Carlo Dalla Chiesa: The Beauty Within

When you walk onto the lot at Smashbox Studios in West Hollywood, Calif., Carlo Dalla Chiesa is immediately recognizable. His tall frame is accented with a stylish flair, and a thick accent betrays his Italian background. Transplanting himself from Europe to the United States wasn’t even close to the biggest move he has made in a career that began in the 1980s. Dalla Chiesa has transformed himself from law student to photographer to entrepreneur to pioneering still and motion photographer and filmmaker. Along the way, he opened a successful digital workflow company, Magia Media, which has since merged with Smashbox.

In 2012, Dalla Chiesa made a short homage to the classic thriller Blow-Up. In the short film, he re-created a sultry scene between a photographer and a model. It’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking, but what attracted us to the project was the collection of high-resolution still frames that he displayed on his website. These still photographs had been pulled from motion footage taken with a RED Epic camera. When we sat down to talk with Dalla Chiesa, he explained that, contrary to much of the conventional wisdom, shooting still and motion capture isn’t simply a matter of shooting video and pulling out a frame here and there. The mind-set and the fundamental approach to shooting motion that’s supposed to be seen in motion is quite different from shooting for still frames. The lines between still capture and motion capture and still plus motion capture are blurring, but there are important differences.

DPP: On the Smashbox Digital website, you have the Blow Up short that you made, as well as a number of still images. Did you shoot them simultaneously? How did you work with still and motion capture?

Carlo Dalla Chiesa: What triggered my interest was that, as a photographer, I was envisioning that one day we could do both at the same time. I was envisioning this for a long time. I feel that capturing the perfect moment in a photo was the reason we were taking all of those photos—so many photos—at a time. The movement, the expression, the focus, the lighting, the exposure—all of these elements are what you’re trying to bring together in a photograph, so we were taking a lot of photos.

When you’re shooting motion capture and you have movement, there’s this fluid motion that’s happening. The subjects are free to do a scene that’s much more complete than with still photo frames. It’s not just a moment. I was fascinated by that, so when the RED Epic camera came out, it gave me the ability to shoot video and, at the same time, the ability to extract the photos. I saw that this gave me the tool for what I really like to do. I think that down the road people will be very interested in this type of camera.

At Smashbox Digital, we’ve been fascinated in how to do this best, not just for ourselves, but for other clients in the future. It’s about the workflow. You can’t just do it if you don’t know how to do it. There are a lot of different components that allow you to do this. I think we’re in the right place now, and we know how to shoot motion and extract photos.

DPP: Do you think of it as extracting frames from video footage or as shooting individual still frames? In other words, are you filming and just pulling out a frame that you’re going to use as a still here and there, or are you actually thinking like a still photographer shooting at a very high speed?

Dalla Chiesa: You have to be extremely aware of what you’re doing. When I’m shooting a scene that I like and I think what I’m shooting could be a photo, I change the dynamics of the shoot. I repeat the scene for the stills. I’m still shooting in motion, but I slow down the movements, and I ask the actors or models to understand that I need a much more steady approach to their movements. So let’s say that I really like a scene—that scene would have been very fluid—I say to them, let’s do the same scene again in a much more definitive and sort of posing way. You’re repeating the scene, but you don’t have the connection of the click that you do with a still camera when it fires a frame. So I have the actors or models slow it down and hit the pose moments more. I also remove some of the filters that I would use in motion. Because the RED camera is very sharp, I use some filters to soften the image slightly for filmmaking. I do that to soften the skin tones, and I use light that’s a bit softer, as well. When I’m thinking that I’m going to shoot for still photos, I take those filters out and I shoot it raw for the sharpness.

DPP: Why do you think it’s important to have a distinctly different mind-set for shooting for still photos than shooting for motion?

Dalla Chiesa: I’m very sensitive to sharpness. This is my approach. In still photos, I want to have the most sharpness I can get, but some photographers don’t mind or even want a bit of blurriness. It just depends on your approach. Focusing for motion can be much more forgiving because when you’re watching something in motion, you don’t have time to see that it’s a little blurry, but when you want to extract the photo, you have to be aware of it. Is it a look that you’re looking for, or is it an accident?

The lighting is another aspect that’s very different. I came from a still photography background, and I was used to having these big beautiful lights up close, and when you’re shooting motion, you don’t have that. The lights often have to be far away because of the camera movement and the actor’s or model’s movement in the set. So it took me a while to figure out how to deal with this problem.

I think a lot of photographers using a DSLR are thinking, "Oh, I can do this," and then as they start doing it, they realize how difficult and how complex it can be and how different it is from straight stills. It’s not that simple to just go from photography to motion. For one thing, when you’re shooting for motion, usually you’re telling a story. The whole crew is much larger and you need to be in control of a lot more people. Also, for a lot of photographers, they’re used to making a plan and then improvising on the shoot. They might have a loose plan centered around the model and maybe a room or a couple of rooms, and they’re used to letting something magical come together. The lights can move around, the wardrobe can change, and all of this can happen quickly and experimentally. Some photographers are used to working this way and getting maybe eight shots out of the day. But when you’re working with a bigger crew, you can’t just improvise the same way. You need to be planning things out in much more detail, and you’re mapping out a story, so you need to go through a lot more preparation.

Carlo Dalla Chiesa talks about using his skills as a photographer to bring out the best in the people he photographs. Using lighting techniques and lens selections, he has always worked to match the tools with the person. Like a sculptor who chips away at the rough bits of marble to let the figure emerge, Dalla Chiesa paints with lights and sculpts with perspectives until the perfect photo comes

Do you connect with the people you photograph to bring out their best? Whether you take simple headshots or you prefer to place subjects in elaborate settings, check out our contest, The Face, devoted to people and portrait photography. There are prizes like a DSLR, gift cards and a special commemorative Asuka book, which all of the finalists and winners will receive, plus the winners will be showcased in a six-page feature in the December.

The current DSLR technology gives a lot of photographers a familiar environment. The lenses, the size of the camera, the support—all of these are familiar so they aren’t intimidated by the camera. When they go to actually shoot, they will do it by doing it. They will find that it’s a totally different workflow.

DPP: You mentioned you’ve been interested in being able to shoot still and motion for a long time. Does that come from your early days as a photographer? How did you get started?

Dalla Chiesa: I came to the States from Italy for a summer vacation. I was studying law, and being in California was so different from being in Europe at that time. This was in 1983. By the time I finished the summer, I decided to stay another three months, and I enrolled in a photography class at UCLA. That had always been my passion. So I took some classes, and I decided that it was what I really wanted to do. I met some people at school, and from there I became an assistant, and I did that for about five or six years and then I went out on my own. I was a photographer out on my own doing commercial photography for about 20 years. I had been very close to graduating with a law degree, and I just dropped it and followed my passion.

DPP: How do you define your style of still photography?

Dalla Chiesa: Since I started, photography has changed completely. I had been fascinated by how you could use your skills of lighting and your choice of lenses to do portraits and to make people look beautiful. I got a lot of comments on my photos and from the people I was photographing. They would say that they really liked the photos and they looked really good in the photos. I think my skills were in capturing the right light and choosing the right lens that a person needed to be photographed with. I could make someone look their best. My interpretation of photography was to be successful. The person I was photographing should feel good about themselves.

You can see Carlo Dalla Chiesa’s Blow Up, as well as other projects, at

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