Kristian Dowling: A Straight Shooter Tells it Like it is, Part 1

Kristian Dowling is best known as an accomplished celebrity-entertainment photographer, but his photographic roots are in street photography, a passion that still informs his commercial work. Known for his flexibility and understanding of light he has earned a reputation as a straight shooter, a photographer that delivers amazing results without using photo manipulation. His experience has taken him to events across the globe including the Beijing Olympics, Cannes Film Festival, New York Fashion Week, the MTV VMAs and Movie Awards, and on tour with pop star Katy Perry. Dowling is currently conducting ‘Seeing the Light’ photographic workshops throughout Australia and Asia aimed at training enthusiastic photographers how to read light and shadow and understand manual exposure.

In this interview he gives a cogent technical analysis of the latest Leica M camera and how he used it to document a compelling behind the scenes look of Australia Fashion Week 2013.

Q: How did your overall experience of shooting a behind the scenes documentary at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in 2013 with the Leica M compare to your experience with the Leica Monochrom previously covering a similar event in Melbourne? Did you find that the M’s overall feature set and performance characteristics affected your ability to achieve your goal of capturing the backstage world of a major fashion show?

A: The two cameras are very different. In regards to the obvious color vs. monochrome factor, the whole mindset changes. With color, I have more technical aspects to worry about in terms of lighting, color temperature and colors being dominating or distracting. With black-and-white, I need to ensure my content and story is clear, without the need for color to translate the messages or draw attention to the important parts of the frame. Color also plays an important role because different colors in a scene represent different tonality and that needs to be paid some careful attention.

Both cameras work equally well in low light, which was previously the major advantage of the M Monohcrom over the color M9/M9-P and M-E. While the Leica M doesn’t go as high as the M Monochrom, which goes to ISO 10000, I found ISO 3200 adequate for all my low-light needs.

In terms of usability, this is where the similarities end completely, and the M takes a major leap ahead, as it’s a much more user-friendly camera in regards to the features demanded by digital photographers. Processing speed, LCD quality, battery life and shutter sound (or lack thereof) are all areas where Leica has improved in the new generation of M cameras. As one can see in my M review, these improvements were an asset to my efficiency in the field and made the experience of using the camera much more enjoyable.

Q: In your review of the Leica M published on your blog, you had high praise for its 3-inch high-resolution LCD, more discreet shutter noise, and high ISO performance, but you thought that the accessory EVF was not up to the same standard. Since this accessory can (in combination with the camera’s Live View capability) provide a DSLR-like shooting experience with a Leica M camera for the first time, do you see this as a challenge to the camera’s unique identity or a feature that will be further developed to enhance its “dual personality”?

A: It’s funny because since writing the review I’ve been using my APO-Macro-Elmarit-R 100 mm lens on the M. I did add the EVF and found it imperative for certain uses. Initially, I wasn’t happy because its addition to the Leica M system is a departure from 59 years of rangefinder focusing, and up until now, focusing a rangefinder required much patience, persistence and skill. In 2013, we now have an easier way to focus, using the electronic viewfinder to focus not only M lenses, but any lens, including Leica R lenses (via an adapter), and this opens the market to many who had previously overlooked the Leica M line due to its focusing challenges.

Personally, I have come to realize that the EVF can be a major asset in the field, and have seen the following as significant advantages over the traditional rangefinder focusing system:

  1. Real-time exposure, contrast, saturation and color (white balance) analysis before firing the shutter
  2. Focusing magnification/peaking ensures better focus accuracy when using fast lenses.
  3. 100% viewfinder accuracy and lack of parallax error
  4. Data including exposure mode, metering mode, ISO, shutter speed, lens data, file type, memory card, remaining exposures and battery life are displayed in the viewfinder.

For this reason, now whenever I shoot anything that requires extra precision, I use the EVF, especially for portraiture, where the precise magnification/focus peaking features ensure a higher level of accuracy, previously unattainable with the rangefinder system.

Keep in mind though, that there are several limitations that need to be understood and respected when using the EVF:

  1. The clarity is far less than using the optical finder.
  2. There are delays between shots, so continuous shooting intervals are shortened.
  3. Focusing with magnification can also be affected by having to recompose.
  4. Using the EVF will use more battery power, but to my delight, the increase in power usage was not so significant.
  5. Use of the EVF means you’re using the hot shoe so you’ll need an accessory grip for flash sync when combining EVF with flash lighting setups.

I have to say that on a recent shoot, I found the EVF invaluable. I brought it for use with my 100 mm R lens, but ended up using it most of the day with M lenses too, and my hit rate of exposure and focusing increased, ensuring a greater number of successful pictures.

© Kristian Dowling

Q: In your Leica M review you kind of went off on the over-use of bokeh and ultra-wide apertures in Leica M images, noting that the excellent performance of the M at high ISOs in the 1600-3200 range will let you shoot “at the most commonly used apertures” to achieve greater overall sharpness. Nevertheless, a fair number of your 2013 fashion images make excellent use of selective focus, and wide apertures like the images above. So, I put it to you “when to bokeh and not to bokeh,” that is the question?

A: Yes, good bokeh is like a beautiful woman. We are all attracted to it, but with that alone being the main focus, the pictures can look a little shallow, pardon the pun. Pictures often need content and depth to add personality, the same way a beautiful woman is complete with a great personality. Having the right combination of personality and looks defines the ultimate woman, just like a photo that is compelling at first sight, but also has depth and content to keep the viewer looking even deeper.

History’s greatest pictures all have great content and personality. I can’t think of one famous picture that is shallow, either in depth of field or content. Stopping down and precise aperture selection is all part of a photographer’s skill in telling a story; focusing the viewer’s attention to what is important, and how important in a particular image. For the first time in history, the high ISO ability of the M allows the photographer creative freedom, previously unseen in color photography with the M.

The previous digital M cameras were quite equivalent to film, offering great quality to ISO 400, and just usable quality to ISO 1600. The M now allows exceptional quality right up to ISO 3200, effectively putting extra light into the palm of the photographer’s hands. Not only can I now shoot faster in low light, guaranteeing a higher hit rate, but I can also stop down the aperture and achieve more depth of field in low light. A photographer should never feel limited by his tools, and with the M, I never will.

Q: Of the images in your 2013 fashion show portfolio only three of them are presented in black-and-white. Why did you decide to output these three particular images in monochrome, and what do you think are the strengths of color and B&W?

A: I wanted to show what M images look like when converted to black-and-white. I chose those particular pictures as I felt the colors didn’t add anything significant to the overall feel. In some situations the extensive dynamic range of the M will have some advantages in tonality compared to other color digital cameras, but at the end of the day it is impossible to match the tonality and feel of the M Monochrom files. They are truly unique and worthy of the “Leica look” designation people often talk about due to their dynamic range, extended tonality and sharpness. The one advantage the M has in black-and-white is the ability to adjust the color tone fields in post-production, which is somewhat more versatile and preferable to using filters while shooting on black-and-white film or with the M Monochrom.

For many, having to choose between the M Monochrom and the M, the decision should be based on how much you need color and modern luxuries like a great LCD, long battery life, quiet shutter and faster processing. It’s pretty clear that the best camera all around is the M because it excels in most areas, but for those diehard black-and-white photographers, it’s clear that the M Monochrom has some unique qualities in final output that truly makes you smile every time you view a well-shot picture. They do require some processing to get right, but with 10 to 30 seconds of basic editing, a Monochrom file can look so magical, even film lovers (including myself) can’t help but stare in awe of the incredible image quality.

In terms of resolution, while the M has an 8MP advantage, I still think that on a pixel level, the M Monochrom produces greater detail, which is understandable considering it doesn’t have a color filter. Side-by-side they are still very close, with the M easily surpassing the M9, M9-P and M-E cameras due to the increase in resolution, while maintaining similar pixel sharpness.

Q: Are you planning to explore any other genres besides fashion and documentary going forward, cover future fashion shows in the same modality or revisit some of the things you’ve done in the past, like news and sports? You describe these as personal pictures, but have you any plans to exhibit them at galleries, publish them as a book, etc.?

A: Yes a book and exhibition is something I’d love to do before I leave this planet, but not something I’m planning anytime soon. While I’m active in social circles, I’ve never been a photographer that has shot for others, so I place less value on exhibiting and entering competitions. I just enjoy the experience of challenging myself each and every time I pick up the camera, and that for me is the ultimate thrill.

In the meantime, I’d like to find time in my photographer-training schedule to do some personal projects that are more meaningful than work I’ve done previously. Documentary and portraiture are my true passions and I just haven’t given myself the opportunities I really need, so I do plan on dedicating time to this in the coming year.

I think it’s important to set goals and plan ahead as you grow as a photographer, or that growth will stop and become stale and more narrow-minded creatively. Well at least, that’s what happens to me when I put the camera down for too long. My eyes also become lazy, so in 2013, I’m trying to make an extra effort to exercise my camera and stay creatively fit for the challenges ahead.

Thank you for your time, Kristian!

- Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Kristian, visit his website, blog, Google + and Twitter.