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Monday, November 26, 2007

Axel Heimken - The Art Of Selective Focus

Using a lens modifier, sports photographer Axel Heimken gets a look that allows him to isolate his subjects for creative effect

Little Bellows
At the end of 2004, Heimken was browsing the photo-networking Website Flickr, when a dramatic image caught his eye. “There was a sharp focus on the side, but all around was this blur of motion,” he recalls.

A note on the photo explained that the effect hadn't been created post-production, but in-camera through a product that was to change the way he approached his work from that point forward: the Lensbaby.

Searching the Web, Heimken discovered that the product had only one distributor in Germany. “They didn't have enough in stock, so I had to phone them week after week after week! Finally, it came in the mail, this funny little lens. I remember that when I opened it up, it was like Christmas, and when I started playing with it, it felt like discovering photography for the first time again.”

It took Heimken awhile to acclimate himself to the bellows system, which places the image's sweet spot. “You have to experiment with it, jiggle it around, fight with it a little bit, but it's satisfying in the way it puts you in the moment, rather than spending hours afterwards manipulating it on the computer.”

The following year in Cologne, Heimken was covering an Olympic qualification meet for the 100-meter dash. He had brought along his complete arsenal of equipment, including his favorite lens for sports photography, the Canon 400mm, but he also had brought his Lensbaby, which his colleagues jokingly referred to as “dem lustigen objectiv” (“the funny-looking lens”). But Heimken had a plan and a rationale.

“In the 100-meter dash,” says Heimken, “after the referee fires his pistol, there's a moment in the first three or four meters when you see all the runners in a row, just before one person breaks through into the lead. If I were to take that shot with my 400mm, they all would have looked frozen in time. But I had been thinking beforehand about how to illustrate that explosion of energy, and I thought, ‘Why not try the Lensbaby?'”

When his editors at Sport Bild saw the pictures, recalls Heimken, “They said, ‘These didn't come from Photoshop, did they?' and I told them no. ‘Well, we've never seen anything like these! They really take you into the sweat of the sport! Give us more!'”

After that initial success, Heimken began carrying a dedicated camera with a Lensbaby attached, just in case opportunities came to get up close and personal with athletes. Heimken's normal field equipment consists of a set of two Canon EOS-1D Mark IIs and a Canon 5D camera. When he photographs with a Lensbaby, he uses it on his Mark II because he likes the effect of a small magnification factor (1.3x).


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