Robert Caplin: A Testament to Life

Robert Caplin hails from Athens, Ohio where he not only got his start in life, but also began his career in photojournalism. He’s a regular contributor to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal and his images have been published in National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, TIME, and Newsweek. His work has taken him all over the world and allowed him to explore a vast array of genres and subjects. This Thursday, September 12 Robert will be joining us at Adorama to discuss his experience transitioning to a digital rangefinder system over the past couple of years. Here Robert gives us a glimpse of his life as a freelance photojournalist.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your career to date? What inspired you to pursue photography?

A: First, let me say thank you for the honor of featuring me on your blog!

My career as a photographer has transitioned dramatically since I began in high school working for my hometown newspaper, The Athens Messenger. I started working for the Messenger in a senior mentorship program offered by my high school. I progressed from mixing chemicals to shooting an occasional assignment. That led to applying for the Ohio University School of Visual Communication‘s photojournalism sequence, which was conveniently located in my hometown of Athens, Ohio. Throughout college I continued working for local newspapers in the region. Throughout my tenure at VisCom, I interned at various newspapers including The Columbus Dispatch, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times.

After my internship at The New York Times I decided to hit the ground running by staying in New York City and starting a freelance career. I was fortunate to have made some great contacts in the industry through internships/workshops and let everyone know where I’d landed. Early on as a freelancer I juggled assignments from The New York Times and many other national and international newspapers, magazines and wire services, shooting just about everything you can imagine — breaking news, politics, major sporting events, features, and general documentary. For about six months in 2010 I took a break from newspaper photography and worked on a documentary project of Justin Bieber. I approached Bieber with the idea after meeting him through a New York Times assignment. The project involved shadowing him for a subsequent book published by HarperCollins about the young pop star’s rise to fame. Additional documentary video footage I made later turned into his blockbuster movie produced by Paramount Pictures called “Never Say Never”.

Over the eight years I’ve been freelancing in NYC, I’ve picked up new clients both editorially and commercially along the way. More recently I’m in a bit of transition, as I’ve found my true passion in travel and documentary photography. I’ve been striving to shift my career path into one that involves more world travel and simply finding opportunity where life takes me.

Barefoot Homeless NYPD

Q: Was or is there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: Absolutely – photojournalism. There are many I look up to such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and David Alan Harvey, among others. I’ve also had great mentors, particularly Vincent Laforet who I looked up to tremendously as a former staffer and subsequent contract photographer for the NY Times. Vincent became a true mentor and helped me understand the business of photography for which I’m grateful. He has since become a very good friend, poker buddy and colleague. Another man who inspired me personally was Arnold Newman, the father of the environmental portrait, who visited Ohio University as a guest speaker while I was a student. He reviewed my portfolio and afterward invited me to have a “sandwich” with him if I ever found my way to New York City. A few weeks later I booked my first trip to Manhattan just to take him up on the offer and visited his studio where he gave me some great advice, among which was “to put a comb through my hair”. While in NYC I set up a handful of meetings that have led to many amazing opportunities in my career thus far.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: First and foremost, I’m attracted to beautiful light both hard and soft. Sometimes I’ll find a pocket of light and simply wait for a person or a moment to pass through. In general, my approach is to experience and document life around me as it happens, wherever I may be. Looking back at Cartier-Bresson’s images, they invoke emotions in me as I relive moments from his life through his eyes in his era. Like him, my hope is that my photographs will be a testament to what life was like during my existence on this planet, wherever assignments, projects, or life takes me.

Pussy Riot in New York City

Q: Your work spans a wide variety of genres and subject matter including portraiture, photojournalism and food photography, among others. Is there a common thread that runs throughout your work or how you approach each new assignment?

A: Well, the way I approach assignments is always evolving. Working as a photojournalist for publications such as the New York Times and others, my job is to shoot a vast variety of assignment genres as you mentioned and sometimes it’s difficult to convey a particular photographic style throughout. I feel my approach to portraiture, for instance, has changed over the years as I’ve found more passion for true documentary. More so now, I tend to use less and less artificial lighting and take a more documentary approach to my portraiture, which has certainly been a common thread running throughout my work. But what I’d say is a larger pattern in my photography is a sense of truth in what I document, whether shooting an essay, portrait, sports or food. I always approach my photography as a photojournalist looking for narrative and objectivity.

Q: What is your favorite shoot or image you’ve taken to date?

A: It’s difficult for me to answer this question. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have photographed a variety of assignments that have taken me to many tantalizing places and introduced me to some really cool people. One memorable instance involved a very sweaty Alec Baldwin coming to my apartment for an LA Times photo shoot when he barricaded himself in my office and took over my computer before rescheduling the shoot. Honestly, any assignment that gives me a new experience or introduces me to new people and places is a highlight for me. I’m always thinking about where photography is going to take me next.

©ROBERT CAPLIN

Q: Your passion for what you do is apparent, not only in your images, but also in your active presence on social networking platforms, along with The Photo Brigade community and podcast you manage with your wife, Laia Prats. You’re squeezing us in for this interview within a very busy schedule. How do you maintain your passion for your work and what keeps you going day-to-day?

A: First, thank you for the kind words. The short answer is: I try to only busy myself with things I love. In one sentence, you’ve said all my favorite things, (minus travel): photography, family and social media! I think back to college and two of my professors, specifically Terry and Lyntha Eiler, both talented photojournalists themselves who shared stories of their adventures traveling the world together for National Geographic and other clients. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better career than traveling the world to take pictures for a living with the person you love most. So I would say I’m trying to follow in their footsteps both as a travel photographer (along with my amazing wife, Laia), and by giving back to the industry through The Photo Brigade, the blog Laia and I created to promote the work of outstanding freelance photographers worldwide while providing other fun, industry-related content like the podcasts, etc. It’s been incredibly rewarding (though time-consuming) to network and connect with so many great photographers and industry folks through the blog and through social media. Social networking is a major tool for freelance photographers who should be actively promoting their work and personality.

Q: You’ve had quite a successful career as a freelance photojournalist in what is a very volatile time for the industry. What advice would you give to a young person today who is looking to follow the same path?

A: Well, I’d first say that you need to approach photography as an evolving craft that develops over time. You’re always learning and growing. While my heart lies in documentary and travel photography, it doesn’t mean I won’t shoot a wedding or a bar mitzvah, or other types of photography in order to continue funding my passion – travel photography. You should approach every photo opportunity as a journalist and/or as a growing experience. Part of being a successful freelancer is being a savvy businessperson. That means diversifying your skill set and your clients. The more genres you’re able to shoot, the more work there will be for you as a result. The more clients you have (editorially, commercially, etc.), the more opportunity for income. You also need to be smart, save up, absolutely know your cost of doing business and base your rates on this, or you’ll never be profitable! It’s very important to network because you never know who might be your next client. That means passing out your business cards, getting to know people, simply being a good person, and making an impact. Over time, editors become friends, friends change their jobs, and suddenly they’re in a position to collaborate with you – thus opportunity is born. Many of the most amazing contacts, clients, and friends I’ve made in life have begun through social networking, seriously. You make your own opportunity. So if photography is truly your passion, constantly practice your craft while being a good person socially and in business. Ask questions, be informed, and pursue your dreams!

Q: How were you first introduced to Leica camera?

A: I’ve seen colleagues use them from time to time in the field, but it wasn’t until my friend, Josh Lehrer who is now a Leica dealer in Florida, let me borrow an M9 kit for a few weeks that I really became acquainted with the system. My clever Leica dealing friend casted the bait and reeled me in hook, line, and sinker. I’d always been a bit intimidated by the brand, not only by the price, but also having to learn a new, completely manual rangefinder system. As a DSLR shooter that was a big change. I slowly adapted my new kit into assignment work as I began to learn to trust myself more and more as a rangefinder shooter.

Q: Which Leica camera(s) do have? And which lens(es) do you use?

A: I currently have a black Leica M and a 35 mm Summilux that stays attached to the body 95 percent of the time. I also own a 90 mm Summarit for telephoto needs. I previously owned an M9, but recently traded it in for the newer model. I’ve found the 35 mm is just about the perfect focal length for me, not too wide, but still gives me the ability to capture all I want in the frame without wide-angle distortion. There are many amazing lenses I’d love in my kit, but wouldn’t we all…

©ROBERT CAPLIN

Q: In the past couple of years you’ve transitioned from a digital SLR camera to the Leica M-System. What prompted this switch? What have you found to be the major differences between the two?

A: One thing is for sure, I certainly feel far more discrete and unencumbered with the smaller system. It’s hard to verbalize how the Leica has had an impact on my photography and technique, but I believe it has. Learning the new, fully manual system has made me relearn and focus on the fundamentals of photography, making me very aware of my framing, focus and depth. Because it’s so low profile, my subjects seem much less intimidated by my presence, resulting in more genuine moments.

The major difference is the rangefinder focusing technique. I’d never focused manually in the way the Leica rangefinder requires, as Leica users know, by aligning two images seen within the viewfinder. That took the most time getting used to, but the more and more I used it, I became quicker and felt satisfied and confident that when I see those images line up, the picture will be sharp. Secondly, paying attention to the frame lines within the rangefinder took time to fully master. Interestingly, with the new M, there is a live view option that essentially turns the camera into an SLR and you can use the LCD screen to frame your content and truly visualize the lens’s focal length. I certainly noticed a difference in image quality too. While other camera manufactures are absolutely capable of a creating a crisp photo, there’s just something about the feel of an image made through Leica glass.

Thank you Robert!

- Leica Internet Team

You can connect with Robert through his personal website, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and The Photo Brigade. Robert will be speaking at Adorama in New York City this Thursday, September 12 as part of a special event with Leica and Gitzo. For more information and registration, click here