One of the things that make me love my job the most is the chance I get to be in peculiar places and situations. While I was shooting my reportage Ionian Spirit, I got into the ship engine room. It’s been a fascinating experience: every surface was full of tubes and inactive machinery. It felt like entering the belly of a sleeping mechanical beast. And while I was wide-eyedly going through that metal maze, Mohamed guided me in and out, a reassuring smile on his face for every time I lost my balance on the greasy floor.
I deeply believe that my duty is getting into these situations in order to bring them home to my audience.
When I started working on Suspension of Disbelief, I couldn’t have imagined what was lying ahead. Since the very first shot in 2009, many things happened: I got to unbelievable places, met great people, faced my own fears and learnt a lot about people surrounding me and about myself too. The publishing process has been intense, to say the least: I didn’t find a suitable publisher, so I did everything on my own; I’ve been interviewed by great websites and radios and found my work used in many places.
There’s one thing I couldn’t foresee: Suspension of Disbelief being used as a reference for a comic book cover. Honestly, that’s quite surprising, but in a very positive way. Paolo Villanelli is a great illustrator and knowing that my book inspired him for the cover of Hellraiser Bestiary #5 made me very proud.
The question I get asked the most is “How can you work with non professional equipment like MFT cameras?” The answer, of course, has nothing to do with the “professionality” of my equipment.
If you think about it, “professionality” is a word that implies the presence of a professional somewhere nearby. Equipment can be expensive, well built, even useful, but without the trained hand of a good professional, it really can’t achieve anything on its own. So, I’d say that a “professional” that can’t achieve anything on his own can’t really be defined “professional” at all.
Jokes aside, the point 99% of the photo amateur community is missing out is that really you can shoot great pictures with the simplest equipment ever. I’m gonna use two very straightforward examples to prove my point: a portrait and a still life pic, both shot during my vacation last August.
I shot the portrait during a cool night out with my girlfriend and Paolo, a childhood friend of hers that she didn’t meet in ages. After a couple hours chitchatting in front of a beer, I decided it was time to take pics. Of course I didn’t have all my lighting equipment with me, but I had my Olympus OM-D E-M5 and a whole city at my disposal. We walked a little through the streets until I found a conveniently placed street lamp on the side of a huge bush and I knew that was the right place to shoot. This was the result.
Of course, the light temperature was awful and of course a lot of things had to be smoothed a little in Photoshop, but that’s something you have to do even with your so called “professional” equipment, so I think we don’t need to take it into account. I suppose there are not many of you who would gladly say that this is a good pic and, worst of all, I think many of you would have erased this picture right away. Well, if I were to listen to the little photoamateur critic inside my head, the following morning I wouldn’t had the chance to postproduce this little gem.
I think I can be very proud of this portrait (and very grateful to my talented model), and all the equipment it took to shoot it was an “unprofessional” MFT camera. Of course, again, I can hear many of you saying that portrait photography doesn’t really need extremely high-end (or “professional”?) equipment to achieve great results, so I suppose I’ll resort to my second example shot.
This time I was playing videogames alone at home, a couple days after postproducing Paolo’s portrait. The night before I had an excellent dinner in Lecce, at a restaurant run by a friend with a huge passion for wines. He has a very interesting wine cellar (to say the least) and that night he gifted me a bottle of 2002 Coyam, a great biodynamic Chilean wine. Being a photographer way before being a man, my first urge the following morning was not to drink it, but to take pictures of the bottle.
Again, I didn’t have my studio lighting with me, so I thought that taking a good picture was out of question. Of course I was wrong. After a little search around the house, I came up with a kitchen scale, enveloped in a partially white cardboard box. Luckily enough, inside the box was a small polystyrene panel along with two batteries. After a little fight to keep the polystirene panel in place, won by employing the TV remote, I set everything up in order to make the light of a single Canon Speedlite 580 EX flash bounce on the cardboard box and the polystyrene panel and correctly light my beloved Coyam wine bottle. This is the (not so good) picture of the setup.
The flash was placed behind the bottle and fired through a (very cheap) wireless trigger I like a lot. (On a side note, the batteries of the trigger were completely exhausted, but the ones I found inside the scale came to my rescue!) To be honest, these days I’m very tempted by LED lights and I suppose I’ll be shifting towards that kind of lighting very soon, but for the moment I stick to this solution. It’s very simple, but judging from the resulting picture, I’d say it’s very effective too.
Surprisingly enough, there is very little Photoshop involved in this picture. For this reason I think this is the most effective example I can use to convince amateurs that all it takes to make great images is a little training, a lot of will to improve and some imagination. Of course, “professional” equipment is not something we should despise: there are extreme situations where your vanilla camera simply doesn’t work (think about horrible weather conditions or temperatures) or whole fields of photography in which the FPS value (or any other tech spec) becomes vital. In those situations you just can’t do without some expensive piece of equipment, but really those are very narrow paths that amateurs don’t even get to walk once in their life.
Truth is: the vast majority of the great pictures we see, love and often envy, comes from a professional brain, not a professional camera.
I’ve always been a Canon fanboy, but in the last year I only touched my 7D and 5D a couple times.
I will hereby try to explain why I’d never leave my Olympus OM-D EM-5 again.
Since 2009 I’ve been dedicating myself exclusively to reportage photography. I spent the first three years on Suspension of Disbelief, my reportage about rituals of body suspension, and then I worked on Ionian Spirit, my latest work about a ship held hostage by its very crew.
I started Suspension of Disbelief using my Canon 5D Mk1 and subsequently I added a Canon 7D to the lot, in order to enjoy the higher FPS that were so badly needed during very dynamic suspensions I had the chance to witness around Europe. Everything was ok, I only had a couple things to complain about. First of all, two reflex cameras and a whole lot of lenses (namely my Canon 24mm L F1.4, 50mm F1.4, 100mm L IS F2.8, Sigma 12-24 F4.5 – 5.6 and, from time to time, the 70-200 L IS F2.8) were heavy. I suppose nobody ever died from bringing all that stuff on his back, and of course neither did I, but around 2010 I had already started leaving a lot of those things at home. By June 2011, all I was bringing along was the 7D and the 24mm in a Maxpedition Proteus Versipack waistpack strapped across my chest. Needless to say, my freedom of movement improved a lot.
The second thing that was annoying me was the fact that, around 2011, in the suspension community people started to acknowledge me and to be aware of my long term photographic project and so on. This was all good, of course: I didn’t want to hide myself in any way, but I didn’t like the fact that their reaction to my physical presence was changing. They were very aware that a big, professional reflex camera meant the possibility of being portrayed in a book, so they started to act a little different than before in front of me, being a little less natural. That was a big problem.
So I started thinking about a possible solution. I spent a whole year studying all the small, less-than-professional looking cameras on the market and then, around February 2012, the news about the forthcoming Olympus OM-D E-M5 hit me like a brick.
The silver version looked like everything I ever wanted: it was small, vintage looking (and therefore easily mistaken for an old, non professional camera), light, fast and its image quality was nothing short than awesome.
In May 2012 I succeeded in the not-exactly-easy task of finding a silver OM-D and in less then a month I left for the last stop of my reportage on body suspension, in the woods of Croatia. All I had in my waistpack was the Olympus OM-D E-M5, the Panasonic 20mm F1.7, the battery charger and a couple Sandisk Secure Digital memories.
From that day on I only used my Canon reflex cameras a couple times and basically I spent all my time shooting with the OM-D. In the final version of the book, pictures come from Canon 5D, 7D and the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and there’s absolutely no way to tell one from the other. Image quality has never been a concern and many times the OM-D outperformed the 7D in terms of noise. Using the AF straight from the display felt a little unprofessional at first, but allowed me to take very interesting pics from very interesting points of view. And to do that very, very quickly.
Of course, people changed their attitude towards me. Many people actually stopped noticing me (and changing their facial expression due to that), but the funniest part is that other photographers, often hired by the hosts of the events, kept asking me if that was my only camera and if I was really making a professional reportage with such non-professional equipment.
When I felt that the project was ready, I stopped running around Europe and started working on the book. I took care of the final stage (the actual publishing of the ebook) far from home, in southern Italy. While I was there I stumbled on this incredible story about the crew of a Greek ferry that decided to hold the ship hostage in order to force the company to pay their wages.
The story was too big not to cover it, so I took all the equipment I had with me at the moment and jumped aboard the captured ship. Needless to say, I only had my Olympus OM-D E-M5, my Panasonic 20mm F1.7 and a Canon Speedlite 580. Of course, I already knew that all those things were more than good enough to take excellent pictures, so I decided to take the stress test on my equipment a little further: I took all the pictures in JPEG format, insted of the more forgiving RAW.
After the first few days shooting inside the non-powered ship, with the weirdest light conditions ever, I realized that I would have never stepped away from the OM-D again. Every single picture was good straight out of the camera. And, I suppose, it couldn’t be in any different way, because JPEGs have a very small margin when it comes to postproduction, especially if, like me, you don’t make use of Photoshop.
If in 2009 you would have asked me if a MFT camera was good enough to be employed as the sole mean to make a professional reportage, I would have laughed at you, no doubt about it. But now I’m pretty sure that it’s the other way around, I feel that now it’s the time to question ourselves if reflex cameras are the only possible tool for a photographer. And my answer is, of course, a huge no.
(Both reportages are currently available for purchase on Lulu.com both in English and Italian)