Neil Buchan Grant was the British Travel Press Photographer of the Year in 2013. He currently runs group workshops around the world by himself and with landscape photographer, Phase One tutor and fellow Leica user Steve Gosling. Neil also runs annual photo tours for the luxury travel brand KUONI combining the best of luxury travel with 1-2-1 photographic tuition. He will be exhibiting his photographs from a recent tour to India in the Project Space Gallery, Bermondsey, London in February 1st-6th. Most of the portraits featured in this exhibition were shot using a Leica lens adapted for use with an Olympus mirror-less camera. More details here.

This post features some of Neil’s work which relates heavily to his portraiture work during a trip to Istanbul, where he had the experience of shooting with a Leica SL.

Thank you for sharing these images. All the portraits in your work have a profound aesthetic element that brings the subject to another level of priority. In this particular use of the Leica SL, how was your experience shooting these portraits?

Thanks, the type of photographs I like to make are all about aesthetics. I don’t consider myself to be much of a storyteller or a conceptual photographer and, as shallow as it may seem, I’ve no desire to use photography to highlight socio-political issues. A successful image for me is one that combines good composition, beautiful light and hopefully holds some measure of dramatic or emotional impact with the viewer. I generally make it very clear what the subject is, but I hope that the non-subject matter helps and is abstractly attractive in its own right. The Leica SL when paired up with the M Summilux lenses, allows me to do this very effectively, working with wide apertures on a full frame sensor, isolating the subject and ensuring that the non-subject matter is rendered in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

You shot these images in the contrasting city of Istanbul. Undoubtedly, the city offers many diverse sceneries and locations for great photography, can you tell us a bit more how was your exploration around the city and how was the process to pick where to shoot?

Istanbul offers a lot of scope and choice for shooting locations. My first choice wherever I travel starts with my hotel which normally forms the base for any location shoot. I chose a modern, upmarket hotel with an stylish design element because I felt its ambience would bring something extra to the images. Most of the shoot took place there but I had also read about the Cirigan Palace so we stopped by for afternoon tea and shot there too (its now a Kempinski hotel). The part of the Palace I wanted to shoot in was closed but the grounds still offered some great opportunities and the light was perfect. The more general travel pictures were just made walking around the main tourist areas, fortunately we had some lovely weather to help. The Blue Mosque was always my number one must see attraction in the city.

© Neil Buchan-Grant

This is inside the Blue Mosque, correct? Can you share your experience when being there and taking its picture?

Access to the Blue Mosque has to be timed well. The mosque closes several times during the day for prayers and visitor access is only granted in between these times. I decided that the best time to shoot inside the mosque would be in the late afternoon when the sun was low. The place where I shot this image was on the wrong side of the main internal barrier. This area was filled with people heading to prey and few tourists with cameras. The sunlight bursting through the windows looked sensational but it took a few minutes for the people to clear from the foreground. I must have stood in this ’no go zone’ for a couple of minutes with my camera to my eye just waiting for people to disperse. Almost immediately after taking the picture a guard approached me and told me I had to stop photographing and get back behind the rope! The Blue Mosque is a magnificent building to visit, breathtaking scale and intricate detail. The light through the windows combines with the uniquely configured electric lights which are fixed to a huge circular iron contraption suspended from the ceiling. You could use a wider lens to capture the scale but I felt my 35mm Summilux ASPH was just right.

Please explain the creative approach you had when shooting the photo series of the young woman. What were you trying to achieve here?

I’ve been making location portraits for about 5 years now. It’s always a combination of trying to do something a little different from the last shoot and working instinctively with what you are presented. The fact that there are so many variables and unknowns with any shoot is exactly what makes it such fun and such a challenge. I try to incorporate at least one such personal shoot into every foreign trip whether I’m on my own or running a workshop. When its just you and a model, you’re the photographer, stylist, location and lighting director rolled into one and somehow you still have to try to listen out for the ’creative director’ in your head to pull out something a bit more special than the last time. I knew with the SL and my solid M glass I had the opportunity to make some classy images. The model had a distinctly ‘intelligent’ beauty about her. There’s something about Leica M lenses and Summiluxes in particular, that lend themselves so well to shooting beautiful women. Its as if that 1.4 aperture was just designed to throw all the light and focus onto a beautiful pair of eyes. My approach here as with most of my portraiture was mainly to make the subject look beautiful, keeping one eye on the background and another on the light, judging my distance to the model and quality of light falling on her to ensure these elements are helping the image.

© Neil Buchan-Grant

The light obtained in this image is beautiful and contrasts very well with the raw iron entrance. Is this natural light or was there any post production involved?

I was also in Istanbul to just enjoy a holiday with my best friend Sarah who is a very talented artist. She kindly agreed to hold my reflector and its the low sun’s warm, reflected rays bouncing off that which has illuminated the model’s face here. Late afternoon light is my favourite to shoot in. Wherever possible, be it with portable studio flash or with reflectors, I will try to paint the subject with more light than the ambient background. Exposing for the subject drops the backgrounds prominence in the photograph, so you end up highlighting the subject with selective focus and selective lighting. On the subject of processing, I have to say that these SL files required very little post production at all. I run most files through Colour or Silver Efex by Nik, for colour, contrast and toning adjustments, but these files are some of the dreamiest I’ve had the pleasure to work with, reminiscent of my M9 files, but better!

You mention you were an avid user of the Leica M9, what comparisons or similarities can you draw from using the Leica SL? 

I was an M9 user for a few years. As a DSLR user before this, I found the use of a smaller, lighter setup to be liberating and like so many have said, it reconnected me with the simple joy of photography, a joy which had been eroded with increasingly larger and more complex cameras. But I was never fully at ease with the rangefinder system and as I started to shoot more portraiture, I found myself wanting more precision in framing when I was tight into a subject. So I started using the Leica M lenses on various mirrorless camera systems, eventually settling with Olympus equipment. The lenses were always the most important part of the Leica equipment for me. The M9 gave me my first vehicle for using them, Olympus Cameras my second and now the SL is in my opinion, the ultimate body to use with M glass. Having been an early adopter of mirrorless systems, I am positively evangelical when it comes to the benefits of an electronic viewfinder over that of an optical one. And with the Leica SL I get to use the very best EVF technology available. So compared to using the M9 the SL gives me accurate focus and exposure feedback as I make the image and it works much faster than the M9. The high ISO performance is also much improved over the M9.

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Can you do a short review in using this camera for this type of portraiture photography?

For making the kind of location portraits I find myself shooting (however much I try to mix it up with greater context and alternate viewpoints), the Leica SL will be the ultimate camera for me. I say ‘will be’ as there are still two features which I need, to make this camera as intuitive as I need it to be.

Having been a mirror-less camera user of various manufacturers over the years, I have become one of the format’s most ardent supporters. When I now look through an optical viewfinder it feels like I am using an antique. I feel bereft of essential information which I have become accustomed to receiving. For example, rarely are we presented with scenes of perfectly balanced illumination in the subjects we shoot. There is more often than not a bias causing a camera’s meter to render the subject under or over exposed. There are many ways we can take control over this situation and I am not going to debate the best techniques here. For myself, over the  past several years I have used a wheel on the back of my camera which compensates the exposure and shows me the result in the viewfinder before I take the picture. I do this all day long, sometimes only making slight adjustments and sometimes deviating up to 3 stops when shooting into strong sunlight or working with extreme contrasts.

For me this has become an intuitive part of my picture making process as crucial as focusing and composition and assessed in the same fraction of a second. Currently, on the Leica SL, this crucial and intuitive element in my workflow is being blocked by the need to hold in a short-cut button for 0.5s to enable the exposure compensation feature. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but when you’re standing in front of a grizzly Turkish man who has customers waiting and wants you out of his stall, it definitely seems to slow things down! This necessity to ‘switch on’ the exposure compensation, rather than just have that dial do this job as a default is an oversight mentioned by a number of SL reviewers and is a feature I am assured by Leica, will be addressed in a forthcoming firmware update.

To finally have a full frame sensor designed to get the best out of my Leica lenses and fitted within a state of the art mirror-less camera, is a joy. I have found the focus peaking to be better than many systems on the market when used with manual focussing lenses. I can report that its very accurate and illuminates only a fine slither of the subject in focus, where I have found other systems to light up thick chunks of the subject, rendering accuracy a hit or miss affair. Further accuracy, when time allows, is afforded by the excellent focus magnification, this works quickly and smoothly. And as enjoyable as I still find focussing M lenses to be, especially on the SL, there are simply many situations and photo opportunities one misses especially when working as I normally do with a paper thin depth of field at f1.4. In a portrait shoot for example, the only thing you really have to get in focus are the eyes.

Even when a model is relatively still, it takes all of your concentration to maintain this critical focus, subsequently one’s rhythm and frequency of exposures becomes dictated by your focussing technique. All the  little ‘off moments’ between poses where the gems of expression and nuance often lie, are lost with manual focus systems because there’s usually too much movement going on during these unguarded moments to capture much more than a soft and vague artistic impression. So the second thing which will make this camera the ideal tool for me will be the new 50mm AF Summilux lens. Adding this lens to the Leica SL should free up a large part of my brain to concentrate on expression and nuance and give my work with the SL more movement and spontaneity. I can do that with other AF camera systems but I lose the Leica image quality, now with this new lens I’ll have both!

So there are two things I still need, and starting with those omissions may give an unfair bias as to my impression of this incredible camera. There are so many great things I love about the Leica SL. Not only is the style, look and operation of the camera more similar to the medium format Leica S system than any 35mm digital Leica, the files themselves are the best 35mm digital files I’ve seen. The SL is not a low light king, but with well exposed images which need little pushing, I will happily shoot to ISO 12,500 and still produce hugely detailed and versatile images.

I’ve no doubt for certain web applications you could use higher ISO quite effectively but I shoot to print and I can assure you that ISO 12500 files produce a wonderful clean A3+ print. From ISO 50 to ISO 6400 the only word for the files out of the SL is ‘sublime’.  Operationally, the SL handles like something made as though ‘your life depended on it’. It has the solidity, ruggedness and matt-tech-sexiness of something one could imagine being used in a theatre of modern warfare or on a flight into deep space. The speed with which it operates leaves all predecessors in its wake. The EVF ‘blackout time’ during an exposure is so minimal that they really shouldn’t call it a ‘black out time’ for this camera, there should be a new classification, they should call it ‘flicker time’ or something! Its so fast that its almost imperceptible. This combined with the cavernous and detailed view the EVF gives of the scene before you, nobody who uses this camera will ever go back to optical viewfinders again.

From the brightest of sunlight using auto ISO which starts at 50 to the dingiest parts of my hotel basement where I shot at  ISO 12,500, the EVF gave me more information and presented it to me with more speed and precision than any other EVF is capable of doing at this time. As someone who paid quite a lot of money for a new M9 (more than for the SL in fact) it is hard to imagine two more different cameras. For all its charm, when the M9 came out, it was, compared to other digital cameras at that time, slow and under-resourced. The Leica SL is quite possibly the most capable image making tool to date. It is not, with only one AF lens currently available, going to win any awards for best system camera of the day, but that will change in time. Right now, this camera makes me feel like going out and making pictures, just for the fun of it!

Thanks Neil!

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