California-born, Aspen-bred and now Los Angeles-based freelance photographer, James Law, unexpectedly fell into the business of photography after being inspired by the work of a Swedish artist.
Because of his personal interest in mixed martial arts, he started photographing fighters and fights, and ended up working full-time with a fighting organisation, The Ultimate Fighting Championship, and capturing brilliant action-packed shots, before pursuing another branch of photography — fashion.
With luck on his side, he was always in the right place at the right time, and before long found himself shooting celebrities, of whom one of his favourite subjects is Pharrell. He has also done commercial work for international brands such as Vans, and ZICO coconut water.
Recently, he was invited by Leica to test drive their newly launched Leica SL, which is a brand-new full-frame professional level mirrorless camera that was unveiled to great fanfare. It boasts what Leica is calling “the fastest autofocus on the market,” and its 2GB buffer allows one to shoot at up to 11 full-resolution photos per second. Law was also particularly awed by the camera’s professional video capabilities — the Leica SL can do 4K video at 24/30 frames per second and Full HD video at 120 frames per second.
We speak to Law about his work and his experience using the the Leica SL.
How did you start out? I started out as a photographer for sports, and then I saw these Swedish guy and the way he shot, and I thought that this was how I saw my life. I had always been interested in photography but that was the moment I knew that I could take it into my own hands. I applied it to kickboxing, mixed martial arts, jujitsu and within a few months I was asked by one of the biggest fighting organisations to travel the world with them, and I shot 70 fights almost non-stop for almost three years. I shot some of their most iconic images in their library, which are used all over the world. They asked me to be the photo director for their magazine for their brand and in the last three years, I have gone freelance to develop myself as a stand alone photographer.
How has your experience with the Leica and the camera been? Being invited to Wetzlar in Germany by Leica for the launch of the Leica SL was amazing and a great honour. I liked being at the headquarters. They sent the camera out to me two weeks prior to the launch to make a commercial, with the objective of demonstrating the powers of the camera and what is new and revolutionary about it, and also how it is going to change the course of Leica in the sense of merging photography and videography, and the transition between the two.
What do you like about the Leica SL? Between shooting sports and fashion, there tends to be a lot of high intensity involvement, and I really enjoyed a couple key features on this SL. One of the things I admire and which is surprising about the camera is the ability to swap between photo and video which makes me feel very confident in the way that I shoot. It is incredible to be shooting amazing full frame photos and then — with one touch of a button and in a millisecond — switch to video and start the recording process. I can shoot 120 frames a second, and amazing slow motion, which is not something that you see all the time. It is a tool that I have not seen on any camera, shooting 11 frames per second, along with a really intuitive autofocus. It’s what every avid shooter needs. It has the ability to have amazing range; I think the highest ISO range that we can get it to is 50,000. So that’s the upper limit, but it shows you that you have so much room to play. It is going to hold up at 3200 and 6400. There was once we shot at a 120 frames per second at 6400 ISO — it’s such a dark environment, yet the imagery and video that we got from that it was quite amazing.
Prior to this, had you worked with Leica cameras before? I started on a Leica M9, which is their first digital. And that was an amazing experience because I had always been so used to shooting so fast — that is my personality and how I operate — and getting my hands on a Leica helped me become a better photographer and to slow down and think about my shots. I had lost sight of what was important in the way of how I shot. As I became more familiar with the camera as an extension of the way I shot, I actually became faster, but also more thoughtful and progressive, using something that has always been so fast and so easy. Using a Leica changed the way I shot and changed my career and helped me find a common bond between some of my closest friends and collaborator, Daniel Arsham, whom I met about two and a half years ago.
How did you get into fashion photography? That all came about because of a whim I had to go to fashion week in New York and to shoot on my very special Leica. Everyone was always commenting, ‘oh hey, nice camera,’ and it would be an icebreaker and I would end up giving them my namecard! I shot a couple portraits at fashion week through Daniel, and I was having my own fun, following my own path. One thing led to another, and it turned into this relationship where we now work together once a month. And because of this I have now shot celebrities like Pharrell, James Franco and Juliette Lewis… so, it is funny, but in a way you could say that Leica changed the way I shoot, and also changed my career.
Do you have a preference for a specific type of photography? Fashion or sports, for instance? I am a versatile shooter — it comes down to what I am interested in, what I love and who I connect with. I love amateur sport so I shoot that; I love fashion so I shoot that. I want to do projects that mean something to me, and those projects always lead into new projects. I do some commercial work and advertising work, and that often involves portraits. I think that’s the new era of photography, which is about having the personality of the person be complemented by the shoot.
How do you connect with your subjects? There’s a different approach, like you might talk to a pretty girl one way and the CEO of a company in another way. To me, it is about creating an environment for somebody. I have power, in a way, when I am holding my camera, but I am not trying to exert my power over you. I am trying to connect with you. My approach with different subjects varies depending on who they are. For instance, if I am doing a photo shoot for Harper’s Bazaar, I will make sure the environment is easy-going and fun, so that when the models and art directors come in they feel comfortable. Sometimes that is all you need to make a shoot go well. On the other hand, when it is just one on one, sometimes we don’t start shooting for an hour and a half; we are just chatting and that’s how we connect.
Any tips for shooting portraits? I can tell you this, when you tell someone to smile, it doesn’t always work; the way I do it is I continue shooting when the subject hears the shutter go off and thinks it is done, and I continue catching the smile that is more natural. It is about the moments in between (the posed shots). Those moments can sometimes be more powerful than the moments when you think you are prepared and looking your best.