Perfect travel or street photography is a delicate concoction of the right place and the right time mixed with a superb eye for the extraordinary. William J Palank is one of those individuals who managed to brew that concoction with a supernatural elegance. While traversing the globe, his weapon of choice these days is the Leica M9, a digital rangefinder that produces an uncannily beautiful image. To help us celebrate Mirrorless Month, Palank describes what about the Lecia M9 allows him to shoot at his best.
Why the M9? Let's go back in time for a moment. Palank first started out with the Epson RD-1, the first Digital Rangefinder. Along the way he collected a few Leica M-Mount lenses, so as time went by it was a natural progression to get a Leica M8 when it became available, thereby upgrading from a 6 megapixel (remember when that was huge?) to a 10.3 megapixel camera, which was great even with inherent problems such as having to use IR cut filters.
Because his images are undeniably pretty fantastic, Leica bought several of his shots taken from his travels through India and Burma to advertise first the M8 and then the M9. Palank was later invited to the M9 launch in New York in September of 2009. After viewing the large printed images from Cuba with incredible tonal gradations he saw produced with the M9, he knew he had to have one. But in addition to the quality of the images, the size of the M9 really made the difference for him.
Palank is lucky enough to own an Epson 7900 with the Image Print Large Format RIP, so that he can print his images big: up to 22 inches on the short side (he likes to leave a minimum of an inch border). The micro contrast that the Leica lenses produce are nothing short of phenomenal.
"Another thing I love about Leica is that it truly is a family. it wasn’t that long ago that it was very close to going bankrupt. The northern California Rep, Tom Brichta and I have become good friends. In fact we teach many of the Leica North America Akademie Courses together. Unfortunately, he and I won’t be involved in one together until the beginning of next year for a Leica M Monochrom Class." That class is already close to being sold-out.
So what is it like shooting on location with the M9? In short, it makes all the difference.
"Traveling through third world countries, I have noticed a complete difference in the way my subjects react to a small Leica with 50mm Summilux lens, as opposed to a large Canon with f/2.8 L 70-200. The M9 is a compact, simple-to-use camera. It really gets down to the bare bones. When looking through the viewfinder I see the world completely differently. Seeing the frame-lines while keeping my left eye open allows me to see the subject entering and leaving the frame. Since I never use Continuous mode on the camera, it slows me down. I’m more cognizant as to what is in front of me before pushing the shutter. When traveling I typically choose two camera bodies - one as back-up - and three lenses. Comparing the size of a Canon two body kit with two to three Zoom Telephotos to my Leica kit with M8 as back-up and three primes, well... let’s just say it is night and day."
For travel photography, you can imagine how a massive camera can be somewhat intimidadting to the local population. You're not exactly hidden when you whip out a giant telephoto lens on a modern DSLR.
"When in the field away from my base camp and wearing cargo pants, I can hang the camera with lens around my neck and place an extra lens in one pocket "ghetto style" (bubble wrap and a rubber band) and place an extra SD card, battery and lens wipe in another. I constantly see DSLR shooters in the field with huge a camera around their neck and a large heavy backpack. To me that would limit my mobility and prevent me from getting the shot. I just make the lens already on the camera work."
To really explain how using a mirrorless not only works for what he does, but makes what he does possible, let's examine one of his images as well as the backstory to its creation. It's called "Boy with Blood."
Palank was at a Suri Tribe cow Blood Letting, a ceremony practiced by local tribes in Ethiopia, Africa. The blood from the cow or bull veins are used as a food source when the land is dry and the cows are not producing milk. When they started it was pre-dawn and Palank was standing in a shadowy area. He was set up with a Broncolor A2r Pack with Mobilite Strobe and his trusty M9 and a Leica 50mm Summilux lens.
"I watched this small child guzzle close to a liter of frothing blood and just as he was done, the sun broke over my shoulder casting this amazing light over his face. First thing I thought was this would be best with my 35mm lens to catch a little more of the environment."
That would be great, if the moment was going to last a few minutes. Needless to say, it was barely going to last a few seconds. With no time, first Palank took a few steps back (the oldest form of manual focus).
"The Suri tribesman who I had trained to hold the strobe in just the right angle and who didn’t speak a lick of English kept trying to jam the strobe with 5 foot Octa in the kids face. "No need!" I kept saying, and finally I turned the strobe in the opposite direction so he would get the idea. I then had to kneel in a hot steaming pile of bull crap, regain my composure, smile and get the shot."
The image then went on to win this years PDN World in Focus Travel Portrait Category, a contest with over 15,000 submissions.
So what was the point of that story? The point is that you have to adapt immediately to your situation. Palank says that luck often has it that just when something unfolds in front of your eyes you’ll wish you had that other camera or that lens or that light modifier. Just make the seconds count with what you have otherwise that event will disappear and you have nothing to show for it.
"Ideally when entering a village or new location I try to get to know the people and will often just hand my camera to my guide. I’ll sit down and ask them about their family or tell them about mine. I’ll try to get them to laugh. If you accidentally trip and fall, for example, roll around and make a monkey out of yourself. Don’t take things too seriously."
After the image has been captured and Palank has the time to make his final adjustments, he has a workflow he likes to stick to. While on the road, he typically travels with at MacBook Pro loaded with Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop and the Suite of Nik Plugins. These days, he most often finds himself using Color-Efex 4 and Silver Efex Pro 2. He also uses a portable Wacom tablet (awesome retouching devices; we love them!).
"The first tip I will give is that if you plan on using a Nik Filter that has a Structure Slider, don’t use the Clarity Slider in Lightroom or ACR. The Structure slider is smarter as it analyzes each individual image and the fact that you can use control points to make it very localized."
Palank tends to use the Nik filter and paint in the effect with a Wacom tablet in localized areas except for SEP2. "I’m just not a fan of colorized Black and Whites." Once you save the image it goes immediatelly back to Lightroom as a TIFF.
"What a lot of people don’t seem to realize it that all the sliders in the Develop Module are all zeroed out again so that you can even add back a little Clarity at this stage, or even better yet, brush it in with the Adjustment Brush. I’m a vignette fan which goes against a lot of Leica thinking and I typically add it in Lightroom as Post-Crop Vignetting, Highlight Priority with a little bit of Feather."
For those of you who haven't tried out Nik yet, William has the hookup. You can grab any of the Nik software for 15% off if you use the code WPALANK and buy from their official store online.
For more of William Palank's work, head on over to his website.
Special thanks to William Palank for taking the time to speak with me, and Adobe for bringing us together.