Group portraits (cont’d.)

In the continuing saga of my group portait journey, here’s the next episode. In the previous post I showed you my attempt of a group portrait of my three boys. I also said I wasn’t too pleased with the end-result. Too static, too directed, too formal. No sense of who they are, no feeling, no connect. So I gave it another shot (no pun intended). This time with a different approach. Me and the camera further away from the objects, avoiding the “head and shoulders only” composition and giving the shot more “body” (again, no pun intended). My actual intention was to have the three of them discuss a subject and at the count of three, have them all look at me. As if I interrupted them in whatever they we’re doing. I must admit, I didn’t work out they way I had in mind, but it feels like I’m making progress. Especially compared to the previous group portrait of them.


Used my Nikon flash-unit to light the backgound a bit. You can see the lighting setup here.

Okay, it feels like I’m moving in the right direction, but not quite there yet. Sure, there’s more than enough that can be said about this shot and why it’s not perfect. But that’s beside the point. Like I said, consider this group portrait as a journey and as long as I’m able to improve with each stop, I’m happy. On to the next stop…

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Group portraits

For several reasons I find shooting group portraits always a challenge. One of the reasons is the physical limitations of my studio. More in particular, the lack of height. Obviously, with a  group portrait you need some distance between the camera and the group. Before I know it, I get parts of the ceiling on the image as well. Of course, you can decide to include it on purpose. It’s a matter of composition then. And this brings me to another reason why I find group portraits difficult: the pose of the individuals that make up the group. In combination with the expression on their faces.

I recently gave the shooting of a group portrait another attempt. My three sons acted as victims, sorry…as the group. They’re all more or less of the same height, 6.25 ft., which immediately caused me to run into the “ceiling” issue of my studio. Believe it or not, but I ended up with having them no kneel. This solved one particular problem, I still had to deal with the “pose and expression” question. Since I had a group of three, I tried having A look at B, B at C, and C at A again. A way to create some invisible lines, which I thought would be nice. In reality it didn’t work out. Or I was unable to find a way to make it work. All shots had two out of three people with their faces in side-view. So, in the end, I had all three look at the camera. From a composition point of view, a rather traditional, static and dull setup. Not what I was looking for. Still, the idea of this website is to share with you my ups and downs. Here I had a group portrait in mind and wasn’t able to create what I wanted. To be continued, I guess.

_RCP9934-Edit-2LightingSetup-9934The Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam is currently running an exhibition called Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age. I decided to visit it in an attempt to find some inspiration there. Amongst other paintings, this is what I found. Not exactly the inspiration I was looking for…


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Back to basics

When I started this website a couple of years ago, the original idea was to share my photographical ups and downs with the rest of the world. For everybody to learn from my mistakes and benefit from my achievements. Lately, however, I’ve been writing about exhibitions I visited or articles I read. Interesting as they might be, they’re not the kind of hands-on experiences I had in mind at the beginning. So, at the start of the new year, time to set the record straight.

I felt I needed a documented basic studio lighting setup. Suppose someone came knocking at my door at three o’clock at night to have his/her portrait taken, this would be my default lighting configuration. Even half asleep, I should be able to set it up. It must meet the following criteria:

  • allow a minimal depth of field, i.e. work with open apertures as much as possible
  • use a dark background with one strobe to light it up
  • use one strobe from the left for the model (to give some depth to the face)
  • light up the shadows on the right with a reflector


The softbox on the left was about 1.5 metres from the model. I measured the light and it said to use aperture f/5.6. Because I wanted to have a minimal depth of field, I needed a wider aperture. I decided to use a 2-stop neutral density (ND) filter, giving me f/2.8 instead.  This is the result.

_RCP9903-EditThe brim of the hat, tip of the nose, the ear, the shoulders, all out of focus (no Photoshop trickery needed). Just a subtle touch of light on the background. Enough to separate the model. The shadows on the model’s left cheek nicely lit up. Other than using a RAW-convertor, the image has not been post-processed. Of course, there are some minor points to be said about the image. Where it can be improved, but that’s beyond the point. I was trying to find a default basic lighting setup that would meet the criteria I described above. For me this setup will work from now on.

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Christmas portraits

Actually I was planning to write about the objectivity and integrity of the current press photography, based on some articles I recently read. However, something came up. It’s called Christmas. A yearly event that you spend typically with your family. This year was not any different. As a matter of fact, our small little family was re-united, that is all our kids came home for Christmas. And then you do the things most people normally do with Christmas. There are presents to give, there is food to eat and drinks to drink and, I don’t know how you spend your Christmasses, but during both days there are those moments when you don’t know what to do other than relax, listen to some music or do some crosswords. To chill is the appropriate term for this kind of behaviour these days, I think. But then, of course, since all our kids were at home, I could also make use of the opportunity and take some portraits again. It’s been a few months since I actually even touched my gear. It was literally gathering dust. But anyway, after re-installing the studio equipment, it turned out it was still working perfectly. I decided I was going to do a group portrait.

The idea was to do a group portrait of our three boys and I thought it would be nice to add something extra to the photo by using the element of invisible lines. Instead of a more or less traditional and classical composition where all three would be watching the camera, I had something different in mind. Number one would look at number two, who would look at number three, who would look at number one again. I thought it would make the photo less traditional and more interesting to see. The theory was okay, in my mind, but the reality proved to be a bit more difficult. I took some shots, but wasn’t able to create the image I had in mind. So in the end I gave up the experiment.

Luckily there was a plan B. One of the boys had seen a picture recently that he liked very much. It was a straightforward frontal head and shoulders portrait against a black background. Just two simple strobes to light the subject from the front left and right. No light on the background. This was easy enough to do.

_RCP9876-Edit-2  _RCP9890-Edit-2

Both shots taken with 35-70mm f/2.8 D Nikkor lens with 70mm (which makes 105mm on my ASPC/DX sensor) and f/8. No cropping, but further post-processing with Nik’s Analog Efex Pro 2. Both models were very satisfied with the end result. In fact, it was so good they made it their Facebook profile photo. For me it was fun to be back in the studio and hold a camera in my hands again. Excellent way to spend Christmas.

I’ll do the post about press photo objectivity and integrity some time later.

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As already announced in the previous post, a visit to the Breitner exhibition was on the list of things to do in November. And so it happened. George Hendrik Breitner (1875-1923) was a Dutch impressionist painter. He’s most famous for his work of every day life on the streets of Amsterdam. During his lifetime photopgraphy made significant steps in its development and became more and more accepted. Therefore, it’s no surprise that, besides making sketches in the open air, Breitner embraced photography as a means to  help him register the street life in Amsterdam. The exhibition shows us the way in which Breitner used sketches and photographs in the making of his large paintings and vibrant watercolours.

IMG_20141031_120413The above image clearly illustrates how Breitner used photography. The two photographs on the right of ordinary Amsterdam alleys, eventueally resulted in his painting on the left. The painting is not an exact copy of one of the images, but it uses certain elements and an overall atmosphere.

IMG_20141031_121547Breitner used a mix of photographs and sketches that later resulted in paintings.

IMG_20141031_120730And there he says it himself. For Breitner it goes without saying that he used photography, but the choice, the composition is always his own. He used photography as a tool – although his photographic work has a respectable artistic value by itself – and that, in my opinion, is different from the way Marlene Dumas applies photography in her work.

The paintings, sketches and photographs from George Hendrik Breitner can still be seen in Amsterdam until 1st of February 2015. Information about the exhibition can be found here.

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Marlene Dumas – The Image as Burden

Until January 4 2015 the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam is exhibiting about 200 paintings and drawings of Marlene Dumas. You might ask yourself why this appears on a photo blog. No, it has noting to do with Marlene’s daughter, Charlotte Dumas, who’s a well-known photographer. I’ll explain the link to photography in a minute. What really triggered me to write this post, was the media coverage the exhibition received. All national newspapers and television shows, without exception, were so extremely positive and lyrical about Dumas’ work, that it simply begged, in my opinion, for some criticism. Is it really that good?

All critics praise the multiple layers in her work and, as a viewer, you can almost feel the struggle Dumas went through during the painting process. Now everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, of course. I don’t have a problem with that, but let’s have a closer look at the way Marlene Dumas works. To begin with, she has a huge archive of all the photos she collects (so here’s the link to the photo blog). To quote the museum’s website on her workd: “Dumas often finds inspiration in newspaper and magazine images from her immense visual archive. The artist believes that the endless stream of photographic images that bombards us every day influences how we see each other and the world around us. Dumas addresses this onslaught by revealing the psychological, social, and political aspects of these images. Her drawings and paintings have an enormous directness and expressiveness, which the artist couples with a certain analytical distance.” Fair enough, she finds inspirition in the images she sees in the press every day. In my opinion, she translates this inspiriation in a simple, straightforward copy of the image. Again in my opinion, she adds very little or nothing to the original. This makes it that one artist (Dumas) copies the result of another artist’s (the photopgrapher) creative process. Before the photographer took the picture, there was nothing. By taking the picture – and by making decisions on composition, light, aperture, shutter speed, et cetera to achieve a certain effect – he or she went through a creative process that produced the photo. This makes the photographer the creator. Now, Dumas takes this image as is and, without adding anything to the composition, light or colours, reproduces it on canvas. It is the same as if I would take a picture of a sculpture, for instance. The sculptor had something in mind when he started with it, a certain pose or expression on the face or whatever, and created it. My picture of it would be nothing more than a copy of his/her creation.

Compare the Dumas’ paintings Dead Marilyn (2008) and The Pilgrim (2006) with their photograpic equivalents and you will see my point. The paintings resemble the originals in so many ways that I have trouble understanding the enthusiasm of the critics.
I didn’t receive written permission to use images of Dumas’ work, so I’m afraid you have to do a bit of research on the internet yourself here.

It’s very common that artists are being inspired by other artist. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the inspired artist adds an extra element that gives it his or her work its own style and makes it unique, its own signature so to speak. The work of Dumas, however, resembles the original too much, in my opinion. It lacks the originality of the photo, it adds too little (I expect many critics to disagree with this statement) which makes it more or less a straightforward copy, only  using different materials. Well, that’s my two cents anyway. Again, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. If you like, adore, worship Marlene Dumas’ paintings and drawings, so much the better. If you do not or don’t know, go and visit the exhibition at the Stedelijk and judge for yourself.

Update:  Stadsarchief Amsterdam (City Archives) is doing an exhibition of the work of 19th/20th century painter George Breitner. He used the upcoming photo-technology a lot as a source for his paintings. I’ll visit the exhibition and report on it on the next post on this blog.

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World Press Photo 2014

Every year, in August, I visit the World Press Photo exhibition. No changes this year. And every year I post a small entry on this blog. I’ve been re-reading my entries since 2011 and noticed my general disgust of the work being shown. Same story every year. Not referring to the photos themselves, but to their content. Of course, I understand it’s a worldwide photographic registration of what’s going on in the world and what we’re doing to ourselves. But, on the whole, it doesn’t make me very happy. On the contrary.

IMG_20140823_132348[1]Somehow, however, this year’s exhibition felt different. I don’t think it has anything to do with getting accustomed to all the violence and agression and getting a sort of immune for it. Although there are plenty of wars being fought and people starving, these kind of images were less dominantly present this year. At least, that was my feeling.

IMG_20140823_123312[1]When you compare John Stanmeyer’s 2014 winning picture (see above) with the previous winners, it’s different in many ways. It expresses hope. The phone lights, held high up in the air, emphasize this. The people are migrants on their way to new starts, to better lives. They try to pick up an inexpensive telephone signal so they can talk to their relatives abroad. No dead corpses on this picture. No disfigured faces. No tear gas victims.

Perhaps this picture is representative for all the other pictures of the exhibition and maybe this is why I left with much less nausea and disgust than other years. However, with what’s currently going on in the Middle East, Ukrain/Russia and a number of other places, I already fear next year’s World Press Photo winners.

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Be smart, use your phone

Recently I spent a short break hiking in the Italian mountains. Obviously, during such activities you want to keep the weight of the stuff you carry with you to an absolute minimum. This means you don’t carry all your photo-equipment with you. That is, unless, photography is your main goal. Which, in my case, it wasn’t. Hiking was and, of course, along the way (no pun intended), you happen to pass the most beautiful places. And, yes, you want to record these to keep them as permanent documents of what the environment really looked like.

So there’s the dilemma: take landscape pictures, but don’t carry heavyweight equipment. I ended up leaving my entire set of expensive Nikon equipment at home and just brought my smartphone along. For my purpose – just simple straightforward registration of what I see – today’s smartphone camera’s are more than capable of doing that. My Nexus 5 fits nicely in my trouser pocket and is no burden at all. It weighs next to nothing. Have a look at these pictures and judge for yourself.

IMG_20140808_100623    IMG_20140805_101006


Back home I found out that I shot all pictures with the second best technical setting. All pictures were taken with 6 megapixels where the camera can handle a maximum of 8 (which even is modest compared with other modern smarthones out there). The ratio with 6MP is 16:9, where 8MP uses 4:3. But it’s all beside the point I’m trying to make. If you’re shooting simple, straightforward images that register what you see, forget all your fancy DSLR equipment and use your smartphone! Don’t bother with ISO’s, exposures or shutter speeds. Grab your smartphone, compose and shoot.

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At very long last, the moment has arrived: my work is being exhibited! In all honesty, I’m afraid I have put it a little bit in perspective. First of all, it’s an exhibition where the work of 7 regional camera clubs is being shown. My club happens to be one of these 7. Secondly, only 1 of my photo’s is being exhibited. But still, it’s a start…

IMG_20140730_161126 IMG_20140730_161146

I’m glad this one was selected, because I like it very much. It was made about half a year ago for the Self Portrait assignment. It received high scores in several contests. Anyway, this is the very first picture that’s publicly being exhibited. A modest milestone.

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Two Nikon announcements

Nikon made 2 announcements today: 1) the new Nikon D810 DSLR, 2) new release of their image processing software Nikon Capture NX-D.

The D810 is the successor of the popular D800 and D800E cameras in the FX segment. The 2 camera types were already highly acclaimed and awarded with many prizes for their technical superiority. The D810 takes it a step further. What was already extremely good, is now even better.

For image post-processing Nikon offered its Capture NX software product for many years. When it entered the market it contained Nik Software’s excellent U-Point technology and some other rather unique features. However Nik Software was acquired by Google and a next release of Capture NX was stripped of the Nik technology. Other characterizing Capture NX features were dropped as well. Resulting in the release of Capture NX-D which is rather poor compared to its pre-decessor’s functionality. What was already very good, got completely wasted.



The 2 announcements are in sharp contrast and couldn’t more clearly illustrate Nikon’s strength and weakness. Nikon builds one of the world’s finest cameras. When it comes to post-processing software – note I’m not talking about in-camera software like Expeed here – Nikon should walk away. Outsource this development and maintenance to a company that understands software development and photography. The Silkypix technology that’s being used today as Capture NX-D’s foundation is too basic and lacks the necessary features. Simply not good enough. Focus on your core competency and continue to do what you’re good at: build quality cameras.

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