Paddling as a departure and an arrival
Gunnar Eichweber sat in a kayak even before he could walk – and at around the same age, he looked at other people through a camera for the first time.
Today he is a student at the photo + media forum (FMF) in Kiel, Germany, and plans to make photography his profession. In a new photo series, which was taken with the help of a ZEISS lens, he combines both passions to create a photographic portrait of a long-distance paddler.
“The view of the open sea in winter can be an obstacle even for experienced kayakers: It is cold, lonely and the weather conditions can even be dangerous – but when you paddle, all of this disappears,” says Eichweber. The high frequency of the paddle movements and the uniform day-and-night rhythm over many days make you slip into a contemplative state of mind, in which you are dealing with your surroundings at a very abstract level. It is a real ‘flow’ experience which, even for the most experienced paddler, brings new departures and arrivals again and again.”
All images in the series were taken with a D700 DSLR camera and a ZEISS Distagon T* 2.8/21 ZF.2. Eichweber was looking for a focal length that would enable him to show both wide-open landscapes and close-up reportage views. “35 mm would have been the classic focal length for reportage, but it doesn’t allow you to create that impression of getting lost,” explains Eichweber. A moderate wide-angle lens would not have been sufficient either, because he likes to get close to his protagonists while still showing enough content in the picture. Thus, the 21-mm lens from ZEISS was ideal. At the same time, the wide-angle effect should not be too dominant. “With 18 mm or even wider focal lengths, such as fish eye lenses, distortion effects already start to appear which cannot be removed afterwards. The content of the image, in relationship to the effect, would have to become less prominent and the result would have appeared unnatural. With the 21 mm, motifs close to the edges of the image are not photographed equivalently due to the large angular field. Nevertheless, the result is still rather close to natural eyesight – at least close to my natural vision, whereby I rarely focus on one point but gaze over many things at once with my eyes.” Thanks to its high speed, the 21-mm lens gave Eichweber the possibility to single out a person at short distances.
Eichweber made use of that possibility already in his first picture, in which he introduces the paddler. The background fades away in blur, and the focus is on the protagonist. Eichweber found him in his own kayak club: “I was looking for an older, weathered protagonist who looks as if he has been traveling through the landscape alone for ages,” says Eichweber. “He should also blend naturally into the landscape – thus the wooden paddle and the minimal equipment in inconspicuous colors, which appear timeless.” To create a personal touch, the picture was taken with an open aperture. The image was shot from a tripod, like all the pictures in this series. The sequence of the session was thoroughly planned beforehand: “Strictly speaking it is not a reportage, but a conceptually planned documentary. I still think it makes an authentic impression because I know kayaking and understand the feelings that are dominant when kayaking.”
The first night image shows the paddler’s tent. After his departure, shown in the first picture, the paddler has now retreated to his cozy-looking bivouac and completely secluded himself from his environment. Since it was pitch-black on the beach, the photographer’s main goal was to take full advantage of the dynamic range and get a brighter exposure than the real situation offered. Eichweber therefore chose a long exposure time and a rather open aperture. “The range from the brightest to the darkest spot is greatest when you are still in the middle third of the exposure — that is, without much underexposure,” explains Eichweber. “Later, I reduced the exposure of the picture. In this way I could retain maximum differentiation and information in the depths. With f/stop 11, I could have gotten even more sharpness, but the 21-mm lens already has great basic sharpness, so I was able to make that compromise.” With this trick, Eichweber avoided having to work with HDR (High Dynamic Range), which allows various layers of exposure to be overlaid during post-production. “I believe that areas are drawn with more differentiation when you use the existing dynamic range of the picture file instead of working with image synthesis and image editing afterwards.”
In the third picture, the dialogue between man and nature begins anew. With maximum focusing all the way into the corners, the image of the paddler behind the reeds illustrates the biting cold on that day. To achieve this effect, Eichweber had to stop down – but not too much; otherwise he would have had blur due to diffraction. Therefore he used f/stop 11 and not, for example, 22. “In my experience, the best imaging performance for most lenses is at f/stop 11,” says Eichweber. “This picture shows most clearly the advantages of a fixed focal length as well as the advantages of ZEISS in fixed focal length lenses. When using lenses from other manufacturers, you often select a wider perspective than what you actually wanted because you assume from the outset that the picture has to be cropped later since the corners won’t be sharp. ZEISS offers maximum sharpness all the way into the corners. This enables you to make full use of the sensor, and there is hardly any post-processing to be done, except for some color grading. The pictures as they are shown here came more or less straight from the camera.”
On returning to the bivouac, Eichweber again chose for an open aperture in order to depict his protagonist in more detail and build a bridge to picture 1. Applying this criterion was an advantage, because at the same time it enabled him to deal with the little available light. The protagonist was again singled out in order to put the focus on him only and his arrival at the resting place. “Since it was completely dark, there were basically no other alternatives,” says Eichweber. “Taking this picture was extremely difficult. I had to exploit every bit of light there was to the maximum. To avoid blur, my protagonist had to hold his breath. I could not go beyond ISO 2200; otherwise there would have been too much rustling in the image.”
After the paddler’s arrival in the second-to-last picture, the paddler departs again for new shores in the final picture in this series. Given the harshness and coldness of the sea, Eichweber’s first priority was again absolute sharpness – from the beach to the horizon. Due to the light conditions, he selected f/stop 8. “From my experience, when you use a 21-mm lens it hardly makes a difference whether you use f/8 or f/4. As soon as you have a bit of distance to the next object from the camera, the general impression when using this focal length is always sharp.”
Eichweber was able to test the ZEISS Distagon T* 2.8/21 as part of a cooperation between FMF Kiel and ZEISS, and this lens is about to become this student’s favorite: “I started my photographic career with 21 mm and those first experiences were obviously formative and led to my decision later to become a reportage photographer.” What he liked in particular about the ZEISS lens was its outstanding imaging performance, even in difficult light situations: “Even with back light and overexposure, there is sufficient differentiation and no hard edges. That saves you a lot of work in post processing.” The lens’s premium mechanics also left behind a good impression: “The barrel is completely of metal and beautifully made. The optics feel good and you always have the impression that you have something valuable in your hands. The helicoid gear operates smoothly and is very long, which enables you to focus very precisely. I also enjoyed not turning one dial on the camera but also being able to do something with the left hand, namely to choose the f-stop. When you take pictures with both hands, your work becomes more ergonomic and more intuitive. All things considered, it was a good experience.”