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Learning to explore in your own homeland can be one of the most challenging things about landscape photography. For Dutch photographer, Daniel Laan, it has become like a second nature.
This talented author and educator has devoted much of his time to teaching photography both in his country, the Netherlands, as well as abroad. This month, we caught up with Daniel to talk about how he got into the profession, the power of landscape photography, running photography workshops and how other photographers who are just taking their first steps in the art can improve upon their work.
Hello Daniel! Thank you for chatting with us. Tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you did before you got into photography.
Hi guys! I’m a professional landscape photographer from the Netherlands. I’m passionate about conveying ethereal qualities through both photography and post-processing. My turbulent mind finds peace in nature and comes alive through a dark and mystical visual style. This approach I teach in small-scale photography workshops held throughout Europe.
But I wasn’t a photographer from the get-go. While my landscape photography is self-taught, I do have a formal education in design. A couple of years after I rediscovered photography, I gave up my full-time job at a large steel company in the Netherlands and studied Communication & Multimedia Design in Amsterdam full-time. It is then that my photography took a professional turn. As I minored in Visual Arts, my eye for communicating with images improved. Suddenly I knew Kung-Fu. Color theory, composition and telling a visual story became second nature and I discarded most of my early work as a result. I wanted to start over, rebrand and pursue landscape photography all the time.
Photography wasn't always Daniel's first career choice. Photo by: 'Daniel Laan'.
How did you become interested in photography and ultimately landscape photography?
As a kid, I drew a lot and was fortunate enough to have a PC in our family home even at the age of 4. This was in ‘88 or ‘89; early days in modern computing. There was a monochrome drawing program on a floppy disk that I played around with at the time. As I grew older, I discovered through the evolution of computer graphics that mouse and keyboard freed me from actually lacking the skills to translate my vision to paper. I used a pencil less and less and got into visual effects and graphic design.
My dad had this film SLR lying around the house which I played with too. I found it fascinating to frame everyday subjects, but didn’t so much as think about landscape photography. That came much later when I combined a couple of ideas I had.
From where do you draw your inspiration and what is it about your approach to photography that differentiates your work from others?
My inspiration for that visual style you hint at mainly comes from fantasy or sci-fi imagery I see in films, games and a collectible card game named “Magic the Gathering”. The fact that my work is typically dark and maybe even foreboding, is because I feed my work with negative, melancholic or sad feelings. Photography and processing both serve as catharsis for me, so by doing that, I feel much better! I know only a handful of artists that work in the same way.
In a practical sense, my approach also differs from other photographers - I really don’t care what is needed in post-processing to create images that I like myself. Everybody seems to be a purist at some level or has ideas of what photography should be. I use the photographic medium to create art and often use multiple exposures to do so. Sometimes just to capture all the dynamic range, other times to come up with completely imaginary scenes that I visualised in the field and composited in post.
Daniel's approach is different from others. Photo by: 'Daniel Laan'.
What is the message that you hope to convey through your body of work?
For one, I love to teach other budding photographers about what the medium can do for you. So when I grew to be a professional ten years ago, my goal wasn’t to sell images or go on assignments to capture the world. I wanted to teach everything I learn.
In the end, I hope viewers will be able to objectively reason if an image speaks to them, without any supporting story on the hardships involved with getting the shot, or by the hours of processing involved in the creation of it.
Daniel's aim is to teach everything that he has learnt in photography. Photo by: 'Daniel Laan'.
How would you describe the power of landscape photography and what influence does it have upon nature and the world? Can photography make a difference to how people view the world treat the environment around them?
While I do not convey that message through my work, I do see the effects of it through social media. So I know where this question is coming from. In Iceland in particular, the sights along the ring road are in bad shape. I don’t mean that the waterfalls are all misshapen, but people still think that it’s ok to step off the path to get the shot. Fact of the matter is that the icons of landscape photography get so many visits due to infinite social media posts, that the beauty of their surroundings begins to buckle.
One experience in Fjaðrárgljúfur has stuck with me. A small group of friends sat behind the fence that is put there to guard the fragile wildflowers and endangered plants from footsteps. There are also multiple signs telling the area is a no-fly zone for drones. This guy just did both - standing on the plants, flying his drone. If you gather this is me typing angry, then you’re correct in assuming. While leading a client there, I told him to get off, but he was completely in ignore mode. And his friends sitting next to him made a big deal of it and gave me the mouthful.
I get it. Everybody wants the same opportunity to photograph the area you saw on social media. But when that shot is in your pocket and you explore an area that you found yourself (even if it isn’t new or uncharted) then I highly suggest to look around you. Do you see any clear sign of human activity? Have you seen somebody else along the way there? If the answer is no, I recommend that you do not share the exact location of where you took the image. That leads to more original images and spreads out the impact we have on these often fragile locations. I am all for not sharing exact photo locations.
I don’t think their photographs, but the photographers making them are responsible for spreading environmental consciousness - in any way they see an opportunity to better the world.
Photographers are responsible for spreading environmental consciousness. Photo by: 'Daniel Laan'.
What do you feel is your particular mission, or responsibility as a photographer?
I can be short about that one. Nature first. Photography second.
From the moment I could, I started an initiative that takes 10% of any photography income I make and put it straight back into transparent charity aimed at protecting what we have left. It’s important to know where the money is going and after having researched dozens of already existing funds, I found that it was better to start my own. 10% for Earth actually plants trees and actually goes to re-wilding projects in areas that have been hunted to extinction.
Setting money aside for projects that make an impact is one thing you can do yourself. I think that photographers can carry a lot more than just a tripod too. Next time you go out, bring a trash bag and take any litter you see with you. Prioritise plastic and glass.
Stop sharing your worries about the environment on social media for a moment and help the landscape by actually getting your hands dirty.
Could you tell us a little about your experiences teaching photography? What have your favourite workshops been?
One great experience was during a tour I lead with Isabella Tabacchi in the Norwegian Lofoten Islands. A huge storm hit the archipelago, which completely stirred up everything we had planned. Dressing in waterproofs, waiting for bridges to open and forgetting about any Northern Lights making an appearance. One night, when the storm briefly turned hurricane, we all woke up when we thought the house we stayed in came off the ground for a moment. “What moves doesn’t break” is the saying, right?
Daniel enjoys photographing in the Lofoten Islands of Norway. Photo by: 'Daniel Laan'.
The last tour I did in Iceland was quite hard for me. I got a fever 2 days into the tour and felt horrible. While I did have the energy to teach, I did not feel quite as creative. So if you’ve ever felt the calling of leading workshops, you really have to consider these things as it can happen to anyone.
To be honest, the small workshops that I lead in the woodlands near my home are my favourites. I only do those once or twice per year and it’s so much fun every time. Maybe because they’re infrequent. Only Dutch and Belgian people have participated until now, but I sure hope that will change. I’d love to show these places to people from around the world. The Netherlands have much more on offer than Amsterdam, you know? :)
Local workshops in the forests of the Netherlands are some of Daniel's favourites. Photo by: 'Daniel Laan'.
Have there been any specific challenges to teaching in certain rugged areas, such as the Dolomites?
Teaching in any area requires you to prepare your clients for what’s in store. Mountains aren’t everyone’s forté. Hiking for a couple of hours on uneven terrain and crossing snow melt at 2000 meters in the Dolomites can be treacherous even for the most experienced hikers. The challenge here is to put yourself first - if you consider it safe with the experience you have. If your participants do not consider a route safe, then you have three choices. Turn back, go around or convince them that it’s nothing to worry about. But you can’t easily turn off somebody’s phobias.
On one hike in Scotland, one of my participants turned out to be really unsure of his footing. And as it happens, the more unsure you are, the more you slip and slide. It was hell for him going up to the Old Man of Storr. That’s why it’s important to build in spare time in your planning. We took it down a couple of notches and I assisted him with neigh every step of the way along the one hour hike. It took us double the time to get up, but we did it together - And we all got amazing photographs at sunrise as a result.
Do you think there is a place in particular that every photographer should explore, or something that they should photograph? What can they learn from visiting this place?
I’m going to throw you off here. The place that I really want any photographer to photograph (well) is the place close to home. Show us what your landscape is about instead of chasing those icons around the world. I bring people there because the demand for them is off the charts, but when we arrive, I teach to look at unusual stuff - to take a longer lens and swing it around until landing on a composition no-one ever photographed before. It doesn’t have to be original in concept, but at least in subject. I find it fascinating that certain patterns beneath our feet disappear as soon as we have left the scene, never to return in exactly the same form. At the same time, there’s a timelessness waiting for you to be captured. I’d much rather have an interesting abstract on the wall than another image of that mountain with the waterfall. You know the one which I’m talking about. ;) The abstract simply lasts longer.
Learn to explore closer to home. Photo by: 'Daniel Laan'.
Here's a question that most people will be wondering about your gear. Typically what equipment do you take with you on a normal shoot?
I travel quite light. At the moment I take a Nikon D750 with me, an ultra-wide and a 70-200 telephoto. A tripod is mandatory, even in the brightest part of the day. I never compromise speed of shooting versus the slightest possibility of a shaken image. But I can’t stress enough that a lens or camera does not make better images. I get these questions all the time: “What lens do you use”, or “is this a good lens?” As I don’t sell those things, I hardly have an idea of what is on the market today. I don’t keep up. My attention goes to being a better photographer, not having better or newer stuff.
You have a number of post-processing videos available for purchase and download on your website. Can you tell us a bit about these and what our viewers can learn from you?
As you visit my galleries on my website, you will notice different categories. “The Dark Forest”, “Twilight Seascapes” and “Glowing Mushrooms” to name a few. What I’ve done with my post-processing videos, is to show exactly what I do with photos in any of the categories. So if you decide to purchase a video of say “Northern Lights Processing”, you will see me work on one or two images from start to finish.
You will learn to adjust your RAW files, combine images for focus stacking, expanding dynamic range or even focal length blending and use luminosity masking to get the most out of your results. Then I show how to create special effects that give your image a particular look.
As of this moment, there are seven “Watch me Edit” videos available. Those are all different in approach from each other, although there is a little overlap. That overlap is needed to show you how to create a cohesive portfolio without always shooting the same stuff.
Check out Daniel's website for a series of tutorials to improve your photography. Photo by: 'Daniel Laan'.
What’s the best photography advice that you’ve ever been given? Do you have any advice that you’d like to pass on to other photographers who are perhaps just starting out in landscape photography?
Learn to post-process your images well! That advice has always been lacking during my path. No-one told me to work on my photography at the computer. Yet, as soon as I did, I knew not only what was possible with editing, but also what to do in the field to marry great photography and fascinating post-processing. But my journey doing so was tough.
While starting out myself, I took just about everyone’s opinion about my photography very seriously. At some point, this slowed my creative process considerably. Because I cared a lot about what others felt about whatever I did in life, including the type of images I photographed, I was a prisoner of my own analytical thinking. It took me many years to let go of my own worries and to be honest I still struggle with that sometimes. Now, this is not the same as being critiqued by your peers or by photographers who are in the business longer than you.
What I’m trying to say is that it is good to be happy with your images yourself. Never forget that! Don’t feel let down by the amount of appreciation others seem to get for taking pictures in a certain way. The major hurdle to overcome here is copying the work of others - but that’s fine for a moment. I think it’s a great way to learn new ways of looking at any given landscape. In fact, try to copy as many of your idols as you can, who have wildly different approaches. Then if you take a little composition advice or post-processing technique away from each of them, you have an incredible palette of skills to add to your arsenal.
And please don’t hop the fence for that picture. Go to places where there are no fences instead.
Do you aim for your images to tell a story or do you like to leave them open to interpretation?
My images are an extension of my emotion; a snapshot of what I felt during the creation of them. As I start my post-processing during a spare afternoon, I ask myself how I feel and dig a little into memory. Then I’ll open Adobe Bridge and search for an image that I captured when I sort of felt the same way. If those feelings do not align, I churn out a horrible image.
What I hope to show with a finished image is a sense of how I felt. Together with what is actually seen in the frame, I leave them open to interpretation.
These images are an extension of Daniel's emotion. Photo by: 'Daniel Laan'.
What do you see as the new horizons for landscape photography in the future?
Interesting question. As far as technology goes, I think that camera manufacturers listen more intently to their customers than ever before. If a photographer can save time to do something in-camera, instead of taking a heap of images and puzzling them together in post, then chances are that it already has been included in today’s gear. Take for example the focus shift or focus stack options you have now. It takes me quite some time to do that well in the field, but there are cameras available now that take the guesswork out of the equation. There’s more of that on the horizon, I’m sure.
But if we’re talking about how the creative process evolves, I sure hope that the scrutiny of what photography is and what it is not will fade. In the end, images can either tell a story or show a pretty picture.
Images can either tell a story or show a pretty picture. Photo by: 'Daniel Laan'.
Last but not least, do you have any exciting projects that we can expect to see in the coming year?
I’m writing a book at the moment about moody forest photography in Dutch, which, if there’s enough interest, will get translated in English as well. The book will see its release in early 2020 and I’ll continue another (English) book as soon as it comes out. That one has been in writing for 5 years or so and it will dive into the most important aspect of fine-art landscape photography: the mind behind the image.
As I’m quite busy writing these, there aren’t many workshops that I’ll lead in 2020. Just the usual ones to the Dolomites and the Lofoten together with Isabella Tabacchi.
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