DPP Home Profiles Gerd Ludwig - At The Heart Of The Matter

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Gerd Ludwig - At The Heart Of The Matter

Prominent photo ­­­journalist Gerd Ludwig embarks on a digital journey—and takes us with him

When still shooting film, one of Ludwig's camera bodies was fashioned with a 35mm Polaroid back. He'd shoot some frames and put the little Polaroid images into a book to create a storyboard. In the field, this helped tremendously to evaluate how his story was progressing. “The only problem with this was that I would occasionally find that the Polaroid image was the best version,” he laughs. “My Russian assistant used to say that I was the best Polaroid photographer he'd seen.”

When the Canon EOS-1Ds came out, Ludwig noticed that the technology had progressed to a point where he felt the quality was comparable to that of film. He then started taking the camera on assignment in place of the Polaroid back. Ludwig recalls, “This was good for me because I was getting to know the camera, and if I got a really good image, then it could be published.”

The transition was smooth. “After a while, I noticed that I was using the digital camera more than the film one, so I started to force myself to make a complete switch, leave my film camera behind and ‘breathe' digital,” says Ludwig.

At this point, he starts showing me some of his digital images from a story published in the November issue of Germany's National Geographic called “Napoleon in Germany.”

As we look through the images on his computer screen, I mention how much the look of it equals that of his slide work. “I know,” he says, “that was a big concern of mine. I really didn't want to lose my look, and after shooting with the 1Ds, I realized that I didn't have to. I still use the same accessories that I used when I was shooting film. I have a Singh-Ray Warming Polarizer that gives me the color I like and a variety of other filters and gels that I place on my flash.”


It's not a secret that in the old days, an average National Geographic story would have a photography budget of $150,000, in many cases more. Although this amount covered expenses, film and processing, plus the photographer's fee, the number seems incomprehensible when it comes to any editorial work done these days. Those assignments lasted up to eight months, and shooting well over 1,000 rolls wasn't uncommon. Editing approximately 50,000 slides down to 80 from an eight-month assignment would take an extensive amount of time and mental and creative energy.

“The photographing and editing process would essentially be split up into two segments,” explains Ludwig. “About midway into the shoot, I would return to National Geographic in D.C., and the exposed film I had shipped from the field would be edited and assessed. At that point, adjustments to the focus or direction of the story would be made, and off I'd go for another few months.”

Things at the Geographic are different these days. A typical assignment takes Ludwig on the road for about five to 12 weeks at a time, with very low or no film costs. Images to edit reach the 15,000 mark, a less-overwhelming number to conquer in the editing process, yet still challenging.


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