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Master of illusion: Samo Vidic’s
creative solution

© Canon Europe

March 2017

Canon Explorer Samo Vidic has a healthy appetite for doing things differently. CPN writer Mark Alexander finds out how he realised his concept of creating an underwater image photographed in his studio using an EOS-1D X Mark II, paired with an EF85mm f/1.2L II USM lens. Watch the video (above) and read on for a fascinating creative story...

Samo Vidic is a modest guy. He is the kind of photographer who reluctantly picks out one or two images that he’s happy with from a career spanning more than two decades. He shies away from self-publicity and finds it difficult to talk about himself, which is remarkable considering his unquestionable talent and razor-sharp eye.

Vidic’s vision has seen the Slovenian photographer create stunning campaigns for premier brands such as Red Bull and Salomon that have resulted in his photos appearing in some of the world’s most prestigious magazines. His formidable talents manifest themselves in his ability to distil key components of the narrative and bring them to the fore. It is a talent he has developed through his voracious appetite to experiment and disarming pragmatism.

“I am happy with three or four pictures in 20 years,” he admits. “You’re always looking for the best picture all the time, but you will never take it. Even when I get a really good one, the next day I’m not happy with it anymore.”

Constant creative innovation

Vidic can be modest and unflinchingly direct, but he is also a tough taskmaster. Every shot he takes has been conceived with innovation in mind. But creating something new every time you pick up a camera can be challenging. Fortunately invention can be borne out of necessity, which was certainly the case when Vidic recently completed a project for Canon.

© Samo Vidic/Canon Europe
© Samo Vidic/Canon Europe

Slovenian swimmer Robert Zbogar in action. Taken in a studio on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with an EF85mm f/1.2L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/250sec at f/2.8, ISO 100.

“They asked me to figure out something interesting or different that would be good for a behind-the-scenes video. I was completely free to come up with the concept,” he explains. “I had done something with another athlete a few months earlier when I had quickly set up the lights and tried something out in the studio. Although the results were good, there wasn’t enough time to do it properly. When Canon asked me to create something for them, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to get the image right.”

The image Vidic had attempted hurriedly with a Red Bull triathlete some months earlier had resulted from time restraints, which meant shooting all three elements of the sport would be impossible. In a moment of creative cunning, the 42-year-old attempted to create an underwater shot in the studio. “We went to the studio first to do some portraits and we would then see if there was any time left for other things. We eventually did two pictures,” he explains. “The position of the body was really important. I wanted people who knew the sport to stay with the image for more than five seconds. I wanted them to question whether it was real or not.”

The idea was to create an illusion and the request from Canon gave him the perfect opportunity to apply his magic. A test shoot with Robert Zbogar – a Slovenian swimmer who competed at the 2012 Summer Olympics – was hastily arranged. “He was really cool to work with,” says Vidic. The images turned out well and the shoot proper was organised.

© Katja Pokorn
© Katja Pokorn

Swimmer Robert Zbogar (right) looks at the images with Samo Vidic.

It included two other triathletes, two swimmers and a reportage-style video team. The shots with Robert, however, were the main event and took about two hours to complete. “Sometimes you get athletes who give you just ten minutes because they are busy. It’s really cool if you get an athlete who is available for a few hours so you can really achieve what’s in your head. For instance, I changed a light right at the end of the shoot because I didn’t like a shadow on his nose, and Robert did it without a problem.”

Gone in a flash

The idea of creating a shot that would appear as if it had been taken underwater required careful planning and, as Vidic has already indicated, a considered approach to composition. To baffle the viewer with a pin-sharp image, Vidic used an EOS-1D X Mark II paired with an EF85mm f/1.2L II USM prime lens. This combination, when used with his studio lights set to strobe mode at 1/25,000sec, created the perfect set-up to freeze the action. “The flash duration was important,” he says. “The flash freezes everything.”

He continues: “It was important the water was completely frozen, so you could see the droplets. But a lot of droplets fell on his face or in his eyes – exactly where I didn’t want them to fall. You could shoot just one frame, but I was looking to get the perfect shot. I couldn’t control the water so I just hoped the droplets would fall in the perfect position.”

Standing on the uppermost reaches of his studio ladder pointing his camera down towards Zbogar, who was standing looking up with his arms outstretched above his head, Vidic held his EOS-1D X Mark II in one hand and a watering can in the other. It’s precarious and unconventional but typical of Vidic’s approach. To make life a little easier, he opted for the camera’s top frame rate of 14fps which is achievable thanks to twin DIGIC 6+ processors and mirror-drive system (16 fps is possible in Live View). The actual shot was captured at 1/250sec at f/2.8 and ISO 100.

© Katja Pokorn
© Katja Pokorn

Samo Vidic clamped his EOS-1D X Mark II to a ceiling support once the angle had been decided.

“A job like this could be done in five minutes because we were shooting at such a fast frame rate,” he says. “When you shoot at 14fps, you end up with so many good images to choose from; all you need to do is pick out the frames that work best. Also, if the athlete has just ten minutes or is really cold, you don’t want to annoy them by shooting for hours and hours. You can get a lot of images in a few minutes when you shoot with the EOS-1D X Mark II.”

The idea behind the shoot was to capture Zbogar’s face in great detail surrounded by water droplets while leaving the background suitably blurred to convince the viewer the image was taken underwater. The circular aperture of the 85mm lens certainly aided the smooth background bokeh which also ensured the sharp foreground portrait element stood out even more. Not surprisingly, the lens is used fervently by portrait photographers who appreciate the super spectra lens coatings, which ensure accurate colour balance and enhanced contrast. Most notably of all, though, the lens has a large maximum aperture of f/1.2, although Vidic decided not to opt for this extreme aperture, despite the possible lure of an even faster shutter speed.

“I didn’t want to shoot at f/1.2 because the depth-of-field would be so small that 1cm in front of the focus point and 1cm behind it would be blurred. I didn’t want this. I wanted a picture that you could see his whole face, and the rest of the picture would be out of focus.”

© Katja Pokorn
© Katja Pokorn

Samo Vidic checks his images on the computer for sharpness and lighting.

The focal length was also important. At 85mm, the lens provided enough compression to create the illusion of the athlete being surrounded by water without offering too much scope to take in the wider background. “This is the picture without any crop,” confirms Vidic.

The perfect combination

Of course being in a studio situation, Vidic had his choice of camera and lens pairings, which was a welcome change from packing up the two EOS-1D X Mark II bodies, three prime lenses and his trusty EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM to cover all eventualities when he goes on location. Staying indoors meant his kit stayed put and he had the added option of using his studio lights, which were a key part of the shoot.

However, despite the range of options open to him, Vidic was keen to keep his lighting set-up relatively straightforward. “There were three lights,” he says. “For the main light, I used a reflector with a grid, and for the rim light, I used two strip lights on either side with grids as well. It was actually a very simple light set-up.”

Rather than relying on an overly elaborate lighting set-up or a time-consuming location shoot, Vidic opted for his studio and a camera-and-lens combination that delivered the right amount of clarity and blur to create a mesmerising illusion. Clever and ingenious, the image stops you in your tracks as you instinctively try to determine how it was done. What more could you want from an image?

© Katja Pokorn
© Katja Pokorn

Samo Vidic (on ladder) prepares his shot of swimmer Robert Zbogar in the studio.

The key ingredient, however, in this rarefied mix of technique and ingenuity is Vidic’s preference for experimentation which he says requires determination and resolve, as much as a healthy dose of creativeness. “It is always good to think outside of the box,” he concludes. “You should try different things and keep pushing. I have tried many things that did not work. If you have an idea, try it two or three times. Maybe the first time it won’t work for you. Maybe you need to change a few things and then it might be something really good. From small, stupid ideas you can get something really cool. Don’t give up too soon. Try things. Never be shy.”

Biographie: Samo Vidic

Samo Vidic

Samo Vidic hails from Bled in Slovenia. He started his photographic career at the age of 17 taking pictures of his friends on hiking expeditions. Four years later, he sold his first image and so started a career that would take in sports, advertising and portrait photography, and everything in between. He started shooting for Red Bull in 2005, travelling the world taking photos of the world’s best athletes. He is a team member of Limex images, a Getty Images contributor and also a Canon Explorer. In 2014 he won the Wings category at the Red Bull Illume Image Quest, and he is also a multiple winner at the Slovenian press photo awards.