Making Christmas

It’s Christmas time, and it’s my favourite time of year. Since I work for theme parks and media, it all starts just in the end of October with the carols and lights, but there is a whole lot more to it than that.

First of all, lets look at the most practical thing: timing. What many people don’t realise, is that for Christmas photos its best to plan a year ahead and shoot image during the actual Christmas period. It’s a lot simpler to have people in warm coats looking at nice lights and decked out windows when they are actually there, instead of having to fake everything.

So, what is Christmas? It’s a time of love, peace, people getting together and exchanging gifts. The Christmas holidays even transcend religions and believes. It is so big, that it will enhance feelings people have of it. Happy people will be happier around the holidays, people feeling lonely will become even more lonely. It’s that effective.

It might even be the one holiday that commerce still mostly experiences as ‘real’. Don’t get me wrong, Christmas is big business, and cynical people having seen Mad Men will know the feeling of happiness comes from advertisement agencies, but those same agencies have Christmas decorations in the office and Christmas parties. In fact, I know that people who have to create Christmas experiences for a living will still put on the carols, and hang up the tinsels.

But Kris”, you say, “we’re here because you make pretty pictures, why all this deep thought on a holiday?”. I know, bear with me.

But, what do we experience as quintessential Christmas? A white blanket of snow and Christmas carols sounding on the streets. We can trace a whole lot of traditions back to Dickens, including the idea of a white Christmas, despite it being as rare then as it is now. And just as XKCD explains here, we keep going back to the youth of the baby boomers.

It’s easy to be disappointed by Christmas these days, since we are nostalgic for a time we never experienced ourselves. Quintessential Christmas Movies like Home Alone and Muppets Christmas Carol only deepen that feeling, but, there is a spark to capture there.

And that spark is what is needed to create something that feels warm, believable and most of all, Christmas. It’s easy to put some models on a street, photoshop some snow, but that doesn’t mean it feels right. It needs wonder. So, each Christmas for the past years I’ve been on the street, creating and photographing those moments. I’m not creating these images with the idea of selling something in the back of my mind, but on how to bring out that feeling that resides inside of us. It should feel like there’s a snowstorm raging outside, but it’s cosy with the fire. Every one of these images contain small details that can be traced back to those feelings of yore.

But, danger lurks everywhere. It’s a very delicate balance between a soulless commercial image and something extremely camp and corny. A dark blue sky feels cozy, while a purely black sky can feel just wintery and cold. You don’t want a snowstorm in every image, but a small dusting can make a difference.

Or a bigger dusting ..

If you’re going to add snow in post, your lighting should match the lighting of the snow plates.  Not just that, it’s not about perfectly lighting a photo, it’s knowing when to imperfectly light your models, and make sure your light has a reason to exist. And most importantly, to keep it going from where it shouldn’t go.

Don’t forget colours. Everyone thinks green and reds are the Christmas colours, but those colours in light look very threatening and hostile. Warm oranges and cold blues, with a hint of those others work best.

But most of all, it’s about a feeling.

All images shot for Stad Hasselt. See my complete Christmas gallery here

The quest for more pixels

A few weeks ago I was in Brussels for a shoot with one of my clients, Agentschap Wegen & Verkeer; the regulatory agency for roads in Flanders. There they showed me the plans for an exhibition booth replicating a road, including grass and a traffic sign. The background however was to be a picture of a road, and I was the one to create that photo. Alright!

Original concept with the final image composited in.

With the short briefing and a few stipulations, I started to plan and do research. Find a nice road, the right time, and most importantly, have it be of a good enough quality to print.

My idea came not only to show off a road that popped with beautiful weather, but also show the people doing their job. The agency is so diverse in what they do, that I wanted to show people doing their jobs in a cinematic way. More a cover for Vogue than your typical road works picture. So, I created a sketch. Or as one of my clients so nicely put it, a nice children’s drawing. 😂

Concept staging sketch.

A few practical things immediately popped into my head. The print size would be 6 meters wide and 2.5 meters high. The print density would be 125 DPI, which meant I had to create a picture capable of filling 29528 x 12303 pixels, or a 363 megapixel image. A very far cry from the 20.8 megapixel my Nikon D5 holds. Even the brand new D850 (which wasn’t available yet at the time of the shoot) wouldn’t be nearly enough with its 45.7 megapixel, so the choice quickly went to the Hasselblad H6D-100C.

With the highest medium format megapixel sensor on the market at our disposal, we still hadn’t enough resolution to deliver the quality that I wanted it to. Though the Hasselblad files have enough quality to be nearly doubled in size, I knew that I wanted to do this correct, and create something special. Meaning, we were going to do a panorama, giving us enough flexibility in post to create a commercial grade image that can be used for years to come. This would be the best way for the picture to get the native resolution required. I’m a man who likes to do things as practical as possible, so the idea of having to composite every single thing required a lot of extra planning to get all the elements we needed for a final. Since most of my photos never leave Lightroom, I’ve chosen to share my entire process, including the retouching in Photoshop.

A few other factors we had to consider are the complicated Belgian weather, and the fact that we did not hire professional models, but real life agency employees, doing what they do best, which isn’t posing for pictures. So, timing had to be somewhere near the daily operating hours. So a sunset shoot was out of the question.

With most of the week before the deadline of Monday being predicted with nothing but rainstorms, a byproduct of the hurricanes on the other side of the globe, we settled on Friday to create the image. The location was also settled: the E313, one of Belgium’s most important highways, which was partly closed down near Hasselt for extensive refurbishing. An ideal location, especially if you try to imagine the shitstorm we would create if we were to close down an actual highway for a photoshoot.

So, we had our location, people, and after scouring the depot, we whole lot of props, ranging from traffic cones to a full blown signalisation truck. You can be professional all you want, but these kind of assignments take you back to when you were a kid playing with toy trucks of LEGO and Playmobil. These toys are just a bit bigger and more expensive.

After setting up the basecamp, trucks and props, it was time to pose the models to coincide with the sketch. After everything was as we wanted, I created a base panorama. Shooting a series of images with the trucks and props in the exact postion, it would become our base layer of the photo. Everything else became an element that had to be cut out and positioned on the layer, interacting with the props. A positive thing of shooting everyone separately, is that we had a lot more control of the lights, bringing them in closer and getting a better and more consistent quality of light. The main light on each subject was a Profoto B2 in a huge umbrella with diffusion panel, with a CTO gelled B2 shooting through the new Magnum Reflector from the back, giving them a warm edge, to coincide with the sunset feeling I was creating later on.

Individual lit portrait, ready for compositing.

Another reason we had to completely cut them out was the fact that the clouds were starting to get really dramatic. So dramatic we had to halt shooting for fifteen minutes because of falling rain. Those moments you wish you were shooting on a beach in Ibiza or something. Ah well.

Individual lit portrait, ready for compositing.

After an hour of shooting individual shots and elements, we wrapped, and it was time to pack up and return the Hasselblad. But not before I took several panoramas of a gorgeous cloudy sunset for later compositing.

The crew!

First up was merging the base layer of the panorama, so we could have a single layer to work on. Next up was placing all of the individual shot portraits on the base layers and masking out the backgrounds. Normally, it would be quite easy to just feather the backgrounds, since everything was locked off, but since the weather changed dramatically during shots from dramatic clouds, to apocalyptic clouds to slightly blueish sky, not to mention the dry and wet pavement, it was easier to just cut them out, keeping the parts where they interact in the mask.

All the additional elements on the base-layer.

Because of how we lit the scene and elements, all that was left to do was some slight color correction, sky replacement and some detail clean-up. That’s it.

Final Campaign image for Agentschap Wegen & Verkeer

The final file came out at 28836×15072 pixels, which has a roomy 434 megapixel, which is perfectly sized for printing with the additional artwork. So with the right preparation, work we managed to create an image that we can reproduce 1:1, which meant a happy client and a proud photographer.

And here it is on full display!

Defining a university college

These are the assignments that I love to sink my teeth in. Multi-day shooting a campaign at a high pace. When I got the call from Kenneth, of former Modemuseum fame, to come in for a meeting at the PXL university college in Hasselt, I was intrigued.

Giving me a huge folder of magazines, the briefing was clear:

“We want you to re-shoot these, but with your style, and showing the craziness that is this massive school. You can show that people have fun here, it can be edgy, a tad silly, as long as the feeling is there.

Say no more! In total we shot 28 different study courses, spread over eight departments, in four days. For each course, we shot three campaign images, always using real students, in a school setting.

Before we started shooting, I made some rules to create and maintain a certain style. First of all, no smart- or whiteboards and use as little laptops as possible. Since every course all get lessons on a laptop and use smart boards, there would be nothing that separates a music student from a business student, apart from the style of their clothes perhaps.

I insisted on using as many props as possible in a setting that would look natural. This again wasn’t the easiest of choices, because it’s easy to give a music student a guitar or keyboard, but where is the difference between someone studying fiscal management and someone studying to be a translator?

Another rule was that we would have a consistent feeling of light as well, meaning we would light everything with strobes. In total I used six Nikon SB-700 speed lights. I used a mix of a Walimex 180cm umbrella, two Lastilite 24″ Ezyboxes and small shoot through umbrellas, depending on the shot.

Camera wise, I used my trusted Nikon D5 and a Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4 and the Sigma Art 85mm f/1.4. A few shots were made with the Nikkor 24mm f/1.4 G

There are ‘some’ images that I want to talk to about specifically here, so, let’s go!

PXL Healthcare

PXL Healthcare. This doll was creepy! It doesn’t only give out vitals and measures CPR, it even moves, breathes and makes noises. Very Doctor Who like. Lit with the massive umbrella.
PXL Healthcare. This baby was just eight days old!
PXL Healthcare. Nailing the focus on a moving baby’s foot isn’t easy.
PXL Healthcare. The interaction between a disabled person and an assistant can be shown in many ways. Helping her out of the wheelchair wasn’t a strong image, so we opted for this post. The bedight is also lit with a strobe and a warm gel.
PXL Healthcare. Real life pregnancy. Notice the blackboard in the background to show it’s still an educational setting. We flashed from the left, and reflected from the right. The hallway was also lit by a single flash.
PXL Healthcare. I never laughed as much as I did during this ‘delivery’. To get the correct angle I was laying on the ground, with the entire staff and fellow students around me. The ‘baby’ came out with a mixture of laughter and simulated screams. I almost had tears of laughter during this moment. I wish every shoot could be so much fun.

PXL Education

PXL Education. Lit with a massive umbrella on top, a subtle backlight behind the trampoline,  and a strobe all the way in the back lighting up the back wall. I laid on the mat, waiting for the exact moment. Because the flashes were giving full power in the back, I could only shoot one frame per jump. But the students did great!
PXL Education. Sometimes you can look for a shot all you want, but when a real moment happens, you just aim and click. Next shot!
PXL Education. We raided the storage room for anything that would look visually interesting, in this case, these globes.

PXL Business

PXL Business. The inclusion of the headsets indicate that they’re translators.
PXL Business. The briefing for this shot was Jerry Maguire. Followed by blank stares. I should’ve known better than to talk about a movie that came out the same year as they were born. Anyhow, the quote “Show me the money” did ring a bell.
PXL Business. Student interaction for me was the most important thing for me. Meaning that everyone looks like they’re having fun.
PXL Business. The sun shining through the windows is completely fake. A warm gelled flash on a long tripod outside the window, and a big umbrella in the front. Easy.
PXL Business. A scanner, and a red gelled flash.
PXL Business. For once I really did want the beamer to be on, as it gave a nice practical light to add a bit of extra color to the room.

PXL Music

PXL Music. I love pretty lights and vintage hardware. So I put this guy behind the mixing desk. Lit his face with an overhead gridded softbox, and a pink gelled flash left. Drag the shutter, move the camera, and boom.
PXL Music. I love shooting musicians.
PXL Music. They had their own light contraption made from some light bulbs in the mixing room. The light had character, so I kept it there.
PXL Music. Just get the class together, let them talk and have fun, and in the meanwhile just shoot. I attached a flash on a magic arm in one of the cool lighting fixtures.

PXL IT

PXL IT. A bunch of clever geeks, all together in a building. I never felt so much at home. Completely gelling an otherwise boring white room with strobes, I managed to get a very cool shot of this robot.
PXL IT. The computer on the left had red LED’s in it. So why not emulate that with a red gelled light. A pink gelled light gave color the the wall, with a splash of white light coming through a softbox.
PXL IT. It can’t all be technology, so we got another collaboration picture. Lit with a small umbrella as a main light, and a bare flash in the back left to pop some extra light on the board and use is as a bounce.

PXL Media & Tourism

PXL Media & Tourism. This isn’t an outside location, that’s their wallpaper. Crazy.
PXL Media & Tourism. With the massive heat from the day earlier passed, I added splash of gelled sunlight in the back. The practical LED light didn’t gave a lot of light compared to my flashes, but it looks cool.  Extra detail: none of these students ever used this exact gear, so I had to coach them.
PXL Media & Tourism. What a great colourful jacket!

PXL Tech

PXL Tech. It was raining during this shot, but nothing a CTO gelled light can’t fix.
PXL Tech. With a rim light in the back, we isolate our great subject here, and a softbox gives a soft even light, which makes it look like all the light comes from practical sources.
PXL Tech. A green gel gives a splash of color to an otherwise colourless image, plus it really offsets the red part.
PXL Tech. Switching my white balace to incandescent, and slapping a CTO to the main light, turns everything blue, giving it all a very high-tech feeling to an otherwise boring technical installation.
PXL Tech. CTO gel. What else.
PXL Tech. These students weren’t part of the original plan, but when we saw them take samples, they got shanghaied into service. While they were about to re-do their sample taking, we found this tiny frog. Change of plans again. But I love how this came out.
PXL Tech. Shoutout to this girl with a BB-8 tattoo! And to the CTO gelled flashes of course.
PXL Tech. When their professor told me they had a DNA viewer or something that emitted blue and orange light, I immediately used it. And of course added a CTO and CTB gel to some flashes, adding a whole lot of extra drama.
PXL Tech. Just having a lot of fun in the lab.
PXL Tech. Liquid. Nitrogen. 🙌🏻.

Another day, another iPhone shot

In the fall of 2015 I shot the entire campaign for Visit Hasselt in less than a month in the most horrible of weather conditions. Not just that, it was a breakneck paced shoot, visiting over fifty locations in just under three weeks.

Of course, as those things do, I was enjoying a rare moment of free time in the city. I didn’t carry my camera with me, I mean, why would I? I wouldn’t be shooting for another few hours. But just on that exact moment, the sun broke through, bathing the main shopping street with nice afternoon sunlight. It had people shopping, still some green on the trees. Precisely the kind of images the client needed.

So I followed Chase Jarvis‘ advice: “the best camera is the one that’s with you”.  I didn’t hesitate, and shot the scene that was unfolding in front of my eyes with my iPhone 6 S. Just a few snaps. I hesitated for a second if I could run home and get my camera, but before I would even reach the end of the street, the clouds took over again, and wouldn’t show itself until the deadline of the assignment had passed.

But, I’ve had my shot.

Campaign image. iPhone 6 S

The great thing is, they didn’t only run the image: today I found out they re-used it, and made it a full page picture. And it looks pretty damn great! No-one would ever guess this was a lucky moment, shot on a phone. Damn.

iPhone and RAW

With RAW capabilities coming to iOS 10, I tested this out with my iPhone 6 S during a South African sunset, in the town of Graskop.

Impressive!

This is the RAW file, straight out of camera DNG. And remember, this isn’t cheating: RAW images are by nature flat and without details. It’s so they capture many more details than a regular JPG file. Just like a film negative has to be developed, burned and dodged until the artist is satisfied with the result.

Olyphant Portrait

I’ve always wanted an Olyphant backdrop, but without the budget for one, I commissioned my artist nephew to create one for me. And I’m truly in love with it!

Wrangling a billion pixels

Beginning this year I was photographing a student-party in Diepenbeek. Having spent a few years participating in a student organisation I made a lot of friends and gained a lot of contacts that proved to be important as a photographer. However, these days it’s a rarity to meet friends from back then in the active student-life, so it was a pleasant surprise to see Wim guiding the younger generation of his organisation. These days Wim works at Renotec, one of the countries’ biggest contractors specialising in renovating big and important projects.

One of those projects is Brussels biggest UNESCO world heritage site, the Grand Place. With buildings dating back to the 15th century it is one of the most visited places in Brussels, and perhaps even Belgium.

If you are going to cover up an entire side of the famous square for 190 construction days, you might as well do it in style, so that’s where I came into the picture. The question was simple: did I have the knowhow and gear to accurately reproduce the Grand Place in a way that it could be printed life-size? The answer: Yep.

Since Nikon’s D800 has the amazing 36 megapixel sensor, and I am always up for a challenge, I quickly accepted my mission, and headed down to Brussels. Taking 5 to 15 pictures of each building I made sure I had enough overlap to correctly create a large panorama.

Position wise I chose to stand in front of each building separately. This would give me more distortion on each sides, but would make everything look better once reproduced in print.

After taking a few hundred pictures of all buildings, it was time to enter a gruelling Photoshop batch, only to see it fail horrible. The merging gave really odd results, which gave me an extra challenge to overcome to correctly produce each building in a extremely high resolution picture. After merging each building individually, combined with the technical blueprints of the restoration it was time to create InDesign files with everything in the correct sizes. A week later, all printing was done by Blow-up Media, and the week-long process of putting up the pictures was done by the professional team at Renotec.

In the end, the complete picture was printed at 1050 square meters, and was a 2GB Photoshop file. The final megapixel count was 1200, making it a 1.2 Gigapixel image.

Watch the video of the construction here!

“Farming really is Rock and Roll”

The past few weeks have been crazy, visiting many places and people to photograph for various occasions and clients. On thursday I crossed the city on a 25 meter high Manitou Telescopic Loader. Twelve hours later my feet where firmly rooted in the ground. That’s where this story happens. There are those moments where you have a only a small briefing for a few pictures, but the assignment leads itself to a lot more. 

So, friday morning. In assignment for De Nette Krant / Limburg.net by communication firm RCA I was to photograph CSA Hoeve Het Blokhuis. For the city-folks among you, that’s Community-supported agriculture. The first real spring day of the year, surrounded by nature and fields, I really was glad to be a photographer and be out there when I could. The location and the people really gave meaning to the word ‘hospitality’, as they gladly helped, posed and told about their passion.

The quote of the day: “Farming really is Rock and Roll”. 

Here are some of my favourites of the day. All of these are shot on a D800 with 70-200. 

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RockandRoll

(7 Shot vertical Brenizer, Softboxed flash on left).

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And to finish, some Behind The Scenes snaps! 

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10 years of capturing memories

By the time I’m writing this, it’s already past midnight. So technically yesterday, I celebrated my tenth anniversary of photography. It was that day when I first deliberately took a camera somewhere and photograph something.

The day was a sunny school day in Februari 2004. It was exactly one day and two months since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was released in theatres. Just like any self-respected geek I was looking to do a creative project inspired by Tolkien’s masterpiece. The tiny town my school was located, Herk-de-Stad, had great potential. We had a park that could double as Hobbiton, the paths around it looked like Bree. The forest next to the park could double as a freaky Fangorn Forest. The grassy field next my school had potential for The Dead Marshes. I could go on and on, but it looked great. It went so far that my buddy from school ordered a working hobbit pipe to smoke in the breaks. In the end, the project was canned after a crazy idea to shoot fireworks in the park at night to see if Gandalf’s party in Herk-de-Stad would look as cool as it was shot by Peter Jackson. It didn’t. 

The only thing remaining from that period are a lot of pictures from school and the surrounding nature. 

They are my oldest pictures in my archive of over 120.000 images and I thought it would be fun to head back to the place I first took those snapshots with my dad’s Minolta DiMAGE S414 and capture what I wanted to shoot then now. So today I grabbed my bag with a D800, 14-24 and 85 1.8. Also, an iPad with the pictures of Day One. Some are exact revisions, some are things I encountered. Enjoy this rare bit of nostalgia!

PS: I’m sure you can see which pictures are the old ones and new ones. ;)

PPS: Here’s to at least 70 years more!  

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From Instagram tot InstaWow

In the summer of 2012 I was shooting the city of Hasselt’s new commercial campaign. From small details in the museums to city-wide views, it was a fun assignment, testing my creativity in many ways. A year later I saw my pictures popping up in the craziest places: magazines, newspapers, maps and more. But it is one of the key-images that turned out to be the most interesting to create. 

On a sunny afternoon I got a call from a familiar number: the council of tourism’s office. They found an image of me online that they would love to buy as their next key-image in promoting the city. 

‘Oh, sure, which one is it?’

– ’The one with the little glass of Jenever, where the skyline is reflected. You posted it on Instagram a few months ago.’

Oh dear. It was indeed a random snap after doing an interview, where our gracious host offered us a drink, and I noticed the reflection. 

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So, they want to use an Instagram to blow up to billboard-sized images… . A quick visit later I explained that it just wasn’t possible to use a small image like that for the big use that they wanted it to. The only other option was to reshoot it. So we went for that. The first challenge was to see if the depth of field on an image like that was actually possible without Photoshop, because of the huge differences in Sensor sizes. (The bigger the sensor, the less depth of field (which we love). But in this case, we wanted a LOT to be in focus.

Sensorsizes

Another problem was the location. It was taken from a private balcony and the deadline was tight. So a few calls later we got a go-ahead, while checking the weather-reports a date was chosen. The 29th of august was the date. We chose around 2-3 pm to get a harsher light, so we could still have a shadow on the glass.

We shot many variants, including on a 70-200 and 105 macro lens (which would completely blur the background). In the end I shot it on a 24-70, zoomed to 70 on the D800. ISO was 100, and f/22 to get as much depth of field as possible. The problem of course is,  (We did not lose any quality because of the complete stopping down). The final result had an edit on Aperture with Instagram-like presets to get the colours as much as right as possible as chosen together with the client. 

(However, in my opinion these did not print as well as they could, so this week I did a re-edit and delivered them to the client.) Edited in Lightroom 5, VSCO Kodak E200.

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And here is the image in full use:

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