I started my career in 1987 as an editorial illustrator. At that time, I used a camera to take reference images for my illustrations. In 2004, after I started showing my plein air landscape paintings in galleries, I bought a Nikon D70 to take file photos of my paintings. At the time I hadn’t considered using the camera for anything else, but then I had an idea for a painting that required a camera to get reference. Normally I painted from life, but in this case, that would involve a model standing on a mountaintop for a couple of days. It was impractical, so I pulled out my D70, took about 50 reference shots, assembled them into a single image, and made the painting from those. After making it though, I kept thinking it could have been a photograph instead—but I didn’t have the right equipment to do it right (Figures 1-2).
Since then I decided to get serious about photography. My goal was to make pictures that felt like paintings. Not so much that they should look like paintings, but that the process should feel like making a painting. At first, it seemed impossible because taking a picture was a simple matter of pushing a button, but the more pictures I took, the more I realized that photography allowed a different kind of control. With a painting, the primary effort went into rendering the final composition. With a photo, the rendering is taken care of by the camera, allowing photographers to concentrate on other factors like lighting, styling, and details too fine to deal with in a painting. More than that, models wouldn’t have to sit still for hours as I painted their portrait.
At first, I tried to get what I wanted with the D70, but the color depth and low resolution was insufficient, so I started upgrading. After a few years of working with Nikon DSLRs, I switched to Phase One and now use the XF-100MP system. It took ten years of practice and a number of equipment upgrades, but now photography actually does feel like painting. What made this possible are the 16-bit color depth 100-megapixel sensor, the XF camera, and the excellent Schneider-Kreuznach lenses.
I’ve been using the XF-100 primarily for portraits, and love the results. The first was a simple self-portrait focus stacking test that I did just to see if I could hold still enough for it to work (Figure 3). It is hard to appreciate the detail produced by the 100 MP digital back on the web, but it is fascinating to look at in Capture One at full resolution. Even better, the new electronic shutter (ES) on the XF-100 MP allows a completely silent, motion-free capture. To use the ES, the subject has to be nearly still such as landscapes and product shots, but it can be used for portraits as well if care is taken. The image here shows strong moiré in the shirt, but it is not there at full resolution. In the original image, every thread in the shirt is distinct.
The first chance I had to use the XF-100 MP for a portrait was for a friend who wanted me to make a portrait of his daughter (Figure 4). I shot it outside with a couple of ProFoto B1 flash units. The color produced by the sensor was incredible. Unlike captures I’d made with other cameras (including the Phase One IQ 250 DB), the color produced by the IQ3-100 often didn’t require alteration. This was a bit disappointing because I like to adjust the color, but it is more than compensated by the high quality. Also, there is a difference between needing to make color adjustments because the image would be lost otherwise, and making the adjustments to enhance the image. With other cameras, the image had to be “saved” more often than captures from the XF-100 MP, which were often nearly perfect right out of the camera.
My next shoot was with model Fabienne van den Kieboom (styling by Kiki Vogels, makeup by Fadim Kurt) in a very old Dutch building currently used as a restaurant and pub. The goal was to get a period look and to have the richest color possible. Again, the XF-100 MP did not disappoint (Figure 5). For one shot I wanted to get the black and white “glam” look from the 1970’s, so I sacrificed the color and was rewarded with tremendous tonal detail (Figure 6).
Over the past four weeks I did four portrait shoots with the XF-100 MP: the first was a moody portrait in a bar (Figure 7), the other three were action-oriented shoots for athletes and athletic performers (Figures 8-14). Making them, just as when I drew comics in my illustrator days or made paintings later, felt very much like I was making a painting. This is because every modification, as it showed up on Capture One, became another brushstroke. Another change, another brushstroke, and the image becomes gradually clearer.
I did one shoot at the Belgian ghost town of Doel, located beside a nuclear power plant (Figures 12-14). It was a tricky location to shoot in due to the number of sharp objects and rubble lying around all over the place. To make it trickier, two of the shots required free running through the environment. The subject of this shoot was the “Friends Crew” (Friends Crew) of free runners. I’d shot them a week earlier in a studio (Figure 11), but now was on location to see how they moved in an urban environment. As in the studio, the hardest part of the shoot was coordinating their group shots. To get these, their timing and mine had to be absolutely perfect. If I had been using a Nikon D800 or the Sony A7r, catching the right moment would have been easier with burst mode, but with the Phase One, not only did they have to be in the right place at the right time, but I had to trip the shutter at exactly the right time also because the camera could make only one shot in the time they were in mid-air. This was made more complicated by the fact that the shutter doesn’t release exactly when it feels like it will release, but a split-second later. This was my only real complaint about the system, because I had to train myself to ignore the feel of the shutter release and instead rely on when I knew it would fire. The other issue, though an expected one, was that the ES did not work with moving subjects. Even fast captures would stretch the limbs of the free runners as they flipped through the air.
The last shot in Doel (Figure 14) was much more difficult than we expected. For other action shots with this group, we had first done one jump, then choreographed two crew members jumping, then three, then four, up to seven at a time. In this way, everyone grew accustomed to the timing so that in the final shot all of them were jumping at once. This was the same for the five person shot in an abandoned garage in Doel. The reason the last shot looked easy to us was that it involved only two people. However, the window of opportunity to get the jump was much narrower than it looked. This is because I wanted to shoot their youngest crew member, Ravi, as he performed a flip, seen through the legs of senior crew member, Onur, as he cartwheeled out of a handstand on a bench. I had a lot of shots where Ravi’s head, feet, or both appeared to be touching one or both of Onur’s legs. To get it right, Ravi had to jump up and over as far as possible and Onur had to get as close to a splits as he could while rotating into position. To make it more interesting, we had the nuclear power plant as a backdrop.
Because I’d had some people ask me if I’d used Photoshop to combine photos to make the studio shot of the crew (I didn’t), I used a slowish shutter speed (1/400s) and freeze mode on my ProFoto B1 light units to get a little bit of motion blur on Ravi. I’d done this in the garage shot as well (at 1/125s), allowing the figures to blend a little with the background.
For the shots in this article, I used the following lenses: Schneider-Kreuznach 28mm LS, 80mm LS (blue ring), and 150mm LS (blue ring).
Although it is easy to be satisfied with the experience of shooting with the Phase One XF-100 MP, it is the fact that the system allows me to make exactly the kind of images I first imagined when I first thought of getting serious about photography back in 2005 that makes the experience a pleasure.