Photography can be like a series of tests. Tests of creativity, skill, planning, and resourcefulness. How you deal with those tests defines the pictures you take and the projects you make. But try facing these tests with a camera you’ve never used before, and it becomes even more interesting. Can the camera also test the photographer? Make them think differently and see new possibilities? If you take Mathias Kniepeiss’s recent costume project in Venice, this might just be the case.
Mathias, a photographer and art director with a international pedigree in sports, portraits and commercial work, also shoots staged historical scenarios with lavish costumes. That’s how he came to Venice.
“I have a good friend,” he explains, “who’s a costume designer there, and who works at the carnival. We had done a project together in Austria for a casino, and he asked if I’d come to Venice and shoot his work in an amazing five-star hotel. I came with a small team of five, but by the end, it was so much fun there were 14 of us and we spent three weekends shooting.”
Normally projects like this involve a huge amount of work in the build-up. “It’s six months of preparation, location checks, and looking at the costumes,” Mathias tells us, “but this time it was far more spontaneous. Amazingly, I had never been to Venice before, so this wonderful city was all new to me and a totally fresh canvas to work with. It was a great test to see what we could do and push our creativity.” On top of that, it was a chance for Mathias to test the α7R III and how it handles, reacts in low light and focuses against the light. His thoughts? “I was amazed with the quality,” he laughs.
Before his Venice shoot, Mathias only had a little experience of shooting with mirrorless cameras, but soon saw what the α7R III could bring to his work. “I like to test different cameras, to challenge myself a bit,” he explains, “but also see what the camera brings out of me. With the Alpha’s Eye Auto Focus, the idea that what you see is what you get is a revelation. You change settings, and you see everything, so it’s way faster when working with available light in these great locations. There’s no need to test – you’re already looking at the right exposure.”
Though many of his shots are static, he also relied on the α7R III’s brilliant AF for movement where the models were running and jumping in the costumes. “Normally with a studio camera,” he explains, “it’s not so fast with AF for situations like that. But with the α7R III it combines the best of a studio camera with amazing AF.”
When working in low light, Mathias also made use of focus peaking within the α7R III’s EVF, and even used the Eye AF when shooting the masks. “I thought it’d be a test too far,” he tells us, “maybe it would focus on the mask, not the eye itself – but it did it perfectly.”
The α7R III also exceeded expectations when Mathias was shooting in a gondola.
This was really challenging,” explains Mathias, “there were three of us in the back – two of my assistants running the flash, and shooting video, and myself – and using the FE 12-24mm f/4 G, I was hanging the camera out of the boat, really far to get the angle. It was tough, but using the Eye AF, and the screen for composition really helped make the picture. If I was having to look through the viewfinder I’d have needed to be in another boat – or have ended up in the water!
Does he have a favourite shot from the project? “There are many,” he says, “but this group shot would be my pick. I love scenarios where there’s great body language and a lot of meaning in the expressions.” The shot is reminiscent of a baroque painting, multilayered with a dramatic feel, as though a story is unfolding. And that was actually the case. “We had some obstacles along the way,” Mathias explains, “and one of them was that on the first weekend our three models cancelled at the last minute! So we had to improvise. I asked the team to step in instead and they were amazing – my makeup artist, my costume designer, my videographer… even I’m in one of the pictures as the harlequin!”
Looking at his images, you can feel that spontaneous energy, which is something Mathias is incredibly proud of. “At the beginning it was just an idea, he says, “but in the end so many good things came from it, maybe because of the tests we overcame. We created opportunities, and I think we really captured that energy and those feelings in the images. That’s when photography is at its best. If it can transport feelings, that’s the masterclass.”
"In photography, nothing is impossible, whether to document stories for eternity or to create new worlds"