Interview with Leo Dickinson

Q When did you first get the photography bug?

Leo: When I was about 6 or 7 years of age. My mother used to take slides on a Kodak Retinette 1A and I was fascinated by that but I didn’t really understand how it worked until a friend of mine who was a farmer got a darkroom and let me share it, then I got well and truly hooked. Later I went to photographic college for 3 years.

Q Can you remember your first Camera?

Leo: Yes it was that same Kodak Retinette – Mum gave it to me when she stopped taking pictures. Unfortunately I dropped it down a climb in Wales and the lens got bent about 30 degrees so I guessed it probably wouldn’t take very sharp pictures any more. (I didn’t know about tilt and shift lenses at that stage!). Then I got a Pentax because it was about the cheapest quality SLR at the time and I had that for some time until I dropped that 100 metres down a cliff into the sea in North Wales (all equipment eventually gets dropped somewhere!). I got it back a week later when a diver friend retrieved it from a depth of 30 metres underwater – sadly it no longer worked but the insurance company were well impressed that I had bothered to retrieve it and paid up no problem. Then I got into film-making and actually my first Canon camera was a 16mm movie camera, a Scoopic. I still think that was the best lightweight movie camera ever made for action filming and over the years I’ve had seven of them. I made my first film “On the North face of the Eiger” with the Canon Scoopic. It was commissioned by Yorkshire TV and it was quite successful for them and that really kick started my career as an adventure film maker. After that a few of my climber friends and I thought we could do anything so we decided to go off and climb the most difficult mountain in South America called Cerro Torre, a fantastic orange fang of granite that sticks out the Patagonian mountain range in the Southern Andes. Unfortunately I had recently broken my leg skiing and was on crutches some months before the expedition but my team was very strong. My role was expedition photographer and film-maker and that’s when I started using Canon SLRs.
The first two bodies I had were F1’s but my favourite two lenses were an enormous 1200mm telephoto and a 7.5mm fisheye. The 1200mm was a pain to carry but when we got it to the base camp we could see things on the mountain that we couldn’t see with the naked eye and I managed to get images of the ice covered peak from about 8 kilometres away that nobody had ever seen before. It was extraordinarily beautiful and I was lucky to get some great magazine coverage from that. Then with the fisheye I got some spectacular shots in the ice cave we were living in, shooting through enormous icicles into the rising sun and that really started my love of extreme focal lengths.

Q Are you still using lenses like that?

Leo: Oh, sure. In my latest project filming the world’s fastest creature, the Peregrine Falcon, I’m using an EF 1200mm F5.6 and an EF 600mm with a 2 X Extender. The 600mm is just about a standard lens for the work I do. Then for skydiving which I do a lot of, you need wide-angle lenses which I have mounted on my helmet and I use the long focal lengths for extreme distances. I don’t seem to work so well with ‘normal’ focal lengths but that’s just my type of photography I suppose.

Q Did you have any particular influences?

To be honest my influences were less photographic and more from the climbing. It taught me to do the very best you can in any circumstance. Sometimes your life depends upon it and time dictates that you might only get one shot so you have to get it right.

Q Which equipment do you use now?

Leo: For skydiving I use a couple of older EOS cameras – EOS 600s which are helmet mounted with a Newton ring sight in parallel for aiming them and they still work perfectly despite all the abuse they’ve received so there’s no real need to change them. Also I can use them instinctively now which is kind of important when you are falling at 200 kph. I’m also using a digital EOS for other work – an EOS 1D which is fantastic, especially in remote locations because I can instantly see if I’ve got the shot or not.

Q Has Digital has a big impact for you?

Leo: Well I’m a big lover of Kodachrome and many of the kind of magazines I’ve done work for like National Geographic have, in the past, demanded the quality of Kodachrome and nothing less would
do. So I was a bit apprehensive about the quality of digital but I have to say the EOS 1D is fantastic – OK it’s not quite as good as Kodachrome yet – but seeing what you are going to get goes a long way to overriding that. Increasingly I’m finding that magazines want unique images – whether they’ve been shot on film or digital is becoming less important.
Where digital has made a huge difference for me is with digital video cameras which are now amazing in quality and so small and light compared with the equipment I used to have to use.

Q Is there anything that bugs you, anything you feel could be improved?

Leo: No not really. Having said that travelling with all my photographic equipment is a pain and I think photographers in general get a raw deal from most of the airlines considering how valuable and potentially easily damaged their equipment can be. Sportsmen get a dispensation for their sports equipment and I don’t know why photographers can’t be extended the same courtesy. I’m thinking of modifying a golf bag to hold my camera equipment then I’ll probably get all the gear on without any difficulty. But actually I’ve been quite lucky and I’ve had very little broken while flying – except for an 800mm which was snapped in half when its case was dropped off a fork lift onto the tarmac in Florida.

Q What is good / bad about being a photographer in 2003?

Leo: Good is the improvement in equipment – let me illustrate that with comparing the 3 chip BetaCam that cost me around €80,000 and one of the Canon DV cameras that I now use which cost me about
€1500. I can tell you there is certainly not €78,500 difference in terms of quality, nothing like it and as for the difference in size and weight – well it has just revolutionised the work I do.
Bad is perhaps that it’s much harder for anybody starting now to break into the profession. Technically the equipment has made it much easier, almost anybody can do it so there are more people having a go and so it’s much harder to produce something that really stands out and to get work commissioned by the TV companies. You’ve got to admire the technology that Canon and others produce but you can’t just let it take over. You’ve still got to control it and make it work for you. But I think I was lucky starting when I did because hardly anyone did adventure photography then.

Q What is your favourite book and CD?

Leo: My favourite book at the moment is the Biography of Charles Darwin by Janet Brown. Why? Well it’s big and thick and I’m fascinated by people who changed the world and I think Darwin did. CD? Oh probably one of Bob Dylan’s best-of compilations. He was another one who changed people’s perceptions.

Q What advice would you give a student who wants to become a professional photographer?

Leo: I get about fifty calls a year on this! When I started the difficulty was getting TV companies to understand that adventure photography could actually be interesting. Now with channels like the Discovery Channel there is much more of a market for it but on the other hand so many more people are doing it that editors can really cherry pick. If you haven’t already got a name for yourself it’s really hard. I’m finding it harder too because real documentaries have gone slightly out of vogue. Everyone’s making this fly on the wall stuff, Big Brother and rubbish like that but I think the audience are already getting bored with that and I’m sure it will swing back to something a little more intellectually stimulating.
My advice would be that you need to develop a specialist skill, a deep understanding of whatever you are photographing. In my case it was climbing. I was never the best climber in the world but I was competent and through that I was able to get the confidence of the people who I worked with who are really good at what they do. If you don’t have their trust there will always be an ‘us and them’ situation – ‘us’ the climbers and ‘them’ the film crew and that’s not a good catalyst for making a harmonious film. You’ve got to take a backward step in terms of your own ego. The star should be those in front of the camera not the photographer behind it.