lenses with me — the 35,70, 120, and 180mm — and I made good use of all of them. I was switching the lenses quite often to cover everything from close action (within a half meter) to long shots of cliff faces.

Q: Which lenses did you use most often?

A: The 35mm is the one I used the most. For this type of photography you need a compact way of working because you have to throw the camera over your shoulder and ski downhill. The 35 and the 70mm saw the most use and they worked fine. When addressing the challenges of focusing and working fast, those two lenses worked extremely well in that regard.

Q: You’ve worked with a lot of top-tier professional cameras. What do you think of the Leica S-system in terms of image quality?

A: In general, I’m a 35mm kind of guy — I don’t normally use medium format in my work. I guess I thought that there wouldn’t be that big of a difference between one camera and the next. But, when I went through the files at the end of the day, I was pretty blown away. With the S2, the level of detail is almost absurd. You can see a guy from 200 meters away, and when you zoom in you can read the writing on his skis. If you frame it right, you can see even see individual flakes of snow from 100 meters away. I was pretty blown away by the resolution.

The color performance was also outstanding. I like simple photography — not too much Photoshop. I’m a straight shooter and thinking back about post-production of the files, it was very light and easy. The raw files and all of these other elements like the color palette worked well together, so the workflow was easier and the workload was lighter. This is something I really appreciate. When you’re doing this kind of work you want to get it right from the start without requiring too much messing around.

Q: How about the tonal gradation?

A: As I said, post-production-wise, it’s very efficient. The files and color palette were accurate, so it didn’t require much trickery to make it happen. The images also have very fine gradation both in the highlights and shadows. It takes a lot to blow out the highlights completely, and in this environment you have a lot of light, and capturing all of this information is essential.

Q: Your Chamonix images certainly constitute a compelling documentary of an amazing sport in a phenomenal place, but they also convey a strong feeling of the actual experience. In other words, they transcend the genre. Can you comment on this?

A: Skiing is a passion of mine. I think anyone who’s involved in skiing can relate to this personal involvement when viewing these images, which are pretty strong in capturing these elements. Being able to photograph in this landscape in nature is really something and that is what I was hoping to capture.

Q: In other words, you really have to be passionate about extreme skiing to really appreciate and capture images like this.

 A: Yes, we were off the grid in far away locations. We had to climb and go on foot to get to the peaks. Everything is happening quite fast and you can’t scout out everything beforehand. You’re improvising all the way.

Q: We would imagine that the viewfinder is a critical element in being able to capture fast-moving subjects in a challenging environment with such precision. What are your impressions of the S2’s viewfinder?

A: The view in the viewfinder is quite big and clear. Because you have so much room to play with in composing the picture you not only have to know what you’re doing, but you also have to trust the people you’re with. You obviously can’t just step into this territory without the right crew. Local knowledge and experience are essential. The skiers themselves have being skiing there for decades.

Q: Can you tell us how you took the incredible picture of a skier holding his skis?

A: You can see we were at pretty high altitude there. It was at the very end of the day and the sunlight was golden — the last light of the afternoon before it gets dark. You want to wait for good light, but you have to get down off the mountain before it gets dark. Here, we were firing off the last shots of the day. Giuliano Bordon, an Italian top-level skier, hiked up there with his skis. Untouched powder snow is what it’s about — that and finding a sweet spot with the good stuff.

Q: Another great image shows a skier who appears to be falling almost vertically amidst a shower of snow. It’s very exciting and looks like a freeze-frame taken at a high shutter speed. Can you tell us something about it? 

A: Like I said, all of this action happens at really high speeds, and you need a really precise system to capture it effectively. When the guys are dropping, the entire action takes half a second at most. There’s no room for error. You need a camera that does exactly what you expect it to do.

Q: Did you use autofocus or manual focus to capture these images?

A: Manual; never autofocus. You have to. The thing about shooting any extreme sport is that you have to know the sport somewhat, because you have to be able to anticipate what the guy is going to do. You don’t have time to figure it out — you just have to know.

You pre-conceive where the movements are going to be — a right turn there, he’ll spray snow in this direction — and with that knowledge, you have to make decision before the action even occurs. You have to pre-focus on that spot — there’s no time to autofocus in that spot. Then he comes down and I hit the shutter button.

Q: What ISOs did you shoot at?

A: Everything up to 640; I didn’t go above that because I want to get the best the camera can deliver. Also, with a medium format system you don’t have the luxury of firing off fourteen frames per second. Very often you only have one or two shots maximum per sequence and you’re depending on things happening when they’re supposed to. Yes, it’s fast enough to shoot this kind of action, but you also have to work in a very targeted way.

Q: There’s a very exciting and graphic image that shows a bright sunburst just over the peak and there’s no visible flare even though you shot directly into the sun. Do you think this is a testament to the quality of the optics?

A: For sure. There’s no doubt these lenses are impressive pieces of glass that provide outstanding definition. You can have a file with lots of megapixels, but if the glass doesn’t capture the details, it doesn’t help at all. I was pretty impressed at the level of detail captured by a pretty wide lens. It’s sharp, resolves fine details, and was fun to work with. As I said, I’m a 35mm kind of guy often, and for me it was really fun to work with this system. There’s a big difference.

Q: It seems like a lot of this work entails waiting for the perfect shot. Do you think that’s true?

A: I would put it somewhat differently. This kind photography combines location, lighting, shape and movement. I’m not interested in simply documenting this guy moving from A to B; it’s all about creating an image that speaks to something about the energy and spirit of what these guys are doing. What I’m trying to capture is the passion that animates this subculture of extreme skiing.

All of that falls into place in the movement and energy that unfolds in front of your camera. You don’t take that off the shelf. You have to go to the place to analyze what lines are going to be skied. It’s a patience game. You don’t just fire off a million shots and hope for the best. It’s about finding the right places and waiting for the right situation to happen.

Q: There’s a fantastically dynamic diagonal composition in your picture of a skier coming down from the extreme upper left-hand corner of the frame. It looks so spontaneous, but was it carefully planned?

A: That was a pretty unique one actually. We found this slope, the lighting was good, the background was good, and it was the exact place that I wanted to do this diagonal composition. I felt that the energy in this photo would work best by having the guy in the upper left. The challenge was that this entailed having the skier move at great speed outside the frame and then freeze just as he enters the frame.

The action was all happening at incredible speed — a big challenge right there — so I couldn’t take the image using a very precise technical approach. I had someone beside me — essentially a spotter — count down as the skier approached. We actually marked the place when he’d enter my field of view. I had to guesstimate . . . then I hit the trigger. Miraculously, it worked, and I got him right where I wanted him.

Q: Based on your experience with the camera, do you plan to undertake more projects with the S2?

A: Actually, I’ve already done some new projects with the S-series together with Leica, documenting other extreme activities. We’ll probably see some more of those pictures coming up soon.

Q: Did you ever shoot with other Leica equipment, such as the M-series rangefinder cameras?

A: No, actually. I’ve held a Leica M in my hands but I’ve never shot with one.

Q: Are you pleased with the overall results you have achieved so far?

A: Yes, I’m pleased with the results. The challenge of creating this kind of extreme sports imagery with a medium format system, which isn’t that common for this type of project, is energizing. The best part is that I had to try to capture not just the technical description of skiing, but the wild imagery that conveys the subculture of free ride skiing to those who have never experienced it themselves.

Together with Leica, we’re making a small exhibition that will be on display in the fall at Photokina. I think that they’ll appear in some other shows as well. I’m also working with some skiing magazines in Norway that plan to publish the images. I’m confident that we’ll find some additional uses for them at the right time and right place.

Thanks for your time, Jonas!

-Leica Internet Team

If you would like to learn more about Jonas and view his work, please visit his Magnum Portfolio. To learn more about the S-System, visit: http://www.s.leica-camera.com/