Leaning on a balcony against the backdrop of the Bay of Cannes, suited director Xavier Dolan appears to be caught in a moment of solitude. The reality? A buzzing star-studded film festival party has been momentarily paused for his portrait to be taken on the dark terrace. Three minutes later, the party is back in full swing.
Experiences like these became commonplace for photographer Paolo Verzone during two whirlwind weeks covering the Cannes Film Festival for France's flagship daily newspaper Le Monde. A member of Agence VU since 2003, the Italian photojournalist and Canon Ambassador has been documenting people for almost 30 years across news and long-term projects. For this assignment, he shot 60 portraits on the full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS R – between four and seven a day – capturing celebrity nominees and award-winners including directors Quentin Tarantino and John Carpenter, and actors Emily Beecham and Hafsia Herzi.
"Sometimes, we had only 30 seconds to take a photo," Paolo says. "The environment could be completely crazy, and you never knew what you would have before you got there. Sometimes you had the time to think of a certain environment or adapt it. Other times you had to improvise, scanning the place to find the best spot. It was super, super challenging, but also interesting, so it was perfect."
Paolo had under a minute to photograph director Ken Loach before he was due to give an interview. "I had to shoot him where he was, so I didn't even have more than two metres of space," he says. "Sometimes you really have to be creative to invent places where there is nothing and show some intimacy where you don't have any – with each Cannes picture, imagine there are hundreds of people around."
Such creativity also came into play when he shot writer and director Céline Sciamma, winner of the Best Screenplay Award for Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
"We took her photo in the entrance of a car park, because the hotel didn't allow us to take pictures inside," Paolo laughs. "She was rushing to get to her screening, so we had to find a place close by. It was all like this, but I very much liked this kind of challenge. I've been in similar situations with politicians, but this was even more of a rush. We can say this is the more extreme experience you can have with portraits."
The time constraints meant Paolo didn't even have time to review his images, having to trust that his camera was capturing what he needed. "The Canon EOS R is perfect for portraits because its focus reacts very quickly and you don't have to check it afterwards," he says. "The focus has to be right, especially for vertical portraits. To focus on the eyes, you just use your finger on the screen, touch the [AF point over the] eye, and you know that, even in a rush, the subject will be in focus – you don't even have to question it."
The Canon EOS R has become a staple in his kitbag, alongside his other camera bodies – a Canon EOS 5DS R and a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. "If I have the time to shoot a portrait in a quiet situation, I would go with the EOS 5DS R – it is a natural-born portrait studio camera, with the higher resolution giving you more information in the whites and all the colour nuances of the skin or the clothing. But in Cannes the shoot was so fast that I wanted to use the EOS R, for the really sharp, reliable autofocus."
This extended to low-light and night conditions, such as when shooting his portrait of Canadian director and actor Xavier Dolan. "When I was on the terrace, I knew the camera would catch the focus. It was very dark, but even in low light you know the camera can see what's there, so you can rely on your instrument, even when you don't have time to check the pictures. I had a beauty dish with a soft flash, exposed for the background and shot at ISO100."
Autofocus gave him pin-sharp results in his images, but Paolo avoided using Eye Detection AF, instead locking the focus on his subjects' faces manually. "I deliberately didn't use the eye detection, because there were so many people getting in frame. Even if I was in front of the subject, there were makeup artists coming in or people passing by, so I wanted the camera's focus to be in one place."
With such limited time with his subjects, changing lenses during a shoot was out of the question. Paolo stuck with either a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens or one of his stalwart EF primes, a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens, paired with a Mount Adapter EF-EOS R. "The RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens is great because you have to adapt very quickly to different environments, so it gives you flexibility," he says. "With the Mount Adapter EF-EOS R, you can use a large range of lenses. I used an EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens and sometimes an EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, which works very well, because I already have these lenses."
While he's previously covered the Venice Film Festival, this was Paolo's first time at Cannes. "It's a kind of super crazy adrenaline mess, where everybody is rushing in every direction," he recalls. "Producers, actors, filmmakers, fans. It's an international, global event and you can feel that it's a big marketplace – it's not just for the pleasure of cinema. People who had been coming to Cannes for a long time said they were missing the times 15 or 20 years ago when you could just stop directors and actors in the street and take pictures of them. It's not like that any more."
Indeed, Le Monde had to go through the army of publicists and press teams on the Cannes circuit to gain access to his subjects. Once they had been photographed, Paolo spent evenings holed up with the newspaper's team in their hotel room 'office' putting their stories together. "We were working between 18 and 20 hours a day," he says. "Because it's a daily newspaper, we needed a picture overnight. It was a complete synergy, with a team working on delivering the article with good pictures at the right time."
One of Paolo's favourite shots is of legendary director Quentin Tarantino, at Cannes to promote his star-studded film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. The film missed out on the top prize, the prestigious Palme d'Or, which went to Korean thriller Parasite. Nevertheless, Paolo found Tarantino to be a "very clever and kind person", who "knew exactly what kind of picture I was shooting and from which angle."
For this shot, Paolo had slightly more time to set up in the corner of a room of photographers, so he used three lights – one projecting the background light, one opening shadows and one on Tarantino – making it "a complicated picture which looks simple".
Paolo usually used just one or two box lights in a basic arrangement. Where possible, he harnessed natural light, as in his portrait of British actor Emily Beecham, who won the Best Actress award for her leading role in sci-fi film Little Joe. "There was a nice light and I put on a slight flash, together with the natural light. So, you have the impression that I just pushed the natural light a little bit more, which the EOS R captures well."
On his last day at the festival, Paolo was able to gain an unexpected benefit from his choice of camera when covering a red carpet. "I had two rows of people in front of me, and it was quite impossible to shoot forwards, so I held my arms up and, with the screen angled down, I could see everything," he says of the Canon EOS R's vari-angle touchscreen. "Other people were asking me what camera I had.
"On many other cameras, if you put your arm up, you don't know what the camera is seeing. With that one turn, flipping the screen down, you see exactly what is in front of the lens. So, if something is blocking your view, you can hold the camera up. It's an extreme situation, but the camera worked for that, so I was very happy I had this option."
Cannes was a demanding assignment, which pushed Paolo into a more intuitive style of shooting that he really enjoyed and hopes to pass on to students in future workshops. "You have to accept that you won't get exactly what you want, perfectly, but what's nice is that there is a certain point where you don't think any more and you just shoot. You don't have to analyse, you just go and do. You visualise something, and you just go for it, trying to get the closest possible image.
"It's a totally adrenaline-filled situation where your past is working for you, not your present. All the work you have done in the past, and that ways you've dealt with situations in the past, will help you to just be there. You enjoy the speed – you're not against it, it's part of the game."
While most people aren't likely to be preparing to shoot a stream of celebrities at glittering film festivals, there are valuable lessons for anyone shooting in fast-paced conditions. "Try to concentrate on one good picture instead of 10, and be selective – if you perceive that a situation isn't working in two seconds, just change, because you have one minute left to get the picture," says Paolo. "Know your gear well and trust your past experience, because you can't prepare for this from one day to another. It's all the work you did before that prepares you."