"Something magical": the story behind these ethereal body painting shots, taken on a Canon EOS R

Colourful patterns of body paint glow on the skin of a woman photographed under UV light with a Canon EOS R.
Photographer Antonio Gibotta enlisted the help of Italian artist Antonio Alaia to paint four models with fluorescent body paint, who he then photographed under UV light. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/4.0 and ISO1600. © Antonio Gibotta

Antonio Gibotta is an award-winning photojournalist whose projects include documenting the lives of migrants, religious pilgrims and gaming addicts. However, his latest photographs are far removed from his other work. "I forced myself to think of something new," he says, "a different project, a unique one." The result was a striking and colourful series of images of models covered with fluorescent body paint, photographed under UV light.

Day to day, the former Canon Ambassador runs a wedding photography business in Naples, Italy, in partnership with his father Ciro. However, for a number of years, Antonio has combined this wedding work with self-financing his own documentary projects. They have brought him international recognition as well as awards including a World Press Photo Award in 2017.

Antonio's new work was inspired by two of his earlier photojournalistic projects. One was a series of images of the Holi festival, an annual three-day Hindu celebration in which participants throw brightly-coloured powders over each other to symbolise the end of winter and the victory of good over evil. The other inspiration was Flour War, Antonio's series on the 200-year-old festival that takes place in Alicante, Spain, where people are split into two groups and do battle with flour, water, eggs and coloured smoke.

Colourful swirling patterns of body paint glow on the skin of three women photographed under UV light.
During the shoot, the studio was kept in complete darkness except for the UV lamp. Models stood in front of black backgrounds to emphasise the colourful patterns on their skin. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/3.5 and ISO800. © Antonio Gibotta
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His body painting shoot took the theme of transforming the body's surface (with coloured paint), as happens in those public festivals, but in a controlled studio environment. From the outset, he knew exactly how he wanted to tackle the subject. "I had the idea of taking the photos in total darkness, with a UV lamp as the only source of light," he says.

For the shoot, four models were painted by Antonio Alaia, a young Italian artist who expertly covered their faces and bodies with vividly-coloured fluorescent paint that glowed intensely in the UV light. Sometimes the paint was applied with a brush, while at other times it was spattered on using the bristles of a toothbrush dipped in paint. Antonio says that when choosing the models he "looked for faces with clean lines" to create the strongest images.

During the shoot, the rest of the studio was kept in complete darkness. The models, both singly and in groups, were shot against a black background so that only their painted skin was visible.

A woman's head and hands show colourful patterns of body paint glowing under UV light.
Antonio says he tried to create "something magical – between reality and science fiction – and I think these images fully represent my idea." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/2.8 and ISO800. © Antonio Gibotta

Working with the EOS R

Antonio took all of the images with a full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R and Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens. "I wanted to put the camera to the test in weak light conditions, using very high ISO," he says. "The RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens is fantastic – it's very quick and its performance is insane. This combination of camera and lens has an amazing kind of bond that is almost chemistry."

He used the Canon EOS R's vari-angle touchscreen to shoot from different angles and was able to use it to focus quickly and accurately on specific parts of the models' face or body.

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The camera's ability to focus in very low light took him by surprise. "The EOS R can focus in darkness," he says, in recognition of its Dual Pixel CMOS AF and full-frame 30.3 Megapixel sensor. "Thanks to this feature, I was able to take these photos, look at them straight away, and consequently was able to express myself according to my vision of what the photo should be.

"Previously, I would never have thought I would have been able to photograph in total darkness and have such a quick response," Antonio adds. "The autofocus is so precise and the fastest I've ever tested."

Antonio also found the Canon EOS R's electronic viewfinder helped him personally to concentrate more fully on the subject, rather than continually breaking off to view the images on the camera's screen. "Ever since digital photography took off, almost all photographers have got into the habit of looking at a photo on the monitor as soon as the picture has been taken," he explains. "It's now such an automatic gesture, but it inevitably takes your focus away from the scene and, in that fraction of a second in which you get distracted, you may miss your best photo.

"In the past, when shooting on film, you used to concentrate and wait for the decisive moment. Now the Canon EOS R lets you see the photos directly in the viewfinder just after taking them, without looking away from the action, and allows you to keep focused."

A woman in profile with hand on head, colourful patterns of body paint glowing under UV light.
Patterns were applied with a paint brush, while the speckling was achieved by flicking a body paint-covered paintbrush. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/2.0 and ISO200. © Antonio Gibotta

As well as using the EOS R on his body painting shoot, Antonio has also taken wedding images with it. He says some of the camera's other features have also had positive benefits for his wedding work.

"I have pushed the camera to its limits, to ISO 40,000, to take photos during a wedding," he says. "Personally I happily include pictures [in my selection] even if there is a lot of noise – as long as they have soul, and tell the story of an exciting moment, a magical memory that will last in time."

A woman's face and body with colourful patterns of body paint glowing under UV light.
Antonio used the Canon EOS R's vari-angle touchscreen to photograph his models from different angles. Taken on a Canon EOS R with Canon RF 50mmF1.2L USM lens, 1/100 sec, f/2.0, ISO200. © Antonio Gibotta

Antonio especially likes capturing the wedding reception dinner as it unfolds from a distance, using his go-to Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. He is able to pair it with the Canon EOS R using one of the EOS R System's range of specially-developed EF-EOS R mount adapters.

He says, "Before using the EOS R I used to use the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a flash close to the scene using transmitters. But in doing so, most of the time I was seen by the bride and groom, who would subconsciously change facial expression. Now I can use very high ISO speeds to take exciting, intimate 'sneak peeks' without having to get close to the subjects.

"Another very interesting feature of the EOS R is its absolute silence, as it is fundamental for me to be as invisible as possible at a wedding."

Two women, both with colourful swirling patterns of body paint glowing under UV light.
From his initial selection, Antonio chose the strongest images to print at huge sizes almost a metre wide. Taken on a Canon EOS R with Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens, 1/400 sec, f/4.5, ISO6400. © Antonio Gibotta

Pictures worth printing

In the body painting shoot, the final stage after post-processing was to output the images as prints. He selected the strongest images and printed them using a Canon ImagePROGRAF PRO-2000 large format printer, at sizes up to an astonishing 60x90cm.

"It has an incredible printing performance and I've found it to be very economical in its use of ink," Antonio says. The resulting prints of the body painting images replicate the vivid colours used by the artist as well as the deep blacks he created with his sparing use of light.

Looking back on these images, Antonio says the Canon EOS R's innovative features were part of the inspiration behind them. "My intention was to create something for this new technology, this new era," he says. "I tried from the first moment to create something that remained imprinted in people's minds, something magical – between reality and science fiction – and I think these images fully represent my idea."

Σύνταξη David Clark

Antonio Gibotta's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Antonio Gibotta holds his Canon DSLR to his eye in a bright desert setting.




Canon ImagePROGRAF PRO-2000

The ultimate large format printer for photographic and fine art printing, with unparalleled 61cm production output and reliability. "It has an incredible printing performance," says Antonio, "and I've found it to be very economical in its use of ink."

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