Sean Hopkins manages to combine the technical and the creative in his work as both a mechanical engineer and a successful photographer. The new Noctilux-M 75 f/1.25 ASPH is a lens, which also delivers on both these counts. The Chicago-based photographer got his hands on the latest addition to the Noctilux range and the experience has driven him to the next level.
“I haven’t used anything quite like this before, nor have I produced work that has made me this proud in such a long time. There is no shortage of character in any of the images I’ve created and for some time the Noctilux became my go to lens. Unbeknownst to me, the lens is directly responsible for my growth as a photographer, as I pushed to create work better than the previous day.”
You are a mechanical engineer by trade but as a photographer you also have a large following on Instagram. How did you get into photography?
I’ve always told people that my journey into photography began, like a lot of photographers over the last few years, through the discovery of Instagram. However, I first picked up a camera soon after my grandmother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2005. In an attempt to discover different ways to preserve her memories I stumbled across an old rangefinder in the attic of their house. Hidden under the camera was a box of about 300 rolls of Kodak Gold 200 and 400 film. I had no idea what I was doing, but I began to shoot roll after roll (until I figured it out) with the intention of producing visual flash cards that would allow her to reference people and places. She ultimately passed away in December of 2009 and buried with her were hundreds of prints and negatives that were rightfully hers – her memories preserved. I didn’t touch a camera again until 2012 when I bought an entry level DSLR.
Your Instagram is an ode to the city of Chicago, where the majority of this series was also shot. What is it about the city, which attracts your creative focus?
I was born and raised on Chicago’s south side. Coupled with the west side, these areas often cast a negative light on the city due to the high prevalence of violent crime. This is neither a complete nor fair representation of my home. I strive to show Chicago in a way that doesn’t mask the faults, but rather how I’ve embraced the city as a whole, to better shape my view of the world around me. For example, a day spent walking around downtown Chicago will give someone the opportunity to interact with people from every walk of life. For me, this has led to a better understanding and appreciation for the human condition and any experiences that have come to define our character; this is what drives me as a photographer.
For this series of street shots and portraits you used the new Leica Noctilux-M 75 f/1.25 ASPH. How was the experience of shooting with this very powerful lens and which camera(s) did you use?
I’ve heard 75mm described as an odd focal length for some, but it’s personally one of my favorites. Specific to the Noctilux, I quickly discovered that the lens possesses something that tests cannot quantify and something seldom found in other lenses – character. When paired with my Leica M10, I found myself producing images that immediately elicited an emotional response that is difficult to put into words. I choose to shoot with Leica cameras not only for the image quality and capabilities of the M system, but for the experience that originally defined me as a photographer; the Noctilux only amplifies this. With each shutter actuation I found myself shooting again with purpose and producing work that satisfies the endless duel for control between the creative and technical halves of my mind.
A lot of your shots were taken in very low light, yet the results are excellent with very little noise. Which settings did you use to get so much out of these challenging conditions?
The sensor used in the Leica M10 can handle low light situations far better than I could have ever imagined. It is the pinnacle of the digital M and will be very hard to top. I found myself regularly shooting between ISO 10000 and 25000 without hesitation. This allowed me to produce images without worrying that my equipment is a limiting factor at virtually any combination of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. When utilizing the speed of the Noctilux (shooting at f/1.25), I could significantly lower my ISO to produce images with even less noise/grain and still showcase the unique character of the lens.
The Noctilux-M 75 f/1.25 ASPH provides half the depth of focus of the Noctilux-M 50 f/0.95 ASPH, which means the detailed faces of your subjects really pop. Can you tell us how you went about creating such a strong aesthetic?
The narrow depth of field of the lens was an attribute that took some time to effectively incorporate into my images because I haven’t shot with anything like this before. Initially it was a bit challenging to accurately focus on certain facial features of the subject, while using the standard optical viewfinder when shooting at f/1.25. However, using live view and the Visoflex EVF at various magnifications, I was able to precisely land the focal point on any part of the subject’s face to take full advantage of narrow depth of field. Also, this is where my technical mind came to my aid by helping me quickly understand the intricacies of the lens by correlating my direct inputs with the response in the form of image output.
The street portraits, you have included in the series display real Leica aesthetic with stunning bokeh effects. How did you go about creating this look?
Portraiture has always been an interesting subject for me. As with any artist, their work will evolve over time and can be shaped by several variables, such as elements that inspire or specific things from their environment. If I could classify my work, I believe that the majority of it would fall under the umbrella of documentary and street photography, which is heavily influenced by the work of those we consider legendary in these fields. Consequently, I believe my portrait style is similar, as I use the environment, either as a whole or as separate elements, to compliment my subject. With respect to the Noctilux, it only seemed natural to use some of the unique characteristics specific to this lens: complete background separation, attractive bokeh, visual compression, and sharpness wide open. Prior to any of the photo shoots, I scouted several locations at multiple points throughout the day to understand how the lens and camera would behave at various apertures. During each shoot I made sure to move the subject or myself to incorporate various elements of the environment that allowed me achieve what many describe as the “Leica look”.
Did you explore the widest aperture settings, where the Noctilux-M 75 f/1.25 ASPH really comes into its own?
As I mentioned earlier, the depth of field is very thin and initially can be challenging to work with. Once I overcame the learning curve, I quickly discovered that this lens was meant to be shot wide open. At f/1.25 my images achieved a very cinematic look reminiscent of some of my favorite movies. This gave me incredible subject separation relative to the background, smooth and dramatic bokeh, and a 3D feel to each of my images. Equally pleasing, the Noctilux is extremely sharp wide open. As an engineer it can be difficult to move away from my technical side, but this proved to be the perfect merger of what appeals to me both technically and creatively.
Can you sum up your experience of shooting with the Noctilux-M 75 f/1.25 ASPH?
The Noctilux-M 75 f/1.25 ASPH is a lens unlike any I have ever used before. Much like the Noctilux-M 50 f/0.95 this lens is big, especially on the M10, but for good reason. Optically I have not seen anything like it outside of cine lenses. With the help of Live View and the Visoflex I could easily focus at any aperture, but more importantly understand how the lens was rendering the subject relative to the background.
How much post-processing went into creating these images and how do you go about editing your shots?
Ultimately, I envision every image I create as a physical print. As such, I try to keep post processing to the mindset of producing prints as one would in a darkroom. However, I’ve always loved the many forms that film can take so the majority of my images are edited to resemble films of the past and present. Sometimes this can be done quickly and in other instances I may take my time to edit a photo based on something that recently inspired me or utilizing color theory.
What advice would you offer to fellow photographers looking to up their game?
Practice your craft – shoot as much as you can, understand what those before you did, and always remain a student of the world. I found that once I picked up a camera again I shot anything and everything until I discovered what subject matter I was passionate about. I constantly study the work of photographers from both past and present to help influence my work. Lastly, I set goals for myself in the form of mini projects. With each project I learned how to refine my focus, which resulted in more powerful and connected imagery used to tell a better story.
What can we expect to see from you in the future? Is there anything in particular you are working on at the moment?
I’ve shot much more film than digital lately, but I plan to bring the balance to about 50/50. Most film I shoot doesn’t get shown anywhere, so I’m currently developing a space on my website where I can show film consistently and compliment the images with words. I also have several mini projects I am in the middle of or currently developing. Ultimately, I would like to publish a body of work from one of these projects. Currently I am on track to complete a passion project revolving around my barbershop and its role within the community, responsible for African-American male growth. Other than that, ideas continue to flow into my notebook and lie in wait until I have the time and opportunity to execute.
You can see more of Sean’s work and plenty of great shots of his hometown, Chicago, on his Instagram