Nino Rakichevich’s Quest For Available Light

This image was included in the “Enchanted Garden” editorial spread for the “Revolutionary Chic” editorial story in Al Sharkiah magazine. The model is Xenia Ryzhkavets, the fashion Designer, Julien Fournie, and the Fashion Editor and Stylist, Suna Moya.

Growing up in Yugoslavia, Nino Rakichevich dreamed of becoming a fashion photographer. He picked up a camera at an early age and started shooting, winning many awards before immigrating to the U.S. in the late 1980s to study at the world-renowned Brooks Institute of Photography. There he built up a body of work he could use to land his first fashion assignments.

“When I graduated from Brooks, my entire portfolio was basically fashion,” Rakichevich says. “They didn’t even have a fashion class then, but I followed fashion and fashion photographers and all the good magazines, so I was up on all that was going on. And I was lucky enough that very soon after I graduated, I got some big fashion clients. That’s how I started.”

Rakichevich assisted other photographers only a few times, finding that garnering his own assignments was largely a function of getting to know the people in the fashion industry who had the power to hire him. He says it’s much the same today.

Nino Rakichevich
This image from our November/December issue cover was also included in the “Enchanted Garden” editorial spread for the “Revolutionary Chic” editorial story in Al Sharkiah magazine. The model, Fanta Conde, is wearing a duchess satin-printed blouse with a wrap skirt, red salome shoes and black lambskin gloves, which are from Fashion Designer Julien Fournié’s First Crime haute couture collection from Autumn 2018. Additionally, the Fashion Editor and Stylist for this editorial shot was Suna Moya.

“You really have to be out there and mingling with the right groups of people,” he says, “and things are going to happen. It gets even more important than how good your work is because there’s a million good photographers out there. Why would somebody pick you? It usually boils down to how easy are you to work with. People will like you, and if they like you as a person and if they like your work, then you have a really good chance to be working. But if people don’t like you—even if they like your work—they’re not going to work with you. That’s a really important thing. When I graduated, I was very social, and I met a lot of people in the industry, and next thing you know, I started working. I thought I had a good enough portfolio to get a good start, but the hard part is to get a client. To get a client, you really have to be social, and I was.”

He adds, “I was very, very serious. And I was so passionate about photography, and I’m still as passionate right now as I was way back then.”

Nino Rakichevich exudes a love of photography even in casual conversation. He’s excited to talk about the work that moves him, which includes not just fashion but also street photography, personal projects and commercial assignments. He’s always shooting, which is yet another reason why the coronavirus shutdown has been particularly difficult.   

Nino Rakichevich
This image was shot backstage at the Yanina Couture fashion show in Paris.

Shooting Paris Fashion Week In Available Light

Normally, Rakichevich travels to France every summer to photograph the pinnacle event of the fashion world, Paris Fashion Week, when all the top designers showcase their haute couture for the summer season.

This year, however, the event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, so Rakichevich lost out on several weeks of work that include shooting behind the scenes at fashion shows as well as photographing editorial spreads for international magazines such as QCEG and Al Sharkiah. But he’s used his time off to publish a video about his work in Paris, currently on YouTube at youtube.com/watch?v=mVsqUBX4e6o. He also plans to eventually publish a book of his photographs from Fashion Week, showcasing his love of fashion and black and white photography, as well as the beautiful images he creates almost exclusively with natural light.

“Some photographers,” he says, “bring lights, which complicates everything. I think those guys don’t know what they’re doing! There’s all these old-fashioned guys and some young photographers who are insecure and just learned photography on YouTube and think, ‘Oh, I need to get these lights, I need to get this, I need to get that.’ A lot of photographers today are learning from YouTube, and there’s a lot of good stuff and good information, but with a lot of this stuff, people are just promoting products. It makes you feel, ‘Oh, I need to get these lights so I can be a better photographer! I really need these lights so I can overpower the sun!’ Why do you want to do that? Really, if you understand the light, you know that available light is just as beautiful. But you have to understand it.”

Rakichevich captured model Susanne Knipper exiting the backstage area after the Georges Hobeika fashion show.

Nino Rakichevich says it also helps to understand what one’s camera is capable of. His preferred natural light approach simply wasn’t possible early in his career.

“Cameras today are so good,” he says, particularly when it comes to one aspect of digital cameras today—namely dynamic range.

“Dynamic range is the most important thing. That’s why I use Sony cameras because the dynamic range is so good that even if the lighting is not perfect, I can fix it in post. Cameras are so good that you don’t need to bring all these lights as long as you can position the model in a good spot. You can just work with available light, and that’s exactly what I do.”

But just what does working with available light at an important event like Paris Fashion Week entail?

 “I’m using the light,” he says. “I’m using sun, I’m using windows, I’m using reflections from walls. Anything that’s ‘available.’ That way, I can work faster, especially if you want to work backstage. That’s where it makes perfect sense! And some of these photos, people will say, ‘Really? That’s available light?’ It is!”

Rakichevich captured this image of models wearing Marija Sabic’s “Lilac Beauty” 2019 collection during Paris Fashion Week in 2019. The image, captured in direct sunlight, was part of a 10-page editorial entitled “Enchanted Garden” for Al Sharkiah magazine.

For example, in creating an image of nine models striding across a Parisian garden, Rakichevich was able to work with unmodified natural light. In fact, he used one of the most challenging types of natural light: harsh, direct sunlight. But he got it to work, and the shoot is featured in his Paris Fashion Week video, which reveals the photographer with a pair of cameras slung around his neck and nothing else.

“I did have a reflector with me,” he admits, “but I didn’t use it. That’s typical. It was not shot at an ideal time of the day, but I didn’t have a choice, so I had to make it work. I really wanted to shoot a little bit later in the afternoon; it was around five o’clock, which was not ideal at that time of year. But when you look at the location, the ground is almost white.” So, in this scenario, Rakichevich said the ground became the reflector. “Basically, it filled in, and I didn’t need anything else. I had a real raw sun, and the reflector was the ground, and that’s how I made it work.”

This image was also used in the “Enchanted Garden” spread for Al Sharkiah. Model: Hristina Vujinovic, Fashion Designer: Marija Sabic, Fashion Editor and Stylist: Suna Moya and Production: Vesna De Vinca.

Nino Rakichevich says he does work with an assistant for editorial shoots but rarely to set up extensive lighting. In fact, his preferred light modifier is an $89 pocket LED.

“I think a lot of photographers today use lights, even when available light would be better,” he says.

When Rakichevich was teaching photography, he would often ask his students about their ideas for their shoots. “I would ask them, ‘So what’s your idea?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, well, I have an idea to use the Profoto…’ And I’d say, ‘No, what’s your idea. I don’t care what you want to use.’ And if they said that they really didn’t know what their idea was other than wanting to use particular lights, I’d tell them to come up with the idea first and then think about how they’d light it… if they even needed to light it.”

Nino Rakichevich
Rakichevich captured this black-and-white behind-the-scenes photo backstage at the On Aura Tout Vu fashion show in Paris in 2014.

Nino Rakichevich’s Camera Bag: Lights, Cameras, Lenses

Rakichevich’s Fashion Week YouTube video is a case in point for his passion for available light. “In that video,” the photographer says, “there’s only one photo in the entire video that I use artificial light—it was a Lume Cube.”

Rakichevich says it’s the light he always has with him, “just in case…It’s like 1 inch by 1 inch, a little cube, and that’s all I used with available light. There’s only one photo from all the photos that you see there.”

The photo in which he used the Lume Cube is his image of a model in a very long white dress ascending a staircase. “It’s like an edge light, and it gives a little bit of shadow, too. People are like, ‘Lume Cube? Really?’ They think they need something big, but it’s literally something you can put in your pocket. I can pull it out when I need, bounce it from a white wall if I want to diffuse it. It’s very powerful, small and durable. And it can go underwater, too. It’s amazing, and it’s inexpensive.”  

This image is an exception to Rakichevich’s rule of generally shooting in available light. For this image, the photographer used a Lume Cube to create “an edge light, and it gives a little bit of shadow, too.”

But Rakichevich adds, “People are going to think I don’t use lights at all or that I’m against it. I’m actually not. But people have to realize when to use it. That’s the thing. I’m not against it at all; I just feel like people are using lights [in scenarios that] don’t need it.”

Nino Rakichevich primarily uses full-frame mirrorless Sony cameras for his work—the Sony a7R IV and two A7R III full-frame cameras, as well as a pair of a6600 bodies with an APS-C sensor, the latter of which he uses mostly for video. “But they’re really good for stills, too,” he says. “I always shoot with two cameras. My go-to lenses for backstage are the 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master zoom and the 35mm f/1.4 Zeiss, because it’s a fast lens so it will blur the background if you shoot wide open, and it’s wide enough but not too wide to distort.”

For editorial work, Rakichevich adds a few more Sony lenses to his kit, including the 85mm f/1.4 G Master, the 135mm f/1.8 G Master and the 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master.

“I don’t end up using that much,” he says of the zoom, “because the 135mm f/1.8 is amazing. It’s a magical lens; I absolutely love it. I prefer primes for blurring the background. If I ever shoot a runway, like if I’m in a pit with all these other photographers, then I’ll shoot with the 70-200mm. I rarely do that, but I do it sometimes. And if I do, that’s the one I need to have.”

Rakichevich captured the two images above backstage before the main event, which has become a source of some of the photographer’s most creative images. “Backstage can be more interesting because not many people can get a backstage pass.” What intrigues him is that there are so many disparate things taking place during this time. “A model will show up three hours before. And they’ll do her makeup. Then, I’ll see a first run before everybody else gets to see it. So, there’s a lot of stuff happening before the show starts. It’s very hectic, but there’s a lot of energy.” Of course, Rakichevich also says he’s careful working backstage. “It’s important to be respectful of everybody and not to be in anybody’s way.”

Why Convert To Black And White

Nino Rakichevich often converts images to black and white for his own purposes, sometimes suggesting them to his clients as well—although editors and designers tend to prefer seeing fashion in color.

For example, Rakichevich shot a pair of striking portraits, made spontaneously during his time backstage during Fashion Week. They appear especially timeless and iconic in black and white.

One features a model in a tall hat and the other peering out from under an impressive nest of hair. “That’s actually a wig,” he says. “That photo was shot backstage, available light, and it looks like studio. It was shot with the 85mm f/1.4, and I usually don’t use that backstage, but that was the year it came out, so I was really excited about it. I personally prefer black and white, so I’ll go back and forth.

“Because there’s very few of us photographers,” Rakichevich says of being backstage, “we can work with these models. I’ll find a good spot and say, ‘OK, stand right there.’ Usually, they just do it. If you’re there, you’re there with a press pass, so you’re legit.”

The key, of course, is being there. Rakichevich looks forward to getting back to Paris as soon as possible, much as he once dreamed of coming to the U.S.A. to become a fashion photographer.

“Where there is a will, there is a way,” he says. “I came to America with one suitcase and a camera bag. That was it. And I remember most people thought I was crazy doing it. But you know, 32 years later, I look back, and I’m like, ‘You know what? I did it.’”

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