Marcus Bell

If there was ever a profession that could prepare you for the curveball that is a pandemic, there’s a chance that the photography industry is one, especially if you also shoot weddings. Not that anything could really have prepared us for what’s unfolded. Ever since becoming a wedding photographer, there have always been changes.

Evolving has always been key in our industry, never a dull moment. The pandemic has supercharged “change” and at the same time, it’s made most of us reassess what’s important. One thing I’ve already noticed is the renewed importance of weddings, it’s a celebration of life, after all, something that we’re taking more notice of.

Twenty-five circles around the sun and still counting.

This year marks twenty-five years since I first started Studio Impressions here in Brisbane Australia. Time has flown by and I still feel like it’s the best job in the world. This past year has given me the opportunity to reconnect with my photography, which has meant relooking at the gear that I shoot with.

I thought it was time for an update on the gear I’m currently using and where I’m at with my photography.

Looking back, I think of myself as pretty lucky that I began wedding photography shooting film. Using film offers an entirely different way to learn. The first wedding photographer I ever looked up to (and still do) was David Oliver who shot exclusively with Leica. Like any impressionable photographer, I just thought that’s what you did to be like your heroes, so I started my career on two Leica M6’s, one loaded with colour and the other B&W.

I later moved to one Leica M6 loaded with B&W and a Canon EOS film DSLR with colour. I’ve always been consistent with shooting, using two bodies to provide that different perspective on the story I capture.

Digital hit in 2000 and as soon as the Nikon D30 was released I instantly saw the possibilities, especially considering we were scanning our film for years before the first economical digital camera came along. In 2008 I moved over to Nikon as the D3 was groundbreaking for low light photography, which worked well with my passion for shooting in natural light.

I previously talked about all the benefits of that system on Shotkit and how that line continued to grow into the incredible Nikon D750 and Df bodies.

For twelve years I was stoked to be a Nikon Ambassador. I have loved my time using Nikon gear, the relationships that I’ve had with fellow ambassadors and the Nikon team here in Australia, the USA and Japan. It has been a highlight of my life and career. It has also been really gratifying to be involved with future camera development helping make the cameras what they are today.

So why did I resign as an ambassador? You could say that it was mostly fate.

Just over a year ago, I was photographing a dream job in Uluru with this incredible couple eloping due to international travel bans. Rather than getting married in Italy, they chose the centre of Australia.

I was assigned to take a pre-production Nikon Z 70-200 f/2.8 lens with me and it was going to be the perfect shoot to get some incredible sample photos. However, Nikon’s head office had an internal error and the lens never arrived before my flight.

Collecting special lenses has always been a passion of mine so I thought I would take one of my lenses on this trip. It is something I rarely get to do but figured as I was away for a week I had time to experiment a little so I took the original Nikon Noctilux f/1.2 manual lens. It’s always been a dream lens of mine and it is incredible how it renders when wide open!

That week instantly reminded me of the pure joy of photography, I can’t even put the exact feeling into words, but I was transported back to where it all started, using the Noctilux on the M6 when I first started weddings. I felt alive each and every time that I picked up that lens during the shoot!

It was at that moment that I realised how I’d been holding myself back.

Over the years I’ve learnt so much about alternative image-making, various techniques, and different equipment that’s been produced over the past 100 years. A good deal of those tools and applications are still very relevant today, yet can be easily overlooked. Many companies focus solely on the latest and greatest state of the art technology but in the process lose sight of the past.

Photographic history is still very relevant today if they want to acknowledge it or even better use it as a strength.

After coming back on such a high that week, I opened up the files and I was blown away by how the images just leapt off the screen. Not something I experience every day. Here was a lens that was never made for digital, first created in 1977 and finished in 1997, yet it was doing something that not many lenses in the digital era could manage. A lens that is possibly totally overlooked and misunderstood.

I instantly knew after that week that I couldn’t suppress everything I had learnt about an entire alternative side to photography. My realisation was that a new adventure was waiting and that I had to be true to myself – resigning as a Nikon ambassador was the only option.

The year since resigning has given me the opportunity to re-look at what’s important. Using what I loved about being with Nikon and taking everything into account I’ve learnt over the past sixteen years has allowed me to look beyond what the latest and greatest gear had to offer.

A meeting with the legendary Parker J Pfister also helped me to broaden my horizon in photography, more on that later.

Armed with a broader knowledge base and with careful consideration of all the different aspects that have become increasingly important to me since I started shooting I have come back to Leica. Having the best of both worlds within one brand where they embrace the past and move forward with technology at the same time.

They even reissue some of their famous old lenses which I can’t understand why Nikon doesn’t do as they have an incredible history of making some unique lenses. However, Nikon continues to create some incredible digital cameras and is taking lens making to a whole new level.

Why the move to Leica?

After the experience of using the Nikon Noctilux in Uluru, I looked at my existing set of Leica M lenses that I had kept since starting plus additional lenses that I had collected along the way. I was sold on the idea of being able to use my M lenses again, knowing they would give me the look and feel I was chasing for my work.

When reading reviews on using M lenses on mirrorless cameras, the consistent message was that M lenses always perform at their best on Leica camera bodies.

I would repeatedly read on Ken Rockwell’s review site, where he would go a step further, saying  – “no matter the manufacture, this lens will always perform best when matched with the same branded camera”. It was really sound advice, though frustrating if you were hoping to mix and match which is what I was exploring.

The other important aspect to consider was how lenses have their own way of producing colour, often unique to each manufacturer. This was another reason for not mixing and matching as consistency is important.

So all roads led to the Leica SL system coupled with the M lenses. The SL body is so perfectly suited to shooting with these lenses, from using the 6-bit coding that identifies each lens you’re using and the incredible viewfinder that makes it so easy to nail focus manually. I was also impressed with the colour science and the flexibility of the RAW files.

With this combination, you really do get the Leica look that so many people talk about.

What I wasn’t expecting was what the amazing Leica SL system offered with the SL2 and SL2-S and matching lenses. To be honest this was never on my radar. The results left me even more impressed than using the M lenses. The SL APO lenses are sublime and I was simply blown away. I instantly settled on the 90mm f/2 APO Summicron along with the 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens.

Both lenses offer incredible sharpness and the images have that special look about them. They are so well suited with the sensors on both the SL2 and SL2-S and the fact that they both don’t have a Low-Pass Filter was a feature I was also looking for to give that extra bit of punch.

I knew immediately I found the perfect combination!

After trying the SL system with their native lenses I almost forgot about my M lenses, yet that’s what led me to this point in the first place. So now I am very comfortable photographing an entire wedding with just the SL 24-70 on one body and the 90mm f/2 Summicron on the other.

This system was a step up in quality and price and after twenty-five years of buying and selling Leica gear, I know that it holds its value and supplies the quality.

What are some of the important aspects I’m looking for in my gear?

With a Camera Body I consider the following:
Colour Science
Dynamic Range / RAW files – being able to push and pull detail in post-production.
Good High ISO performance
No Low Pass Filter
Thin Glass over the sensor
Ability to program different user profiles.

Lenses
Like a painter using different mediums to paint onto, different brush types, or a mix of their paints, the same can be said about each lens we use with different apertures and different distances from the subject. The camera also plays a role in regards to the sensor type or what filters are over the sensor.

I’m after lenses that offer a unique look with the ability to make an image jump off the screen.

Each of us as photographers see the world differently, something I love about photography, there is no right or wrong way in how each of us sees the world, the same is with the gear we use. We learn to use gear to help us either capture a moment or to simply express our idea within an image.

Just how we might shoot an image at f/5.6, we also might choose f/1.2 to express an entirely different view that provides an additional emotion to the scene. If we know why we are choosing to use some gear over another, then it can help with the creative process.

Bodies
Leica SL2-S
Leica SL2
Leica M6

Straps
Upstraps – Thin Camera Strap in combination with PeakDesign’s Anchor Links
Spiderholster – Wriststrap and holster.

Lenses – SL (Autofocus) / R (Manual)
Leica SL 24-70mm f/2.8 Vario-Elmarit Asph.
Leica SL 90mm f/2 APO Summicron
Leica R 180mm f/2.8 (with Leica R to SL Adapter)

Lenses– M (Manual)
2x Leica M to SL Adapter (with 6bit Coding)
Leica M 35mm f/2 Summicron ver IV
Leica M 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux
Leica M 75mm f/1.4 Summilux
Leica M 7.3cm f/1.9 Hektor
Voightlander 15mm vII f/4.5

Each of the above M lenses offer a different view and have their own characteristics, some have a beautiful softness when shot wide open, quite different to many other modern lenses.

iPhone 12 Pro Max with PolarPro Case – Perfect for Pre-Location scouting and BHS footage.

Lighting 
Profoto A1x with remote trigger
Profoto 10 / 10+ (not pictured)
Stella – Light and Motion GLX10 10,000 Lumens continuous light
X Power – Ultra Compact 500 Lumens Bike light
Manfrotto – Compact light stand 5001B

Sandisk SD Cards – 5 x 300mbs Extreme Pro + 2 x 95mbs Extreme Pro for the second backup card slot

Leica Battery x 6

Bags
ThinkTank – Vision 15 My main bag during the wedding day.
ThinkTank – Retrospective 30 Black – used for any backup gear and lighting.

Back History

Lessons that took me too long to learn.

Good marketing gets people talking and I’m guilty of getting excited about the launch of a new camera, the latest and the greatest. I have a feeling I’m not the only one guilty of this. It’s easy to look at lenses and how they are rated against each other, trying to see which lenses are the best.

Reading press releases and trying to understand an MFT chart of a newly released lens, (that is Modulation Transfer Function ) which shows the optical performance potential of a lens. It’s like a contest of who can outdo each other on technical specifications and forgetting to visually see the differences in the images produced.

I’ve learnt that there are some lenses that on paper are outstanding, however, when you look at the image, they can feel soulless. It’s almost like they are too perfect and at the end of the day don’t offer anything to the creative process. Perhaps some photographers may need this pure replication of a scene. Sometimes we can lose what we are trying to convey in the pursuit of perfection.

I’ve learnt to not get caught up in all the marketing hype.

Important Considerations

Beyond the aesthetics and ergonomics of the camera, the menu settings and programmable custom function buttons all combine to bring the art of capturing the image into one.

Over time I’ve learnt that placing an equally important emphasis on –  the lens and how it renders and interrupts colour, the sensor, the addition of a low pass filter, how flexible the digital RAW image is able to be manipulated with the dynamic range, the colour science that each brand develops no matter who provides the sensor, all make a difference. With colour science being a personal preference to each photographer.

Beyond the latest tech

Enter Parker J Pfister –  who I was fortunate to meet back in 2004 at WPPI, we instantly hit it off, he’s like a brother from another mother. He’s one of the most incredible artists I know, someone that experiments so much with photography, as a result, he’s taught me so so much, not only about seeing but how techniques and equipment can play an important role in the process.

He also taught me that a twenty-dollar toy lens can be better than a three thousand dollar state of the art lens, but equally how a ten thousand dollar lens can also be so much better than a three thousand dollar state of the art lens, even with a few flaws.

There are so many things I found along my journey that led back to Parker. Sometimes it might have been a conversation we had 10 years earlier, where he would put an idea in my head, I would then research it and work it out, finally unlocking the puzzle and finding someone who practised the technique. Often that someone was a friend or associate of Parker.

I’m certain Parker’s approach was to give me just enough information so that I would start my own journey of discovery.

Parker was using the Brenizer method even before it was a thing, possibly even before Ryan Brenizer. I remember in 2007 when he came out to Australia and handed me a lens showing me a method of freelensing. We were in a national park and it was one of those moments when Parker sent me down a rabbit hole searching beyond MFT charts and the latest camera specs.

Some of those images I produced with Parker in the national park that year were submitted in a landscape award competition taking out the top prize. Was it the lens (Mamiya 55mm f4.5 lens from the C330 system) or was it the freelensing technique, I’m not sure but it certainly opened up my eyes to look at landscape photography differently.

I’ve always loved Parker’s 4 x 5 and 8 x 10 film work. The format has an incredible look to it which I’ve tried to replicate digitally but with little success. He is always pushing the boundaries and I have learnt so much about different techniques, lens design, film formats and rendering.

In my early research, I came across David Burnett and his use of the Kodak Cine Lens with his cropped sensor Sony A6000 series camera. The lens gives a great swirl to the background and when combined with a Lensbaby mechanism the movement can give a 4 x 5 look to the image. If you then combine that with the sensor of a Leica M8 or even the Ricoh GXR A12 M modular camera, both without the low pass filter, the look is getting an entirely new feel about it.

In short, get out there and experiment with different techniques, lenses and camera bodies.

WISE WORDS – That finally sank in

Ken Rockwell feels like an institution when it comes to camera and gear reviews. He’s been around for as long as I can remember and as I said before he constantly says that you will always get the best result when you combine the same brand lens with the same brand camera, as they both intertwine with each other.

I finally understood that to get the best out of the Leica M lenses they must always be coupled with a Leica body even though they can be used on most digital mirrorless cameras. You will get the best out of the colours, retain the quality edge to edge sharpness and avoid smudging at the corners.

Autofocus vs Autofocus

It’s interesting to notice that whenever a flagship camera is newly announced one of the things that get talked about is how AutoFocus is the best on the market, superseding everything that has been released before. They talk about AutoFocus as though it has just been invented when you have the fourteen-year-old camera like Nikon D3 that is incredible with outstanding autofocus.

I always felt that the Nikon D800, D810, D850 and then both the Z7, Z7ii had a unique quality about them that not many other cameras had. It was the sensor and in combination with a lack of low pass filter that gave the files an added punch especially when compared to the low light models like the D700, D750 and Z6ii.

The point I’m making is that there is often too much emphasis on AutoFocus in the marketing strategy which may only be of significance to a minority.

There are so many other important aspects to a camera it just depends on what you want to shoot.

www.studioimpressions.com.au | @marcusbell

2016

 

I’m Marcus. I’m a husband, a Dad, an Australian, a Photographer, and the owner of Studio Impressions.

Some say I’m a romantic (you’d have to check with my wife). Maybe that’s why I love photographing the connections between people – those unscripted amazing moments that define their lives. Maybe that’s also why I love photographing landscapes – powerful, majestic, romantic places.

Some time, about 20 years ago, I put the two of those things I loved together – little people in love against the backdrop of an epic landscape – the power of love and nature all combined, and I found my “thing.” It was that thing that would transport my career as a photographer.

I won a couple of awards for it, my first award in the USA received a perfect 100 score and along with it the Grand Award at WPPI, Rangefinder magazine in 2003 described my work as “Weddingscapes” and forever since its stuck. Now it is a style of wedding photography used by truly incredible photographers from around the globe and continues to grow. Its nice to know that it started all the way back in the mid 90’s here in little old Brisbane.

Ever since I’ve been lucky to ride the wave of artistic change that has occurred in wedding photography over the last couple of decades. I’ve learnt to keep evolving, innovate, but be true to myself, let what I love in life shape my photography.

My gear is like an extension of me. It guarantees I capture the moment precisely when it happens and in exactly the way I feel it. I probably have too much gear, but I have different kits for different assignments. (I love weddings, but that’s not all I do.)

My wedding kit is simple. It is compact and lightweight. I choose bodies and lenses based on quality and size/weight. I spend ages planning ahead and think everything through before every wedding, then I pack exactly what I need, modifying my kit to suit the day.

I’ve always shot with two camera bodies, one over each shoulder and use “Upstraps” so that I can wear a suit and blend in more on the wedding day. I also have a small Tamrac belt buckle card holder perfect for inconspicuously holding extra cards and batteries on me at all times.

I take a small shoulder bag like the ThinkTank Retrospective10 for the extra gear needed for that day. I never wheel anything around at a wedding so I’m always free to shoot at any moment, plus I’m never worried about any gear I left in the corner.

When using a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, I’ll use a spider holster. Camera strap systems like the Holdfast are great, but on weddings they just scream “look at me I’m the photographer.” The more things you can do to NOT look like the photographer, the more people will ignore you and just let the unexpected and emotive moments happen right in front of you.

The two latest bits of kit I’m in love with are first the new Nikon 24mm f/1.8–it’s my favourite focal length and the quality is stellar, let alone so light, and second the Wacom Express Key, a control pad that I can use to program all my favourite Photoshop and Lightroom keystrokes and actions. With a few presses of a button and I’ve got my images where I want them to be. It’s an awesome time saving device.

I’m big on backups. On a wedding day you only get one chance, so you need to be prepared. My two-camera setup means I always have a backup, but secretly there is a third body not too far away. I highly recommend using the second card slot with a backup card and always, always carry spare batteries.

This is my ultimate wedding kit. My staple master kit which I layout and then reorganise, swap and change for each wedding (pictured). For cameras, I carry two Nikon D750‘s. My typical lenses are Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, Nikon 58mm f/1.4, Nikon 24mm f/1.8, Nikon 85mm f/1.8, and on occasions either the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 or the Nikon 20mm f/1.8

Other:
Plenty of 64gb and 128gb Sandisk Extreme Cards, using the 128gb cards in the backup slot. A range of little accessories from spare batteries, zip ties and the magical “exit” stain-remover bar that can get pretty much anything out of a white wedding dress.

I’m a lover of natural light so only use flash when absolutely necessary or when I want to use it in a creative way. When I don’t need a powerful flash I use the Nikon SB-500 speedlight. This flash is super small and lightweight and punches well above its weight.

For creative lighting I can still use the SB-500 with a set of PocketWizards, but I also have either the Profoto B1 or Profoto B2 kit for location lighting. These get used in the studio and on commercial jobs I do.

I’m on the road for most of my weddings so I have my ColorSpace downloading device to download cards and back up on the fly (there’s that backup thing again).

My Wacom Companion 2 lets me start image work on the plane home. Finally a Chord mojo DAC, combined with a special app on my iPhone keeps my passion for high def music satiated when I’m travelling. Love this thing because when I’m back in the studio I can plug it into the Wacom Companion and with a vintage tube amp crank up the music and post-production my heart out.

The Master Kit is (pictured) WEDDING KIT 2016
Wacom Companion 2: Use it for travel as a stand alone tablet whilst I’m traveling plus can plug & play into the MacPro at the studio.
ExpressKey – Programable wireless keypad to speed up post workflow.
Chord Mojo + Shure 535’s earbuds: I love my music and using an App by Onkyo “HF Player” I can play hi-res audio from my iPhone (or the Wacom in the hotel room).
iPhone 6
Umbrella (Compact)
Nikon Coolpix A
Sandisk SD Cards
Spare battery
Listerine Tabs (always good to have fresh breath doing close up shots)
Speedlight SB-500 (So love the compactness of this flash, perfect for receptions)
Compact Powerful LED torch (Bike store bought)
Super compact LED light
Tiny Softbox for the Torch + warming gel
Two Nikon D750 bodies (Always two bodies)
1 x Nikon D810 (Backup body, but also for remote camera use if needed)
UpStraps Camera Straps (enable me to wear each body on my shoulder without sliding off)
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8
Nikon 135mm f/2 DC
Nikon 85mm f/1.8
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8
Nikon 58mm f/1.4
Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8
Nikon 24mm f/1.8
Nikon 20mm f/1.8
Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 Manual Lens
Lensbaby Composer with a home made conversion to fit a Holga lens.
12mm Extention ring (perfect way to make any lens a macro lens & Compact)
Card & Battery pouch by Tamrac (Love the zipper and the belt clip)

Not Pictured: Bags – Thinktank Retrospective 30, Thinktank Retrospective 10,  Paklite Duffle/Roller bag (for travelling – super important as it fits my Retrospective 30 inside it plus some extra things, perfect carry on, has a roller and doesn’t look like a camera bag) Passport (off getting a Visa for this month’s trip) Profoto B1 Kit and light accessories.

www.studioimpressions.com.au

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