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What’s in your kitbag? Andrzej Dragan

What’s in your kitbag? Andrzej Dragan

© Andrzej Dragan

October 2009
© Andrzej Dragan

Self-portrait by Andrzej Dragan.

Andrzej Dragan studied in Warsaw and on various scholarships in Amsterdam, Oxford and Lisbon before achieving a PhD in quantum physics in 2005. He currently teaches physics as an assistant professor at Warsaw University but also has a reputation for producing compelling, often disturbing portraits that use a hefty slice of dramatic licence. Mark Alexander finds out what kit he uses to capture such alluring shots.

Take a look inside Andrzej Dragan’s kitbag and you will get a big surprise. Rather than finding a Pandora’s Box of photographic wizardry, the Polish photographer travels light with just one camera body and a single lens. It helps him to stay nimble and respond to the subtle changes in his subject’s expressions.

"I use very modest equipment – just a body and a single lens," he explains. "The body could be different to give me more resolution but apart from that I’m perfectly happy. During a session I focus on the expression of the model – that’s the most important thing. If something interesting happens, I want to respond quickly. A tripod is just an obstacle to me."

His aversion to clutter has resulted in a streamlined set-up that has produced some remarkable and much-praised results. For instance, following a string of Polish advertising awards, Andrzej was awarded the Photographer of the Year in 2007 from the UK’s Digital Camera Magazine, got a silver medal in the Corbis Photography Awards and won gold at the Golden Drum Awards. Not a bad clutch of trophies considering he’d only started his photographic career four years earlier (in 2003).

© Andrzej Dragan

Andrzej Dragan now uses the EOS-1Ds Mark III for much of his portrait work.

Camera bodies

"The first camera I bought was a Canon G3 in 2003," he recalls. "A year later I bought a 10D and then I got a 1Ds. When I bought it in Japan it was still the first version, but within a couple of weeks Canon had released the Mark II and it was out of date, but I’ve stuck with it," explains Andrzej.

The EOS-1Ds’ 11.1 megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor has proven itself up to the task of capturing the subtleties and complex dynamics that epitomise Andrzej’s work. Beautiful, forceful and often troubling, his images provoke a range of reactions that have attracted a broad church of devoted clients including Amnesty International, Converse, and Sony Playstation.

But while his devotion to his 1Ds is admirable, he is also well aware of the advances that have been made in digital photography since the launch of the groundbreaking 1Ds in 2002. In fact, these days he prefers to hire an EOS-1Ds Mark III in order to capture the best possible tones and colours.

Andrzej explains: "Sometimes I use a Hasselblad but it’s not very handy and the autofocus is slow, so I prefer to use the Mark III. It’s hard to describe in words what I like about the Mark III, but it’s about the quality of the full-frame sensor. I focus on tone and how the colours change from one to another - I think the transition of colours in skin textures achieved by the Mark III is excellent. Other cameras produce a ‘plastic look’ when you look at the details, so it’s a matter of personal taste, but I prefer Canon."

© Andrzej Dragan

Shot on the EOS-1Ds with EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens; exposure was 125sec at f/9 with three softboxes used.  

He says the step up from the first incarnation of the 1Ds to the 1Ds Mark III is all-encompassing. "The resolution is the biggest difference, but there’s also a nicer interface, which is more convenient," Andrzej notes. "More importantly, with a higher resolution I can produce larger prints. For instance, when I’m doing an exhibition, I’ll use prints that are 80cm long, which is typically at the limit of tolerance when you don’t see any artifacts from digital files. It also means I can work on finer details in terms of magnifying images."

Lens choices

Although Andrzej rests his trusty EOS-1Ds when on a commission and indulges himself in the Mark III’s 21 megapixel full-frame sensor, his lens never changes. The EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM is an ideal portrait solution as it combines speed and flexibility. It superseded the 28-70mm in 1995 using a similar optical design but one that incorporated new features that allowed a broader focal range with a minimum focusing distance of 0.38m. Even today, it remains one of Canon’s most sought-after mid-range zooms.

© Andrzej Dragan

Shot using the Canon EOS-1Ds with EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens. Exposure was 1/125sec at f/18. Andrzej used two flash lamps; one from the front with a softbox, and one from the back - a "hard light".  

In typical style, Andrzej’s muted assessment of the 24-70mm zoom speaks volumes its versatility. "I’m used to this one but maybe there’s a better one, I don’t know. I’m not a technical geek. I just take pictures," he says. "Any photography handbook will tell you that portraits need a lens of at least 100mm, but I’ve never used one. The 24-70mm is handy and has plenty of advantages. Although it’s not perfect, it’s fine for my needs."

As for his camera settings, everything is geared towards having the freedom to capture sharp images at will. "I try to stick to the middle range of the lens between f/8 and f/11. If I have a lighting set-up I’ll set the shutter speed to 1/125sec so I can shoot with the knowledge the image will be sharp. In daylight, 1/60sec is the minimum I’ll go to."

You get a sense from this 31-year-old photographer that his minimalist approach goes someway to explaining the power of his work. True, he dabbles liberally in the digital darkroom creating provocative pieces that blur the boundary between what is natural and what is generated, but his compositions are dynamic and vibrant, and act as a calling card of an artist more interested in capturing the moment rather than the latest trend.

© Andrzej Dragan

Shot on the EOS-1Ds with EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens; exposure was 1/125sec at f/9 with three softboxes used.  

Lighting and flash

Even when it comes to lighting, Andrzej is happy to work with what’s available rather than use his own kit. "I usually use a couple of flash lamps with softboxes but I’m not attached to any brands so I just use whatever’s there," he explains. "If I’m on a shoot that doesn’t require sophisticated lighting I’ll use my own lamp, but for professional shoots, which require up to four lamps, I’ll hire them along with the EOS-1Ds Mark III camera."

In a commercial sense, Andrzej’s approach is one that rests on bringing in the necessary equipment when and where he needs it. Rather than being weighed down with various kitbags, Andrzej finds freedom in travelling light. It also frees up his time to concentrate on what really matters; and that’s quality. "All I’m interested in is the quality of the file," he says sternly. "If I can get a sharp image and there are no aberrations, then it’s OK."


Andrzej Dragan’s equipment:

EOS-1Ds Mark III

EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM