Dec 29, 2009

Prime Time: On the Waterfront

A cold and sunny morning with a clear blue sky: what more do you need to grab a few lenses and head out for some you-get-what-you-see shots?

Not far from where I live, the Rupel river passes by the town of Boom. There’s a beautifully redeveloped quay area, lined with trendy apartments and lofts, and featuring an excellent brasserie. The perfect place to meet with Rob, a friend and seasoned photographer, who traveled all the way from the Netherlands to bring me a mint copy of the famous Nikkor 180/2.8ED lens.

A cup of coffee (and a modest monetary exchange) later, we left for a short walk-around in the area. A few quick shots to become friends with my newly acquired piece of glass: what a true delight to handle this compact, sharp lens! Then we took the (free) ferry across the river to get us to the small marina of Willebroek.

_DS75475wThe chilly temperature and our plans for the rest of the day had us cut our little tour shorter than we wanted, so a repeat visit some time in the spring is likely to follow. Back to the ferry then…

_DS75500wAnd a good opportunity this time to shoot a couple of pseudo-panoramas with a 24mm prime, another recent addition to my lens collection (thanks Filip!).


Gear notes: D700, 50/1.8, 180/2.8D, 24/2.8

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Dec 28, 2009


We don’t get a lot of snow here in Belgium - and most of what we get would not even qualify in the eyes of those that are used to the ‘real stuff’. The 10-15 cm we received a good week before Christmas therefore called for immediate action!

_DS75445wNo need to step outside: the morning sun showed off its best as I peeked through the windows looking out on our (tiny) garden.
As soon as the outside temperatures start dropping towards the freezing point, we put out some goodies in the trees for the many birds that live in our neighborhood. Our reward: frequent visits by all kinds of colorful little friends.

_DS75514wAnd even an otherwise dull-to-see street takes on a different and special charm in the waning evening light…

Gear notes: D700, 70-200/2.8VR, 24/2.8

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Dec 19, 2009

To give, not to take…


Perhaps you never heard before about Help-Portrait, a movement started by US photographer Jeremy Cowart. Around the weekend of December 12, more than 8300 photographers and volunteers assembled at 715 locations in 42 countries. Their mission: to take, print and hand out portraits to people in need, for free. All together more than 40,000 individuals portraits were delivered.

_DSC6414wI had the privilege to be part of the one and only Belgian team participating. 7 photographers and a few more helping hands set up shop at ‘De Lange Gaank’, a community walk-in center in Turnhout, on Friday, December 11. We organized no less than 4 shooting areas – 2 with studio flashes, 2 more strobist-style – as well as a fully loaded post-processing and printing center.

Help-Portrait 2009 With the first candidates already queuing up, we concluded our practical arrangements, distributed radio flash triggers and got started on what was to become a memorable (and hectic) day.

Help-Portrait 2009It’s impossible to describe how it felt seeing our models-for-a-day quickly warming up to the occasion and finding them engaging with full enthusiasm. Not to forget our final reward: all the smiles and twinkling eyes as people received their printed pictures!
We must have shot between 80 and 100 portraits that day, more than enough to keep the editing computers busy, photographers patiently awaiting their turn. And then there were the pictures of the center’s staff and volunteers, who of course also had to get into the spotlight! Even the crew from the regional TV station left with a personal souvenir of their passage.

Help-Portrait 2009We are still finalizing a short video with an account of the day and a selection of the pictures we took. I will keep you posted!

Gear notes: D300, 10.5/2.8 - D700, 50/1.8, 24-70/2.8

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Dec 11, 2009

Prime Time: Out into the Fields

_DS75243wOn a recent Sunday afternoon, we took my parents out for lunch to their favorite countryside restaurant, close to where they live. As often when I go back to my native Flemish Ardennes, I pack a camera and some glass ‘just in case’. That Sunday however, the weather was not very promising: a biting wind, some occasional precipitation, and a grim sky for most of the day.
  _DS75257wOnce inside the restaurant, I noticed that the dining room had been redecorated. One of the walls now carries this painted faux clock. That sight immediately grabbed my attention, and I had the crop for the image in my mind right from the beginning. Even before dessert was served, I had to get up and take the shot!

By the time we left, the skies cleared a bit: a perfect moment for a parting shot into the setting sun. What a pity that our human presence is spoiling so many of nature’s gorgeous treasures!

Gear notes: D700, 35/2.8D, 85/1.8D

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Dec 1, 2009

Generations I

My grandfather (my mother’s father, to be precise) worked as a commercial photographer in an era where this occupation was not only unusual but also well respected. From what I learned, his professional training was thoroughly artistic (including learning to draw and paint), but left him with enough technical knowledge to experiment with chemistry. Later he would work closely with Gevaert – a major manufacturer of photographic products – for field trials of new plates, films and papers. A true beta tester!
And here’s a view of his first photo studio, same period. On the top floor of the house of course: no way around using natural light in those days! Hence the big skylight overhead, with (look closely at the full-size picture) strips of black curtain to model the flow of light. Behind the curtain at left, a large and bright side window. Notice the intricate backdrop which, I heard, was just one of the available scenes, painted by himself. Add chairs and various props. And last but not least: the large view camera on its wooden pedestal. Ah, those were the days!

The picture above was taken in his basement darkroom, around 1926. He had just set up his shop and studio in Sint-Amandsberg (near Gent), his home base for many years to come. Quite a stylish portrait, most likely made by one of his study friends.

Many years later, my father would arrive there as a young boy, start an apprenticeship and eventually become a professional photographer as well. He first learned all there was to learn, and then fell in love with the daughter.

The rest is (my) history…

Gear notes: long forgotten

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Nov 24, 2009

Fall on the lake

A few older ones from the archives… These were shot around Lake Muskoka, Ontario, Canada, in the fall of 2006.


DS2_3163wSome of the modest shoreline ‘cottages’
  DS2_3244w The famous Algonquin chairs

Gear notes: D200, 18-200VR

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Nov 19, 2009

Three variations

How much is too much? In other words: how far can you push it in post-processing? I don’t believe there is just one answer. After all, it is a matter of personal preference, and dependent on the intent the photographer wants to express with the picture.
 _DS74953w Here’s an image shot in the beguinage church of Diest. The first version results from a single 12-bit RAW frame, exposed 1sec at f/5.6 at ISO 400, carefully processed in Lighroom 2.5. Click on the picture to enlarge and see more detail. Not too shabby, a good example of what you can obtain from a state-of-the-art DSLR.

_DS74949-55EBwThe next version is the result of 4 different RAW exposures (adding -4EV, –2EV and +2EV frames to the one used above), taken from Lightroom into Photomatix Pro 3.1 using the Exposure Blending process. There’s a lot more detail now, especially in the highlight areas, but also in shadows. Local contrast is higher and colors are more saturated. But overall the image keeps its natural photographic look – which is why I prefer this technique.

_DS74949-55TMwTaking the same four frames through Photomatix Pro, this time applying the Tone Mapping method, gives a very different outcome. Less realistic for sure, but not without its own artistic quality. And I haven’t pushed the sliders that far at all!

For now, I keep my preference for the ‘natural’ look when taking the HDR route. But I will continue to experiment and explore more creative opportunities whenever there’s a hint of an interesting outcome. After all, post-processing has always been part of the fun, whether the room is dark or light…

Gear notes: D700, 17-35/2.8

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Nov 13, 2009

Trick or treat?


One of the last places you expect signs of the Halloween craze is in a quiet, religiously inspired setting… And yet, in the beautifully preserved 16th century beguinage of Diest, that’s where I found some during a recent Saturday afternoon photowalk.


Today, the once secluded community is recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage site. It houses a museum, a cultural center, a lace-making school and an art gallery. The current residents are mostly senior citizens. Still a great place for great pictures!


Gear notes: D700, 24-70/2.8

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Nov 8, 2009

Quite a little gem

Located on the Museum Square, on Brussels' Mont des Arts, the private chapel of the palace of Charles de Lorraine is an artistic jewel from the 18th century. Originally a catholic chapel, it was attributed to the protestant religion by imperial decree of Napoleon in 1804. King Leopold the first, a protestant Monarch, attended service there, as did the princes of Orange before him, and thus the church was called the "Royal Chapel”. The building has been completely restored to its original decoration in white and gold in 1970 and 1987.

Besides its religious role, the protestant chapel also has an important position in the musical culture in Brussels. It houses both an 1840 Dreymann organ and a 1699 Forceville organ. On a regular basis, the chapel welcomes concerts and also offers the pupils of the "Conservatoire Royal" the space and quality instruments for their end of term contest. The Church is also used for recordings by renowned artists.

This chapel presents quite a photographic challenge. The different light sources with widely varying intensities, combined with the subtle colors and tones of the decoration make it very hard to realize anything close to a realistic rendition (there really is NO white to be found in this chapel...). An excellent playground therefore to test and refine my HDR capture and processing techniques!

I was lucky to be introduced to this magical place by a friend, who truly knows every corner of Brussels worth photographing. You normally have to make an appointment with the volunteer guides to visit. In the summer however, there is a permanency on Thursday afternoon.

Vaut le détour!

Gear notes: D700, 17-35/2.8, 24-70/2.8

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Oct 28, 2009

Close encounter of the analog kind

Europalia, the largest cultural festival in Europe, dedicates its 40th anniversary edition to China. From October 2009 through February 2010, hundreds of breathtaking events will celebrate the diversity of Chinese culture. Our recent Belgiumdigital shooting day led us by the Tea Hose, one of the Europalia venues on Brussels' Mont des Arts. And there we saw the guy below...

How often do you run into a Cambo 4"x5" view camera on the busy streets of a Western capital city? With someone taking his time to carefully frame a shot, determining exposure the 'good old way', and then bringing out a cassette with a single sheet of color slide film? Needless to say that our bunch of digital shooters - quite a few of them never having shot roll film, or even film altogether - were stopped in their tracks and gathered around this Chinese photographer, fascinated by the moves and rites of operating a large format camera.

It must have been a strange, perhaps intimidating experience for our dear Chinese friend, suddenly being surrounded by some 40 DSLRs and becoming their primary photo target! I am not sure he realized at first what was happening there...

Even more remarkable: almost no one paid equal attention to the photographer's first assistant who, after all, was only using a Blad with a MF digital back... But the pair of assistants/guides/interpreters quietly observing from a distance in the back did seem to have a very good time!

Gear notes: D700, 24-70/2.8

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Oct 19, 2009

Prime time: Antwerp City Theater

Three more from a walk around Antwerp's 'Stadsschouwburg' (City Theater), just with a 50mm prime.

Into the sky

I was stopped by this reflection of rooftops into the glass front of the building. And then I noticed the similarity: how nature and man were both reaching up towards the light above.

Layers of steel

A patchwork of barriers, building up to an abstract composition. All ready for an emergency that hopefully will never occur.


Could you resist this invitation for a warm hug? It ain't easy to be jobless on the streets!

Gear notes: D700, 50/1.8

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Invasion of the Pixel Snatchers

Imagine this: you let a pack of fanatic photographers loose in a national parliament building. What will happen? Will they quietly take over the country (but no one else will notice)? Will they quickly pass a bill allowing unrestricted picture taking in public areas? Will they outlaw HDR processing or make video on DSLRs mandatory?

You guessed right: none of the above! Witness here what happened when 40 Belgiumdigital members were granted access for a couple of hours to the corridors, salons, meeting rooms and main assembly hall of the Belgian Senate (our 'upper house'). They swarmed all over the place, capturing every detail and corner of the room, acting like a group of forensic science students that overdosed on CSI.

Can you count the number of cameras in this picture? And can you imagine how complicated it got to shoot a decent view of the entire chamber - without fellow photographers in the frame?

Fortunately, there was more than one room for us to 'attack' and enjoy. To get to make the shot you want, there's the three P's to observe: you need an upfront Plan, you have to claim the 'ideal' Position, and then you apply a lot of Patience until the field clears...

These wonderful settings (in reality, not as vast as these wide-angle shots let believe) presented a fine challenge to fight perspective distortions and deal with multiple light sources of broadly varying intensity. I had plenty of opportunity afterwards to exercise my post-processing skills, applying my two most valued complements to Adobe's Lightroom software: PTLens and Photomatix Pro.

If you like these results, there's more to see here.

Gear notes: D700, 17-35/2.8, 24-70/2.8

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Oct 12, 2009

Life along the streets: Brussels

You don't have to travel far to observe the daily life going on around you. Just grab your camera and take a walk along the streets. Or whenever you are on the go on another shooting occasion: keep an eye to what's happening left, right and behind you.

Some people will be very busy and hardly notice you, others are taking a break and enjoy a moment of peaceful rest. Spot them, and don't miss placing them in context when taking the shot. Respect their privacy: make eye contact, get a silent approval to take the picture, and if in doubt walk up to them and ask for permission. You will be rarely disappointed.

It always amazes me how simple street scenes take on that special character when shot in black and white. For one part it might be that this treatment helps reducing the picture to its very essence. But I am also convinced that some of it comes from our 'visual education' through classical photojournalism.

Anyhow, take advantage of these photo opportunities that are free and ready for you to grab. I for one love the creative boost that comes with them.

Gear notes: D700, 28-200G, 24-70/2.8

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Oct 6, 2009

Rain. Fall. Fifty.

There are no good excuses for resisting the urge to go out and shoot.

I push myself to free up some time to practice my photography. One way is to take advantage of any little 'in between' time gaps in an otherwise loaded schedule. So today I left about an hour early for a downtown meeting appointment and took along a small camera bag.

Afraid of the rain, you ask? I have become a fan of Op/Tech's Rainsleeve, a simple plastic cover keeping my (otherwise already well sealed) D700 away of major harm. It doesn't look great, but it works, it's cheap and I can easily buy a new one whenever I need.

Furthermore, I feel much inspired and strongly challenged by Bert Stephani's 50/50project. Bert currently captures impressions from his daily life using just a 50mm lens, and this during 50 consecutive days. I am not that ambitious, I will walk his path only from time to time. The 50mm focal length isn't even my preferred choice, I lean more towards either 35mm or 85mm. But for today, my 20-year old 50/1.8 would have to do - better not swapping lenses out in the drizzle.

And so I offer you these few shots from around Antwerp's City Theater. All taken within some 30 minutes and within a limited area.

When you dare to put your mind to it, no rain, wind or world can stop you from seeing the pictures that await you.

Gear notes: D700, 50/1.8

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