Finding Artistic Style

Finding Artistic Style

Our director of photography, Brian Ceci, shares his top tips for travelling with certain camera gear

Part two of my interview with our director of photography, Brian Ceci, gets a little bit more technical.

Working with Brian on this project, it became clear that he has been at it for a long time. He’s got things down to a science – at least the parts that the photographer or cinematographer can control. He knows what he needs when, what will work and what won’t.

It’s quite fascinating to watch someone work in such a particular way and is an indicator of not only experience, but longevity in this path he’s on.


On Gear

What’s in your kit?

When I’m travelling I’ve got my:

I’ve also got:

  • Neutral density filters (3,6,10 stop B&W)
  • A B&W Circular Polarizer
  • Hahnel Giga T Pro II Intervalometer
  • Steadicam Merlin
  • A very standard Manfrotto 190XB
  • Manfrotto Hybrid 055 Magnesium Head tripod
  • A Sennheiser MKE 400 shotgun mic
  • Rode Mic SmartLav + for Brianna and Macca –  A cheap and very useful alternative to a regular lav mic.

How do you ensure that your gear stays safe on the road?

For starters I just don’t let it out of my sight.

Sight or hands?

Hands, actually. Often people will try and take your bag and put it on top of a bus or something. I just always have it on me, all the time, on the bus – it’s between my feet so I can feel it. Unless it’s locked in a room or in a safe, I always have it. That’s the number one thing.

When I took the sleeper trains in India, I slept with it in my bed – I literally hugged it.

And be subtle – don’t flaunt your camera around unless you’re actually using it.

How do you go about knowing when to whip it out and when not to? Is it just sensing the situation?

Looking around, seeing who’s noticing you first, and then finding the right moment. Having said that, I’m sure there have been a lot of circumstances where people thought it would be safe and then they get it stolen. It just seems like a lot of it is just sheer un-luck. Just wrong place, wrong time.

Strolling Around San Cristobal

How do you go about taking photos of people? Do you ask?

Depends on the action. In general, I ask before especially if you would see their face in the photo.

But if they’re facing another way or they’re doing something in particular that they would not be able to replicate when you’re taking their picture, just take the picture. Do it fast. I think there’s a lot of times where you think, “I love the way that this person is throwing that fishing net” and you want to get the natural moment.


On Style

How is it photographing something like, Tikal in Guatemala or the Taj Mahal? How do you make it your own?

That’s a tough question. I mean, with big, huge iconic places like that it seems like whenever you think of, let’s just use the Taj Mahal as an example, you think of that particular shot which is the long, pond leading up to the Taj and it looks empty right? The reality is there’s a million people there.

The Taj is full of patterns and carvings, the way the marble is laid out is really beautiful but until I went there, I had never seen that, I had just seen the whole building, the whole image.

So, I guess the challenge would be to find your style in that place. For me, I like close, tighter; I want to see details of things. I don’t necessarily need to see the big picture all the time.

Taj Mahal

You’ve said a couple of times, “my style” or finding your style of your perspective. How did you find your style?

I look at a lot of other people’s work, mainly cinematographers, and notice things that they do and that morphed into finding things I like.

Like I said, I love things that are close, because generally when you view things, you view things at a semi-wide perspective; let’s say like a 50mm lens. I don’t need to see things like other people see them because that’s how people view them in regular life.

I know a lot of photographers that shoot at that crop because they have interesting perspectives on it, but I find that it’s easier to get a clean image if you’re in tight, getting the details of things.

Who do you look at? Who has influenced your work? Or at least inspired you to take photos or video in a certain way?

Number one on my list for sure is Sebastio Selgado. He is a Brazilian black and white photographer. He shoots on Leica. His pictures are just… I can’t even believe them sometimes. They look photoshopped, almost. But they’re not at all. He’s been taking photos on film for years.

For cinematography, there’s a lot of DOP’s I like but I love Conrad L. Hall (American Beauty, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Road to Predition). He’s very good with shadows.

The best DOP’s in my opinion are ones that use less light and more shadows, and they understand shapes and the way light shapes things rather than blasting light at a subject.

It’s about shapes and the way light hits a subject, as opposed to the way that it is lit.

Train at Night

Can you talk a bit about the difference between, looking up to someone and having them inspire you versus comparing yourself to them and thinking, “I’m never going to be that good”.

I think every creative type struggles with this in particular because it is hard. There are a million photographers, everyone’s got a camera now, everyone knows the rule of thirds, everyone understands that so it makes it all the more difficult to stand out.

I think what it really is is finding a niche, finding something in what you love to stand out. It means having a style that everyone else wants to replicate too and knowing that everything is a replica of everything else.

If you want to learn to do something, study it. Look at it over and over and over and find out what they’re doing and just replicate it. It’s all variations of something else and that’s ok if it’s not straight up copying it. You can go, “I love the influence of this,” but then you put your own twist on it.

So, A) not worrying about having to be completely unique, and B) what the outcome is. I like what you said about if you like someone’s stuff to just replicate it because eventually you realize, “Oh, I would do it this way” and that’s your style.


On A Brit and A Broad

What has been your favourite place in Central America so far?

We went up El Hoyo Volcano in Nicaragua and filmed up there. We woke up at sunrise. It was a big hike: uphill in sand. It was special to shoot it and for the experience of it. I just felt it. I felt creative.

The View from El Hoyo, Nicaragua

If you’re feeling the experience itself, it’s obviously going to show itself in the work.

Yeah, and there was this great moment when we reached the top.

We were walking to the campsite, about 200 meters away from it, and I had my 24mm on for video. There’s this epic volcano down on the right and the sun was low, it wasn’t a sunset but was low enough, and the light was perfectly even.

A bunch of horses and dogs ran over, walked right into my shot and it was just that time where you have the perfect lens on your camera at the perfect setting and I was like, “Oh my god!” – boom, boom, boom (shooting the camera) and then you have this picture that you really wanted. I wouldn’t have been able to plan that. That was just luck.

How do you know what will make good video content and what won’t? Or do you know?

I don’t know. Generally, I think about what I would like to watch if I was looking for something, in the particular field I’m shooting. But it seems so friggin’ random sometimes.

Why do you think that video has exploded on the internet in the last few years?

There’s two things for that: people want to see more content than just script and still images. It’s a quick way to look at images, you can understand what people are trying to tell or sell when you see images, but it doesn’t really grasp the personality of the story you’re telling. So when you have video you can quickly, within minutes, you can tell the whole story.

It’s also very accessible now. People are able to get quick and easy content – they either have a GoPro or a DSLR. If you have any sort of idea of how to edit anything, you can edit a video of your trip to Central America or whatever, right? It’s just that simple now.

So does it all come down to storytelling?

Absolutely. People want to be captivated by new stories. Or even stories they’ve been told before but told in a different light. That’s what Eastside Stories was about.

How do you balance being a creative and working with deadlines while on the road?

When you’re on the road, you have so many thoughts going through your head. I find you sit on a bus you have so much time to think about what you want to do next, what projects are coming up, how I want to edit this, how I was to shoot that, so I think the balance is living your life and enjoying it versus thinking about these things you’re going to do later. That’s the challenge.

Brian’s Top Three Do’s:

  1. Get in the habit of shooting wide open. And what I mean by that is shoot at your lowest aperture and use foreground in your shots. Anyone can take a picture of a clean shot of a mountain, but what makes more interesting is when it’s through something, like through a window – change your perspective on things
  2. Use neutral density because then you can shoot low aperture.
  3. Accept that some things are meant to be photographed at the time and some things aren’t.

Brian’s Top Three Don’ts:

  1. Don’t use a flash. Just leave it. Use natural light. If you’re interested in photography, use a prime. Try and get a prime lens, a quick, cheap, fast lens. Like there’s a 50mm 1.8 for I think, 200 bucks. You’ll understand how depth works. That’s a do, though, I guess.
  2. Don’t bring too much equipment because you’re just going to be lugging it around, especially when you have to hike with your stuff and you have to decide what to bring. It just really accumulates quickly and gets heavy on your back.
  3. Don’t have your camera out all the time and keep all your gear on the inside of your bag. It’s better to look like you have too much stuff in general, then to have camera gear with you.

Got questions for Brian? Tweet him at @brianceci

  • Some great tips here guys! And photos too!

    We love using low aperture but our next investment is ND filters to use it in harsh light. The list of gear we want is never ending!

    • Thanks! Yes, photography is a bottomless pit when it comes to money, and as soon as you buy one thing you’re onto the next. We really recommend those B+W ND filters though; of all the ones we’ve used they’re the best and means you can shoot in all conditions!