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Technical

August 2009

Born in Turin, Italy, Paolo Verzone is a photojournalist who lives in Paris, where he's worked for eight years shooting for Agence VU and Agenzia Grazia Neri. Paolo feels that his photography is "unclassifiable". He shoots across a broad spectrum of disciplines, from photojournalism to large-scale personal projects, and received third prize in the World Press Photo 2008 Sports Features Stories category for his work following UEFA president Michel Platini across Russia. Doug Harman discovers what Canon equipment Paolo Verzone uses and why.

Photojournalist Paolo Verzone.
 

Photojournalist Paolo Verzone.

Since he began taking pictures at the age of 18 Paolo Verzone has divided his photography between portraiture and reportage. Over the years he has developed a number of personal projects; among them was the Peshawar project that received the 2001 Canon Best Portfolio award and was a finalist for the Leica Oskar Barnack award. He often collaborates with fellow Italian photographer Alessandro Albert. Their photo essay on Muscovites, made into the book ‘Volti di Passaggio', won the Kodak European Panorama award at Arles in 1992, and a portrait from their project ‘Seeuropeans' won a World Press Photo award in 2001.

Paolo has worked for many magazines including Le Monde 2, Das Magazin, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Amica, GEO, D la Repubblica delle Donne, and Io Donna. His photographs are in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London as well as the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

Camera bodies

Paolo got onboard the Canon EOS system way back in 2004 with the EOS 20D, which he loved, and remains with it today with his trusty EOS 5D and a 5D Mark II on order. He explains: "As soon as the Canon EOS 5D arrived I had to have it. As the first full frame EOS, I found it to be amazing; the 5D's ergonomics are simply extraordinary, you can really feel the difference (in your hand) from other models; I'm a big fan."

© Paolo Verzone

Paolo Verzone's kitbag includes the EOS 5D and three Canon prime lenses – the EF35mm f/1.4L USM, the EF50mm f/1.2L USM and the EF85mm f/1.2 II USM.

There are some key factors for choosing this particular camera, as Paolo reveals: "Because I strive to use natural light so much, there are important areas where the 5D is right for me. The colour is really close, straight from the camera, and, as I try to avoid having to do too much in post-production, I strive for a near 'perfect RAW' from the camera – the 5D allows me to do just that."

There's another reason why Paolo loves Canon's 5D that revolves around his use of natural light. "As you know, shooting digitally allows you to shoot in very low lighting situations. In fact I have found that you can shoot in such low light it's at a level simply not possible in the past, even with very fast black and white film."

He adds: "OK, there can be issues with image noise at higher ISOs, but the 5D's sensor and processing technology means even at these higher ratings, image noise is not a major problem for me. I was astonished at the low light performance from this camera."

Paolo's 2008 photo story of Michel Platini, president of European football's ruling body UEFA, involved following the UEFA boss towards the end of January 2008, and it proved that Paolo's faith in his EOS technology was not misplaced. Shooting Platini, in St. Petersburg on an official visit to Russia for the final of the Independent States Community and Baltic Countries Cup, provided a number of challenges for Paolo that included more than just difficult lighting.

© Paolo Verzone/Agence VU/Agenzia Grazia Neri

St. Petersburg, Russia. During the commemoration ceremony of the liberation of St. Petersburg, Vitaly Mutko (president of the Russian soccer federation), Sepp Blatter (president of FIFA) and Michel Platini (president of UEFA), meditate at the Piskarevskoe cemetery. Shot on the EOS 5D with EF17-40mm f/4L USM at 40mm end of the zoom. Exposure was 1/6sec at f/4; ISO rated at 1250.

He explains: "Following Michel Platini was difficult, not just because it was so cold but also it was nearly always dark. Wind-driven snow, minus 25 degree temperatures and shooting in near constant darkness meant I had real problems just taking a shot. I had to keep the camera under my coat, pull it out and shoot quickly, then tuck it back under my coat again. Not only did the camera perform but I did not have any issues with the battery either, one of my worst fears given the cold."

Interestingly and perhaps again an indicator of Paolo's photographic personality – and his love of being a self-confessed "unclassifiable" photographer – is his choice of other camera body, a large format, Toya 5x4-inch folding film camera! "My colleagues all say I'm mad to have a digital 5D on the one hand and this folding camera on the other, but I use the 5x4 camera mainly for studio portraits, and it helps me to have the other discipline of using sheet film". Despite this quirk, Paolo is such a fan of the EOS 5D body he has placed the EOS 5D Mark II on order and is anticipating the new camera's low light performance with great enthusiasm.

Lens choices

© Paolo Verzone/Agence VU/Agenzia Grazia Neri

St. Petersburg, Russia. Michel Platini, the president of UEFA, pictured signing the guestbook at the memorial of the Piskarevskoe cemetery. Shot with the EOS 5D and the EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 36mm. Exposure was 1/40sec at f/4.5; ISO was rated at 640.

Paolo's current choice of lenses leads directly on to his use of natural light, or rather his avoidance of flash. He explains: "I used to use zoom lenses a lot but I tend not to any more. The low light capabilities of the 5D mean fast optics can bring me exactly the photography I want."

"But the main zoom I own and love (and used most recently for the Michel Platini story) is my EF17-40mm f/4L USM, because it provides distortion free shots with a superb perspective… but I've now changed the way I work," Paolo says intriguingly.

He reveals: "Now, with even more of my emphasis on natural light, I've switched to using all fast aperture prime lenses - the EF35mm f/1.4L USM, the EF50mm f/1.2L USM and probably the greatest lens I've ever used, the EF85mm f/1.2L II USM. This is a lens that's just stunning for portrait work. Each of these optics provides a superbly fast maximum aperture, pin-sharp detail, and enables me to shoot without flash at lower ISOs than would otherwise be possible."

© Paolo Verzone/Agence VU

For the European Commission project ‘Instruments for Stabiility'; Basateen, Yemen, April 2009. Basateen is a slum-like area located in the suburbs of Aden inhabited by between 40,000 and 50,000 people, including refugee and non-refugee populations. Many of the refugees are Somalis. Shot with the Canon EOS 5D with EF35mm f/1.4L USM lens. Exposure was 1/40sec at f/1.6; ISO rated at 400.

With natural light and Paolo's constant striving to get the "perfect RAW" to limit post-production work using only three lenses seems a little limiting, but Paolo disagrees. "No, not at all. I always start a shoot not thinking about what I can do later in post-production, I think about the work in the camera first, always. Yes, sometimes there are small tweaks (you have to process the RAW files, of course) but it's always the picture at that moment that's important, not the way it can be adjusted after, in post-production."

He adds: "Using these lenses and the EOS 5D means that I can get the shot I have in mind. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that I have rediscovered my photography, particularly when using the EF35mm f/1.4 without flash. Never before was I able to get my shots in natural light at such high quality levels. Now it's no exaggeration to say that I find it key to how I document a story."

And this reminds Paolo of the 5D Mark II waiting in the wings: "With my 5D Mark II on order I know that I will have the technical possibility to shoot at even lower light levels". Something Paolo is: "very much looking forward to."

Lighting and flash

"OK, you know I almost never use flash," exclaims Paolo. "Well just sometimes, on portrait work," he concedes. However, even then he uses cinema lighting to generate: "the right atmosphere."

Even when shooting indoors Paolo strives for the outdoor daylight-style lighting in his shots. He explains: "I use HMI, daylight balanced cinematic lighting for portraits, to get the right look for me shooting in the studio. Outdoors, it's natural light, always. The way the HMI light works, allows me to make something different (for a portrait). Along the way it's something of a learning and evaluating experience but I find it always provides the right atmosphere for my portraits."

© Paolo Verzone/Agence VU

Damascus, Syria 2009. Shot on the Canon EOS 5D with EF50mm f/1.2L USM lens. Exposure was 1/500sec at f/9; ISO rated at 250.

Camera bags

Given Paolo's constant travelling for his work something that protects his kit on his travels is a must, but he actually has quite modest requirements: "I have a Peli Travel case that's ideal because it means I can carry my kit on board aircraft but gives it plenty of protection."

"When I'm actually moving around and shooting I like to blend in as much as possible - for safety's sake, in some locations, but also because I can get shots that I otherwise might miss as people could become wary of a photographer in their midst. In those cases," continues Paolo, "just a simple Lowepro backpack does the job perfectly, allowing me to blend in and carry all the kit I might need. I have a Gitzo tripod to keep things steady when needed, and that's about it; very simple."

So, is there a technical innovation Paolo would like to see in the future from Canon? "Yes, a 28mm fixed focal length lens with the same f/1.2 aperture as Canon's EF50mm f/1.2L USM lens. I would be the first buyer of that lens," he says enthusiastically.

"Although, I have to say, one of the most important things for me right now is a sensor cleaning system just like on the 5D Mark II. The risk of dust on the sensor is very high and can become a problem. Although I can clean the sensor on the 5D, an effective sensor cleaning system is very high on my list of immediate wants," reveals Paolo.

Paolo's choice of camera gear strongly reflects his natural light shooting ethos - fast aperture prime lenses, high sensitivity and natural lighting – elements that all combine to deliver those trademark "unclassifiable" Paolo Verzone photographs.

Technical

Paolo Verzone’s equipment:

Cameras:
EOS 5D
EOS 5D Mark II

Lenses:
EF17-40mm f/4L USM
EF35mm f/1.4L USM
EF50mm f/1.2L USM
EF85mm f/1.2 II USM

Accessories:
Peli (Medium) travel case
Gitzo tripod
Lowepro backpack