Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How to shoot like a Leica owner.

So how do you shoot like you own a Leica?  I know this topic will surely offend some.  What I mean exactly is that people with a lot of photography experience tend to gravitate towards a Leica.  So if you go to the Leica forums on dpreview.com for example, you're bound to run into some talented individuals with some samples that inspire you.  A Leica camera's only differences, compared to a Canon or a Nikon SLR, are that it's interpretations of color, some unique magic of handling of UV light to alter the lightness of some surfaces, and it's amazing edge to edge sharpness that comes from it's small but very expensive lenses.  90% of the quality of the images however are of the talents and efforts of the photographer.  Someone who's willing to spend $7000 camera is probably someone who takes photography seriously.

The biggest thing you'll notice is the Leica's sensor's interpretation of blues.  If you look at the skies of Leica sample pictures, you'll see that the sky is almost gray.  This is in part of how the camera handles the colors.  But Leica users understand this, and actually prefer to avoid blue skies when they can.  Overcast days also offer perfect even lighting outdoors.  A novice would see a bright sunny day as a beautiful perfect day to shoot.  Leica users get inspired the same way, but on overcast days.

Never shoot at eye level.  Just like having a blue sky in a photograph, a picture shot at eye level are a dime a dozen.  Good rule of thumb about anything art related is that you want to show the viewer a different perspective than what the viewer is used to.  You can do that literally by squatting or elevating yourself when composing your picture.

Leica lenses are expensive because they offer amazing edge to edge sharpness with little to no chromatic abberations.  Most, even professional lenses, for other camera manufacturers however do not offer the same kind of crispness at the edges.  But who says you can't achieve this level of crispness with just about any lens?  Achieve edge to edge sharpness by shooting at the sharpest f-stop.  Somewhere around f6.3 and f8.  Shoot wide, then crop.

Leica shooters love showing off their black and white photographs, so why not shoot with creating a black and white photo in mind, and turn the contrast to eleven!  Ok, that's just a figure of speech.  And eleven is probably not enough contrast anyway.  Good photographers know how to isolate their subjects to get out a clear message.  And sometimes, even the colors may be distracting.  Or maybe it is inconsequential to what the picture is saying.  So it is often eliminated.  And after you isolate, the next step is to enhance what you want the user to focus on.  That's where contrast comes in.  Enhance contrast to bring out the definition of your objects.  This is why black and white images are used when you want your vieweres to pay attention to interesting textures or patterns in the image when you want to, for example bring out the textures of the gravel of the pavement or the stucco on the wall.

Tell a story.  Now you've heard this advice before right?  I see photography as having only 2 major categories.  One is a perfectly isolated product shot.  The other is a capture of a moment in time.  If you take a picture, and it doesn't fall in either of these two categories, then you essentially have nothing.  With a camera like Leica, you're going to be probably taking a picture of the latter.  So how do you capture a story?  Sure you can try to tell a clear story, of what is exactly happening here.  Hopefully it is a more interesting story than "Hey look, my friends and I are having dinner and we're posing for a picture."  But ultimately, the story is in the eyes of the beholder.  And even if you can't get across exactly what is happening, hopefully there are elements in the image where the viewer can easily take those elements and form a story on their own.  For example, a classical image is an old guy crossing his arms with a dirty apron having a cigarrette in front of a old restaurant with chipped paint.  You can easily tell that this guy is probably the owner, he cooks, he's had this restaurant for a long time, and he's probably proud of his restaurant.  It doesn't matter if the story is true.  It matters that these elements are there, and the stronger and consistant these cues are, the better the picture.

Adjust your color like a Leica.  Leica's color interpretation is definitely unique.  The darker blues are less saturated and less luminous.  Yellowish greens lose the yellowness and become dark greens.  Some colors have an added red/violet hue to them.  Again, art is all about offering a different perspective than what the viewer is used to.  Leica controls colors in a way that they don't look wrong, it just looks just a little surreal enough that it looks more engaging.  There are some tools out there like PSKiss Cross Camera DNG Color Profiles.  I think it helps, but you still need to adjust the colors a bit more as I find that product not agressive enough.

Don't forget the basics.  Rule of thirds.  Isolate your subject.  Control your sources of light.  Then lastly, post process.  Crop for symmetry (as needed).  Crop to place your subject in respect to rule of thirds (not always necessary).  Adjust exposure, shadows, highlights.  Add contrast, unsharp mask, add vignette.  Remember, 90% of why people with Leicas seem to take good photographs, is because they are good photographers, and very little has to do with simply owning a Leica.  This is why some Leica owners who expect to be impressed by something straight out of their cameras are often left wondering what they are doing differently and why their Leica images don't seem Leica-like.

Post processing walk through:

Step 1: Adjust exposure (Balance out histogram by adjusting for desired levels of lighting by feel).  You can just hit the auto button if you wish, but this gives you less room to play with later.

Step 2: Add a little touch of "Clarity".  ~+12 to bring out the textures.

Step 3: Saturation -100 (duh).  If not a B&W image, re-up  the saturation after you're done with all the steps below.

Step 4: Tone Curve Highlights -64.  The whole goal is to go for a cinema film like image, not "Three's Company" live TV feel.  You can reduce this live effect by reducing the highlights drastically.  This will make all your whites into light shades of gray.  This is the most important step.

Step 5: Split Toning Highlights Hue/Saturation 52/2
Step 5b: Split Toning Shadows Hue/Saturation 37/2
To add a hint of sepia.  Not necessary, but Leica does it.

Step 6: Sharpening Amount/Detail 100/0 (Seems to do a good job sharpening the edges without darkening the edges.

Step 7: Noise Reduction Luminance 25 (Varies depending on noise, adjust accordingly)

Step 8: Enable Profile Corrections for Make and Model of lens.  Fix those distortions that is brought on by cheapo, zoom, or wide angle lenses.

Step 9: Post-Crop Vibnetting Amount/Midpoint -51/37 (Just a touch, not necessary)

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