Jonas Bendiksen and The Leica S
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. He recently tested Leica Camera’s The Leica S by shooting athletes paticipating at Ekstremsportveko in Voss, Norway.
- Location: Ekstremsportveko in Voss, Norway
- Temperature: +2 °C to +25 °C
- Altitude: 0 to 800m
- Conditions: Always changing. From wet, waterfall spray to warm evening sun
- Extreme Athletes Names: Alex Lyngaas, Torbjørn Sunde, Lasse Moe, Hilde Bjørgaas, Hannah Mellin, Benjamin Hjort, Eirik Ulltang, Erik Solbakken, Joachim Skjævestad and others.
Q: What were the conditions like when you were shooting in Norway?
A: In Norway they say there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. So we had the full mix from warm sun, to thunderstorms and rain, often within half an hour of each other. And of course, since I was shooting quite a bit of river and waterfall kayaking, there was a lot of water spray all the time.
Q: How did you come to shoot the festival, and how long did it last?
A: The shoot of the Ekstremsportveko in Voss was planned a long time back. I was looking for a good location for a summer test of the S-System. This was a natural place to go, since there is a unique amount of different activities to follow. The Voss festival goes on for about one week. In addition I shot the climbers in Lofoten, which is further north in Norway for about two days.
Q: What did you set out to achieve at Ekstremsportveko?
A: My goal was to try to capture the raw energy of the different disciplines, to try to land a few epic images that showed this match between humans and nature. I also wanted to capture a feeling of the personalities involved. These activities demand certain types of people, and it’s quite fun being a fly on the wall among these guys.
Q: From the video we can see there were high-speed sports, watery environments and physical demands for this project – what did you personally find to be the main challenge of shooting Ekstremsportveko?
A: I think the main challenge was to manage quickly the logistics of being at the right place at the right time. It looks easy, but these activities were spread out over several hours of driving, and most of the time there were no set times when the guys would go out and do their activities. It’s a pretty fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of crowd. So one might have to trek in through woods and hills to get to one waterfall, and hope you’re ready during the 2 seconds somebody drops down the chute. Then in a few seconds they can be gone hundreds of meters down the river, and you have no way of keeping up. Then you run off again, to catch another location. You have to be ready when it matters, and you definitely don’t want any mess-up with your gear when you need it.
Q: As a reportage photographer at heart, what was your approach to capturing these athletes?
A: I wanted to both keep it simple and natural, and let the athletes do their thing without too much meddling. At the same time I wanted to capture a bit the feeling of adrenaline that infuses it all.
Q: For the image of the silhouette climber, the tones in the silhouette are really impressive – is that what you set out to achieve with that shot? Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
A: When I am photographing I am not thinking so much. I think a lot before, I think a lot afterwards, but when you’re in the mountains and things are happening around you, you just react and shoot. It’s more a gut-level thing at that moment. But in this situation I was very drawn to the graphics of the location.
Q: The image with the cyclist in the air above the puddle looks like an optical illusion because there’s no reflection of him at that height – can you tell us more about this shot?
A: These bike trial guys were great fun to photograph. I had no idea you could do some of the things they did with bicycles. In that shot I am almost lying flat in the puddle, so the angle is too low for the reflection I think. I think I actually tried to get a reflection of him in the shot, but you never quite know where the jump will come, so I missed it. But I still like the frame; it has some of that raw energy that comes with leaping on a two-wheeler from 3-meter tall containers.
Q: Can you tell us how you captured the image of the kayaker going down the waterfall and a little more about the image? It’s so clear it feels as if you’re actually there just looking at it.
A: We were taken to this location by Benjamin Hjort, the kayaker in the frame. He’s loaded with enthusiasm and passion for river kayaking, and very much in the elite tier. The interesting thing is that this drop is just one in a series of successive drops, one of which is a double-drop of 20 meters. I tried to frame it so one would feel a bit of the enormous force the water has when it goes off the wall.
Q: The scale of environments compared to the athletes really gives the impression of these larger than life landscapes and the textures of the rocks and greenery definitely add to the overall aesthetic – can you tell us more about your approach to long shots versus close action ones? You seem to move between the two effortlessly and beautifully.
A: I think it’s important with the variation and to find some rhythm between the two modes. Too close too much, or too many epic overview both get static in the end. So I try to find a balance.
Q: How did The Leica S perform given that you were near puddles, waterfalls and a wet environment in general?
A: Plenty of water all around. The camera itself didn’t make any trouble out of this. The issues we had were issues that any camera would face. For example, when you’re shooting against a waterfall, you can only turn the camera towards your subject exactly when you need to take the frame – because the front of the lens gets sprayed by the water really fast. So I was constantly wiping of excess water from the lens. But I just figured the camera body was built to take it, so I didn’t pay so much attention to that.
Q: In addition to the Leica Vario-Elmar-S 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH. – did you use any other lenses?
A: I think I used all the lenses available for the Leica S-System during the shoot. I used the Summarit-S 35 mm f/2.5 ASPH and Summarit-S 70 mm f/2.5 ASPH mostly. However, for the long shots the APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120 mm f/2.5 and the Leica APO-Tele-Elmar-S 180 mm f/3.5 come in very handy too.
Q: How did the Leica Vario-Elmar-S 30-90mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH. lens meet the needs of capturing the various extreme athletes?
A: For this type of shooting having a wide-to-normal zoom lens comes in very handy. I actually wished it had been available when I did the ski shoot this winter, as sometimes things happens really fast and there are situations where the subjects ends up where you didn’t think he’d go and you wish for that extra flexibility in framing.
Q: How do you find the new Leica S after testing the Leica S2 recently?
A: There were a few quirks in the combination between the new lens and The Leica S but these were just firmware issues with the pre-production models. I’m sure they will be sorted out.
The Leica S and S2 are image-quality wise pretty similar, except The Leica S has a bit better high ISO-performance. That helps a lot when shooting fast-speed natural light settings. Also, I’d say The Leica S has radically improved user interface. The addition of the joystick button/navigator makes everything with the menus, image review and general usage a lot more logical and quick.
Q: In just using the S-System, you’ve been rock climbing, hiking and skiing on Chamonix– what’s your favorite sport to capture and why?
A: I think my favorite is still the skiing – partly because that is also a personal passion of mine. But also because there is so much fast speed and energy, and one is really free when skiing – the sense of freedom when you can go almost anywhere is very seductive I find. But I also loved shooting river kayaking. It is an incredible competition between wild natural forces and human beings.
Q: In our last interview you mentioned that you don’t do much post-production – did you find that to be the case for these images too? Is there anything that stood out to you after testing the new camera and lens when you were in post-production?
A: Image quality-wise, the new components to the S-Series is pretty much like the others that means pretty outstanding quality once you start blowing them up. When you get the exposure and focus more or less right, the quality is quite staggering. I always think it’s fun to zoom in on someone in a vertical fall a hundred meters away, and still be able to read the writing on their equipment.
Q: You’re doing a great job putting The Leica S to the test in harsh environments between the snow and altitude in Chamonix and the wet environment in Voss – are there any other extreme environment shoots coming up to push the limits of The Leica S further?
A: Great idea! I’d love to have the chance to take this further. As soon as Leica gives the green light, I am ready. Another idea is that I think it could be interesting to bring to the streets of a vibrant city, and do some fast-paced street shooting – in some places that can be very close to extreme sports.
Q: You’ve said that you’re more of a 35mm kind of guy. Would you call yourself a medium format kind of guy now too?
A: Hm. I think from now on I’ll call myself just a photographer.
Thanks for your time, Jonas!
-Leica Internet Team