Interview for The Leica Blog with Santiago Vanegas

The Olaf Willoughby interview for The Leica Blog

This month’s Olaf Willoughby interview is with Santiago Vanegas, an Atlanta based photographic artist, who paraphrases Ansel Adams with his belief that, ‘While the RAW file is the score, RAW processing is the performance’.

Leica Meet Skye London 2015

What made you decide to use a Leica M camera in the landscape?

My visit to Isle of Skye was unique compared to my previous landscape endeavors. Skye was a trip of The Leica Meet. I thought, “what a great opportunity to go to a fascinating location and shake up my workflow with my M9”. I have typically used my M9 only for street, travel, and some portrait photography. For my landscape work I’ve always used medium format. Being a Leica Meet, I committed to taking only my M9. To some degree 35mm rangefinders haven’t really been the camera of choice for landscape photography. Usually it’s DSLR, medium and large format. Personally, the M9 had been the antithesis of landscape photography. Medium format was always my default.

So I went to Skye with my M9, and an open mind. I was excited about the unknown. The M9 was a joy to use, constantly inspiring. Effortless image quality, small body, yet rugged and with just the right amount of weight to feel like a serious camera. One of the things I love about medium format is the craft that goes into shooting. I shoot landscape in manual mode (exposure and focus). Because of this, the M9 felt very familiar and not like an automated DSLR. The weight, build, glass, manual controls, the tactile quality. It’s hard to explain. The Leica just has a certain mojo. This may sound corny, but it’s true. The Leica brings a kind of spirituality that other current systems don’t have.

Personally, that counts. I’m an artist, and feeling a connection with my tools just adds to the inspiration. Being completely manual, it’s a camera that gives truth. You can only get out what you put in. It is a clear reflection of your abilities and vision as a photographer. Truth and beauty. What more could I ask for? There is no doubt in my mind that the M9 is a serious landscape camera, making it even more versatile than I previously thought.

Leica Meet Skye London 2015

Tell us about the discipline of using just one 50mm lens and why you chose to go down this route?

I figured I’d be shooting mostly landscape at Skye. I was already going to shoot with the M9 instead of my medium format, so why not shake things up even more by using only the 50mm for everything? The 50mm never came off of my M9 for the whole trip. Not once. I had three basic reasons for shooting Skye with only the 50mm.

First, I liked the challenge of committing to just one focal length. It was limiting and liberating all at that same time. On one hand, I had to constantly adapt to that one lens, as opposed to simply switching to a desired focal length. If I wanted a wider shot, take a few steps back. If I wanted a longer shot, take a few steps forward. Sometimes there was a cliff, so stepping in any direction wasn’t an option. An open mind was the way to go. On the other hand, I never had to think about what lens to use. That was liberating.

Second, I simply love the focal length. Unlike shorter or longer lenses, it’s perspective is not exaggerated. It’s as close to the human eye’s sense of perspective. It also has quite stunning bokeh. Bokeh is a bit of a departure from most of my landscape work, which tends to have an extended depth of field.

Third… even though the 50mm is frequently referred as a “normal” lens, they get used much less than longer and shorter lenses. They’re more of an oddball, or “student” lens. And for landscape, even less. In my experience, landscape is typically shot with wide lenses. So shooting landscape with the 50mm was bound to give interesting and unique results. And so it did!

You encountered very bad weather. What were some challenges of shooting in those conditions?

I would split them into two categories. Discomfort to me and discomfort to my gear. During my time in Isle of Skye, it was cold, wet, and very very windy (70-80 mph). I’ve learned from my past shoots in places like Iceland, Antarctica, and a few harsh winters in New Mexico, to dress in layers and stay dry. Layers to stay warm, and an outer waterproof shell to stay dry. Some good waterproof hiking boots. Sturdy to keep my ankle from twisting in rough terrain. I use thin gloves. They may not be as warm as thicker gloves, but I can control my camera easily. Sometimes I’ll have a thicker pair for long treks while not shooting and then switch to the thins when I’m ready to snap away.

To keep my Leica safe, I always carry two things in my pockets. A small waterproof cordura bag and a super compact towel. I don’t use plastic bags because they break. The bag protects my camera from rain/mist/splashing. When there’s water, I only take my camera out of this bag the second before I take a shot. This way, exposure to water is at a bare minimum. With the compact towel, I wipe away water as needed. There’s so much black in camera gear that sometimes things can be hard to find. So, the towel and bag are a bright orange so I can find them quickly when unexpected water hits. The wind at Skye was really tough. I had to be very aware that my waterproof bag, towel, my tripod, my hat, etc., could be blown away any second, never to be seen again. So, I would deliberately hold things with a stronger grip and lock things down with a carabiner whenever possible. Whenever I would be indoors for a while, I’d wipe everything down with a towel again. Overnight, I’d leave my camera out to air dry. You can never be too cautious. I’ve seen many cameras die because of moisture. Even though I was very disciplined at keeping my camera as dry as possible, it got wet every day. The Leica held up beautifully both for me and for everyone else on this trip.

Leica Meet Skye London 2015

Clearly the toning of your images is a key part of your work. Can you tell us why?

My mother is a gifted painter. Having grown up immersed in her work, her “painter’s psyche” is something I have inevitably inherited and embraced. Ansel Adams once said, “…the negative is the score, the print is the performance…”. The RAW file is the score. For me, the RAW processing is the performance. Personally, I relate this thinking to painting. When shooting, I’m capturing a scene, a moment in time, a feeling. Later when processing, I’m remembering the mood I experienced in that moment. It’s all very autobiographical.

Before digital I shot color transparency almost exclusively. I worked very hard to make the image on film, be the final image. It was a challenging craft. Now, shooting digitally is very different. The potential of working with a RAW file is boundless. So, I get my shot. Once I’m back home I become the painter, the “performance”… so to speak. Anything can happen with color, tone, etc. I treat each image individually. I hardly ever deliberately go for a consistent color/tonal palette within a project. As long as I stay true to my vision, my images will come together as a whole no matter how much tonal/ color variety emerges.

By staying true to myself and each image, the project always ends up being cohesive. It’s interesting how the less I try to be consistent from one image to the next, the more cohesive the body of work will be. It really pays to have an “anything goes” attitude. When I see my mother paint, there is no “correct” black, “correct” focus, under or over exposure. The image is what it is. Anything can happen. There’s something so powerful about that which I can’t help but apply in my own work. Actually, I don’t “apply” it. It just happens. It’s inevitable. Sometimes people have said that I have very good technique. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from some of the best in the industry. This has been instrumental in giving me the ability to make my vision a reality. I am very mindful of my technique throughout my entire photographic process. Shooting, processing, and printing. My mother, the painter, also has great technique. To paraphrase Uncle Ben (from Spiderman), “with great technique, comes great responsibility”. Technique is a tool to serve our vision, not the other way around.

Leica Meet Skye London 2015

I know you like to use Capture One Pro, rather than the LR/PS combo loved by so many. Can you explain why and tell us something about your workflow?

There’s two reasons I use Capture One exclusively. First, image quality is second to none. I’m fortunate to have amazing state of the art Leica and medium format kits. With Capture One, my Leica and medium format RAW files will reach their full potential. Nothing will be wasted, no matter how far I push them.

Second, Phase One is really good about listening to photographers and making updates that fill our needs. Incidentally, I now use Photoshop less and less given I can now print (with superior results) straight from Capture One. Currently, the only reason I have to use Photoshop is when I need to do any kind of compositing. Other than that it’s all Capture One. File management, RAW processing, local adjustments, retouching, black and white conversion, printing, image up-sizing, etc.

Thank you Santiago!

Leica Meet Skye London 2015

Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to over 8,000 members. In June 2015, Olaf will be co-teaching ‘Visual Conversations’, a creative photography workshop with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College in Rockport.

If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: or    

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