GQ Taiwan Shoot with the Leica S2 - Nic Roldan as the Prince of Polo & Elsa Benitez in Summer Night Obsession
Back in early May, GQ Taiwan contributing editor and photographer Chiun-Kai Shih expressed an interest in using the Leica S2 on some upcoming shoots he had down in South Florida. A mutual friend put us in touch and we (Dale Photo & Digital) were happy to provide him the camera and be on set to give support as digital techs.
Two weeks later Josh and I showed up at the house he was staying at in Miami Beach. Before shooting a GQ spread, Chiun-Kai wanted a little practice to get familiar with the S2. So, in preparation he used the camera for some model testing around the house. Chiun-Kai shoots fast and maintains an extremely high energy level on set. He's used plenty of digital medium format cameras, as well as 35mm DSLRs and questioned us as to how far he could push the camera. We told him to just shoot the heck out of it and not even think about it.
Putting the Camera Through Its Paces
After about five hours of fast-paced available-light, hand-held shooting and filling 160GB of memory cards, Chiun-Kai couldn't believe that he hadn't had to change batteries. In fact, the indicator on the top OLED screen was still showing about 30% battery remaining after 1,900 captures. No other medium format camera had even come close to this level of battery life in his experience. He stressed how important it is to be able to keep shooting without breaking the flow of the session and lamented that this is an always-present factor with other medium format systems he has used. On the S2, he could throw in a 64GB card and get 850 shots without having to worry about stopping to change batteries. Another comment from his first experience with the S2 was how comfortable the camera was to hold and use all day. Chiun-Kai is primarily a hand-held shooter and likes to explore different angles around his models mid-session, so ergonomics play a huge part in achieving his photographic style.
After some perusing of the day's efforts in Lightroom, he was extremely pleased with the quality of the files and the accuracy of the autofocus even when moving quickly. We walked through the features and menus with him, then headed home to rest up for the real deal the following day.
Nic Roldan has been playing Polo since he was five, turned professional at 14, then became the youngest player ever to win the US Open Polo Championship at 15 less than a year later. Today, at 28, he is currently the highest ranked Polo player in the US with a 9-goal rating. In February, Nic was signed by Wilhelmina Models in New York and has appeared in Vanity Fair, Hamptons Magazine, GQ and other publications. This GQ Taiwan shoot with Chiun-Kai would be a solo feature on Nic and Fall fashion for the August issue.
Nic's Wellington, Florida home quickly transformed into a full-fledged set and by the time we arrived with Chiun-Kai, two large racks of designer clothes and several rows of shoes had overtaken his kitchen. Top NY stylist Yahaira Familia and her assistant had the steamer going full blast and were getting the wardrobe prepped. Nic's garage had been turned into a lighting and grip staging area with C-stands and Profoto 7b backs getting double-checked by local Miami assistant Thomas. While Josh and I set up our 27" iMac in the dining room, the groomer J. Patrick was getting Nic prepped in his guest bathroom. Nic's agent from NYC was on set as well, making sure his client was kept happy. Chiun-Kai wasted no time and started coordinating with his assistant Cassie to scout out locations and talk about page flow for the editorial spread.
For the first shot, he set up in Nic's bathroom. Chiun-Kai really liked the raw concrete walls of the shower and wanted to play off the textures. This location was especially challenging considering the small size of the space, the fact that the walls were dark gray, and that there was a wall of glass between the photographer and the model. Two Profoto Pro-7b heads were set up outside with the heads shooting in through the window and another head was used in the shower. Because of space limitations and reflections, a C-stand just wouldn't work and Thomas ended up holding the light at arm's length in his hands. Due to some less-than-stellar LCD screens on MFD backs he had used in the past, Chiun-Kai would have had to shoot tethered or pull the CF card and run to a computer to check the lighting and whether or not the glass was a problem. Keep in mind that the entire crew was huddled on the floor trying to stay out of view in the glass, with the groomer and stylist jumping in and out between shots to fix and primp the model. This was not a place to shoot tethered – there wasn't even enough room for a light stand. He was delighted that in this case, he could quickly and easily see every detail and trusted the S2's LCD for every setup thereafter. The time savings afforded by not having to break pace and check and recheck made the shoot that much smoother. Besides battery life, the LCD quality was the biggest plus for Chiun-Kai.
After the bathroom, the shoot moved into the bedroom and worked similarly. Tight space, lights in the room and outside coming in through the windows, everyone crouched on the floor or off to the sides. Between setups, I imported the last set from the CF card into Lightroom. Chiun-Kai was curious to see how Lightroom would perform on set, as he wasn't that familiar with the program – they usually use Capture One for on-set previewing and Photoshop for final conversions and retouching. He was immediately pleased with the results popping up on screen, even before edits. We did some quick selects, then I asked if he wanted to see any changes in color, contrast, lighting, etc. "What can you do?" he asked. I replied that anything was possible, and I'd be happy to show him. So, based on his direction, we came up with a rough "GQ" look in about two minutes, saved it as a preset, and instantly applied it to all the photos from that setup. I also showed him how we could do some localized adjustments like gradient blends or selective dodging and burning straight to the RAW file. Needless to say, he was very impressed as these kinds of edits usually had to be done well after the shoot was already over.
We kept up the same pattern: setting up, shooting, then quick editing. After Chiun-Kai had shot five looks in under three hours at the house, he told everyone to pack up. We were heading to Nic's stables. The computer was left behind, meaning that we'd have no way to check the images between setups. Chiun-Kai was comfortable with this, especially having seen the reliability of the rear LCD compared to what he saw coming into LR on the 27" iMac screen. So, with lights, wardrobe, talent, and crew all packed up, we all drove over to Nic's incredible stables and practice field.
Chiun-Kai quickly got his first shot lined up, which was Nic standing in front of some of the horses, holding a saddle. The hardest part of this shot was getting all the horses heads out of the stalls at the same time. Members of the crew shook feed bins in front of each horse to get them to poke their heads out. Meanwhile, Nic struck perfect poses, without missing a beat. With that shot in the bag, Chiun-Kai saw the sun starting to go down and raced to catch some magic light on the other side of the stables' inner courtyard. With a quick wardrobe change and just a single reflector, he captured a beautifully lit image of Nic leaning on a railing. With the light fleeting, Chiun-Kai quickly moved everyone outside to the practice field and had Nic pose with one of his ponies, both in the saddle and alongside the horse. The S2 was able to keep up with quick movements both from horse and photographer. It nailed accurate focus even when shooting Nic on horseback, with the sun directly behind him. And, when the sun finally did set, Chiun-Kai called the shoot a wrap. We headed back to the house to pack up and head home.
It's a wrap
Overall, the shoot went extremely well. The crew had produced ten looks in five hours, with a full location move. This was a great pace and Chiun-Kai was very pleased. The S2 never slowed down the tempo, rather, he felt the Leica was faster to work with than other systems he had worked with in the past. Josh and I had brought an extra S2 body as backup, but we never had to use it. The camera performed flawlessly throughout the entire shoot with nary a hiccup. While we and Chiun-Kai would have liked to have had other lenses besides the 70mm Summarit-S, the photographer never once felt limited or that he couldn't accomplish his goals for the project. One camera body, one lens, one battery, one photographer and a lot of great images.
Check out the behind-the-scenes video from the shoot:
Another Day, Another Editorial Spread
The following day, Chiun-Kai had another project planned. He was shooting one more editorial spread for GQ Taiwan, this time focused on designer swimwear. His concept was to shoot at night, mixing ambient light and strobe. Here, a tripod was a necessity as were clean long exposures, with an extensive dynamic range and low noise. The models, Bart and Elsa, were tasked with standing as still as possible while Chiun-Kai fired off shots ranging from two to eight seconds. The long exposures were necessary to capture the landscaping around the pool, while a single Profoto beauty dish provided crisp and perfectly exposed subjects. The shoot progressed smoothly, with the S2 handling the assignment with ease, and again, never needing a battery change.
The female model for the shoot was Mexican supermodel Elsa Benítez who has graced the covers of Vogue, ELLE, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. She has modeled for various ad campaigns for brands such as Macy's, Dolce & Gabbana, I-N-C, J. Crew, Oscar de la Renta, Nine West, Valentino, Jones New York, and Victoria's Secret. She is currently the host of Mexico's Next Top Model.
Before the night shoot, Chiun-Kai wanted to make the most of his time with Elsa, whom he was very excited to work with. He shot some portraits of her and even invited Nic back to pose with Elsa. These shots weren't for the magazine, just for his personal work.
By the time the evening shoot got started, it had already been a long day with the crew starting work at 10AM. Chiun-Kai set the pace and kept everyone's energy level as high as his and by around 2AM shooting wrapped for the day. The entire crew was exhausted, but gratified in knowing that solid work had been accomplished. Of course, having a 5:30AM call time the next morning meant there was no time for rest. The following day was an Ocean Drive shoot using the same team. You can see the results of that shoot, also shot exclusively with the Leica S2 by Chiun-Kai Shih, here.
The S2 as a Professional Tool
Over the course of three separate high-profile magazine assignments shot in three consecutive days, the Leica S2 was rock solid. No quirks, no freezing. The camera just plain worked without any surprises, which is what a top pro like Chiun-Kai demands. At this level of photographic gear great image quality is expected. What was a surprise was the ease and comfort of handling, the reliability, the speed of operation, the superior quality of the LCD screen, and the never-ending battery life. No longer do pros have to sacrifice these aspects to achieve ultimate image quality. I'm positive that as more professionals get an opportunity to use the S2 for their jobs, the camera will make significant inroads in high-end fashion editorial and commercial work.