Sebastião Salgado is a world famous photographer, who needs no introduction. He is certainly the most illustrious photographer in Brazil and, perhaps, one of the most known in the world. Besides authoring more than 30 photo books and winning numerous international awards (World Press Photo, Photography of the Year by the American Society of Magazine, Photojournalist of the Year, Visa Dór, Photography Book of the Year), Salgado was president of the Magnum agency in Europe for several years. However, to enumerate his prizes is not the goal here.
My meeting with Salgado took place in 2014, a year after the release of my book on coffee photographs. At the time of our meeting, I had just produced my book on coffee plantations in the Zona da Mata region, while Salgado was finishing his new book on coffee crops around the world. We met because a sympathetic friend and owner of a major coffee-producing property, made sure to introduce us.
It was a great honor to meet Sebastião and talk to him. During lunch, I proposed a recorded interview, but, in a friendly manner, he said that he would rather answer my questions without having an interview appointment. Therefore, I will share the main topics I remember from the conversation we had with our readers at PL.
My first question has already been incisive:
Why do you only shoot with a closed aperture? (stopped down to a small aperture)
I shoot with the closed aperture, because I think that is how we humans see things as well. All focused. The eye does not blur, it sees everything focused. I do not like the blur effect, I find it unattractive. So I shoot everything stopped down to smaller apertures. The technology of modern cameras made it even easier. Using Canon 1DX I can shoot with a super high ISO and always keep my aperture small. Since my pictures are black and white, the noise does not present a serious problem for me. In fact, the 1 DX has virtually no noise. I have photographed in dense forests with it, at relatively good shutter speeds of 1/250, which was previously much more difficult to achieve with film.
Could you describe your experience at Magnum?
Well, I was the president of Magnum for several years and there I witnessed Homeric fights due to jealousy and competition. Then, I went out and set up my own agency.
Why Canon and not Nikon?
I had worked with Nikon for a few years in the past and it disappointed me. Today I only work with Canon and that’s what works for me.
Do you prefer prime or zoom lenses?
Today I use zoom lenses a lot, because of their excellent quality. I remember talking to a technician from Canon in Japan, who explained that in the past there was a noticeable difference between zoom and prime lenses. Today, thanks to the use of computer technologies at the design and manufacturing stages, the difference hardly exists anymore; it is minimal and almost imperceptible for most people.
Note: At the time of the meeting, Sebastião was with two lenses: a Canon 24-105mm f/4L and the other was a 70-300mm zoom.
Changing the focus of the chat a bit, we talked about difficulties in long walks and hikes. Sebastião said he had just experienced a great difficulty in the ascent of Pico da Neblina in Amazon. There was a lot of rain, mud and his assistant got sick and some Indians gave up the journey.
Always very friendly, helpful and playful, Sebastião showed with his attitude that what matters is the human heart, not our titles and honors. Attitude, which matches a lot with his photographic work.
I wish I had more to add to this brief meeting, but I will leave that for next time, when I have a chance to talk to Sebastião a bit longer. We finished our lunch tasting with a delicious Banana pie my wife, Nina, prepared, after which Sebastião showed me his equipment. I recorded this with a video camera, which I present to you below (in Portuguese):
The photos in this article were taken by my wife and the below portrait of Sebastião is made by me. Obviously, I could not miss this opportunity!
What was left from this meeting with the master of photography?
Some truly valuable tips:
- The important thing is PERFORMING your project. PHOTOGRAPH! Get out and do what you like, what you want and believe to be important. This will transpire in your work. The photography work, when it is done with great enthusiasm is done better.
- All great photographers work thinking of the aperture. That is the secret of the technique in photography. CONTROLLING the focus line. By that you impose a style, be it with blur or not, being aware of aperture is very important. Many photographers buy their lenses and they do not come out the same F / stop. That’s a bad sign. Have you ever wondered about that?
- Do not concern ourselves with the equipment that great photographers have, they are in another reality. They fly at ANOTHER altitude. What they did to arrive at that altitude was the result of their work, the photographic content and not their equipment. So, do your work with love and dedication and one day you may get there too.
Interesting interview. I’m a Salgado fan, I saw his exhibition in Bangkok a few years ago which was excellent, good location also.
I did not realise he uses Canon which I also use. I like their range of f/4 lenses, half the weight and cost of f/2.8 ones, why pay for something that you will never use. I tend to use f/8-f/16 for most of my photography unless the light is too low. Not so keen on blurred background etc images. Can suit certain portraits I suppose.
When I go travelling I always take my 24-105 f/4 lens, sometimes it is my only lens, great allround lens, it’s weakness is at 24mm end. I have considered a prime for portraits but not sure it’s worth it. I may try one of the Sigma’s Art lenses.
I don’t agree about only using a 50mm lens. I rarely use that Focal length, it depends what you are photographing, for some images I need 16mm, for others 200 or 300mm.
Thanks for your comment Ray. Really after that day I started to close my diaphragm more and keep everything in focus, but with time I realized that this is not my style of photography. It will never be like this for me. On this point I disagree with Sebastião. I think the blur is cool. Each one finds their way, but that of exchanging experiences with someone so talented was great. Learning is always good. All good for you.
Second name of my daughter is Lelia, the name of Salgado’s wife. Such a great photographer. Genesis is just from another world.
By the way great portrait you captured from him.
Ohh. Thats nice! Thank you Felix. Sorry I’m not so absent here, but if you want to know more about my work I’m on Instagram as @aberlinck and on You Tube as André Berlinck
Calebe, bom dia.
1 – Apesar de algum dia, todos nós podermos encontrar um grande fotógrafo, eu não sei onde você mora, mas em um grande centro, é muito mais fácil de encontrar bons fotógrafos do que de onde eu moro, que é bem no interior. Acho que o importante, é darmos o valor para os pequenos detalhes na vida. As vezes, o teu maior ensinamento em fotografia ou qualquer que seja, está bem mais próximo que você imagina, então fique atento nos detalhes. Na fotografia também é assim. Uma leve mudança de altura da câmera ou uma leve aproximação, faz toda diferença.
2 – Fico feliz que você gostou que sou brasileiro. Estou meio afastado do site, pois eu mudei para um lugar distante, na Serra do Caparaó, mas lá estou montando a minha Loja de Fine Art e no ano que vem, provavelmente, vou ter um espaço para workshops de fotografia de montanha. Espere ainda este ano voltar a escrever com mais intensidade para o Photography Life que acredito ser um dos locais que mais se afinizam comigo para se falar de fotografia na Internet. Fique ligado. Um abraço!
1 – I’m so jealous of you. It is a dream of mine meeting with this great man.
2 – Leio esse site há algum tempo e sempre achei que fosse gringo. Que irado que é brasileiro.
A very important point has been made here: use your equipment, do not be in any way curious about the equipment of others. Be it Canon, Nikon, Pentax Spotmatic, Leica 111 from 1935 (me). It does not matter at all. Do not lust after the equipment the ‘names’ use. The best camera for you is the one you already have. Lens? Use a 50mm. The best lens is your legs (Roger Hicks)
What camera straps he use?
Hi Dimitris. Sorry I did not notice that detail.
Ok Andre,thank you very much for the prompt reply.
Why ever would you want to know what camera straps he uses? Film stock yes, but straps!
It looked like an “Up-Strap” in the video.
Good brief meeting, André. Thanks for making this content available for us!
I find Sebastião’s work amazing! Besides, he has developed a great environment recovery work on his father’s land in Minas Gerais. By reading his biography, I guess it is impossible to him not be as humble as he can be after so many important works about social inequality, even being a world celebrity. Genesis is wonderful and I look forward to get Workers to my shelf.
Thank you for your coment Carlos.
Belo artigo André – um dos fotógrafos que mais admiro, e um dos maiores fotógrafos ainda vivos! Deve ter sido uma honra sem tamanho poder encontrar ele e poder conversar – ele parece ser uma pessoa muito humilde, apesar da fama. Abraços
Obrigado Robert. Sem dúvida nenhuma o Sebastião Salgado é fora da curva. Um talento nato. Foi muito legal encontrar com ele e trocar idéias. Uma experiência motivante. Realmente ele foi muito simpático e humilde. Regards.
Thank you Robert. No doubt Sebastião Salgado is out of the curve. A natural talent. It was very nice to meet him and exchange ideas. A motivating experience. Actually he was very friendly and humble. Regards.
Anybody, please help explain more. I don’t understand what does it mean?
**Many photographers buy their lenses and they do not come out the same F / stop. That’s a bad sign. Have you ever wondered about that?**
Thanks in advace.
Hi, Nature lover, I will try to explain. Sorry already my bad English.
I am referring to the photographers who do not care much about this detail of the F / stop. Often, we forget to have more attention at this point. For example: buy an excellent lens, a 300 f4, and “got used” to shoot in F4 or F 5.6. But is this is the best diaphragm to be used? Does not worth, sometimes we use an ISO a little higher and we used F11? I’m not saying that this happens to everyone, but do we really understand the result of a more closed diaphragm? If so, why often we leave this aspect aside? This, to see me, was a detail that in conversation with Sebastião Salgado, has emerged as a teaching. Even though I descorde his opinion, why I like blurred backgrounds. I think is pretty. I do not know if you understand my explanation. I’m open to that kind of talk. That’s the goal here. Thank you.
Thank you very much Andre’. But I still confused. Maybe because of my bad reading, English is my second language too. However, I understand when we buy an excellent lens such as 300 f4 for faster and better quality than 300 f5.6, but the F/stop we use depending on what a result of image we want. We use F4 for blurred backgrounds like wildlife photo & use small or closed aperture for everything focused the same as Salgado’s
**I shoot with the closed aperture, because I think that is how we humans see things as well. All focused. The eye does not blur, it sees everything focused. I do not like the blur effect, I find it unattractive. So I shoot everything stopped down to smaller apertures**
Its correct. You do the right thing.
The 300mm f4 lens is a bad choice to illustrate the point. Now if we look at the Leica 60mm f2.8 (used by Salgado for most of the shots in Kuwait in 1991 on an R6), what he means is that when he focuses on a subject, things in front of as well as behind the subject are in focus because he has stopped the lens down, say to at least f8-11. Now if he had focused on an animal or child with the lens wide open, the picture would show the animal or child with other parts of the picture blurred. Now Salgado states, correctly, that our eyes see things the way the shot comes out with the aperture stopped down. Unfortunately, with a 300mm lens, the compression of perspective distorts the picture. Likewise the greater depth of field of a wider lens 35-28-24-21-16 (mine) makes isolating a subject quite difficult. That’s why I consider the 50mm f2 Summicron lens such a useful one to adopt Roger Hick’s advice: “the best zoom lens is your legs”.
You are right, but when the focal length is shorter (wide angle) the photographer must have a much more accurate look in order not to generate confusing images, as there are many elements on the scene. That’s where Sebastião’s talent comes in.
Well written with lots of food for thought. I wonder how the DPReview folks would react to someone purporting to be serious about photography using a lowly 70-300mm lens;)
Good Jim. 70-300 But this is not as humble as well. Great lens! See here:
Too bad that Nikon doesn´t have a lens with this versatility in this category.
Nikon does have an excellent 70-300 lens (photographylife.com/revie…mm-vr-af-p). I have it, but don’t use it often. My subject matter and style require the use of wider lenses. I love the 20-105 lengths. My most used zoom is now my 24-120 glass. I often have a 17mm and 20mm prime nearby too.
“A photograph that mirrors reality, cannot compare to one that reflects the spirit.”