Monthly Guest Photographer: Bert Stephani

Written by: Glyn Dewis

Published: August 13, 2010

Category: General

Glyn: First of all I just want to thank you Bert for being this month’s Guest Photographer

Bert:  Hey you’re welcome Glyn, no problem at all

Glyn: Ok as always, let’s just touch quickly on equipment. Bert what would you normally take with you on a photo shoot?

Bert: Well, I would normally take my Canon 5D Mark 2, I usually take another camera as backup and that would normally be my 1Ds Mark 2 I guess and when it comes to lenses I would usually take the 70-200mm f/2.8….

Glyn: That’s a great lens huh?

Bert: Yeah but I’m using it less now. Its still a very safe lens to go to I feel; so good in fact that I think it’s almost like it’s hard to take a bad photograph with it and it’s become a bit too easy and that’s probably why I don’t use it that much anymore but I do still use it. For a bit more wide angle, the 50mm I use a lot and I’m trying to get myself to like the 24-70mm but it’s not easy to like that lens. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great lens but it’s not special enough to me.

Glyn: I remember reading a post you did on your blog when you went out armed only with the 24-70mm; was that to force yourself to get to like it?

Bert: Yeah it’s probably the least used lens I have. The lenses I started with when I went professional was the 17-40mm, the 50mm and the 70-200mm and I think these are still my ‘go to’ lenses because when it comes to portraiture i can do pretty much anything with those 3 lenses. I guess what I take depends on the assignments because you see I don’t generally have ‘typical’ assignments. I usually pack pretty much everything because sometimes it’s standard portraits then another time it’s wide angle and big lights. It could be really fast natural light where I’ll mainly use the 70-200mm and window light and I only have 5 minutes so it depends on the assignment is what I’m saying. I actually think gear is a bit over rated. It’s good to have good gear but I don’t panic if I have a lens fail because you can always find a way around it with another lens or something.

Glyn: … and I guess that’s what being a professional is all about wouldn’t you say? Being adaptable and knowing how to respond if something goes wrong and still come up with the goods.

It’s interesting what you say about gear because I really subscribe to Zack Arias’ philosophy of getting to know what kit you have before getting more. For example I try to do as much as I can with just one light, unless the job requires more of course, and I don’t mean this to be a sweeping statement, but I think too many people are too quick to want to use loads and loads of kit when really they haven’t explored what can be done say with just one light.

Bert: Yeah I think sometimes, and this is something I’ve noticed more recently is that gear can get in the way of creativity because it sometimes gives you too many options and then it’s hard to choose or decide where to start. I’m, actually starting to scale down a bit when it comes to the equipment I use. Of course if there’s a job that requires a lot of gear then I’ll take it but I now usually leave most of the stuff in the car and take only what I think I’ll need with me. I recently did a project called 50/50…

Glyn: That was when you shot for 50 continuous days with a 50mm lens only right?

Bert: That’s right and that really showed me that I can do a lot of stuff with just a 50mm lens. It made me look at things in 50mm and that made me become much more focused, but like I said when it comes to assignments when there’s not that much time I’m keeping the kit down to a minimum.

I see it a lot when people turn up to workshops with lots of really expensive gear and they don’t know how to use it. Keeping things simple forces you to think and it forces you to become better and of course as a professional photographer you need a certain standard and you need backups. Most people spend way to much money on equipment when they start out and this is a hard business to get into; they want all the ‘L’ lenses and the  1Ds Mark 3’s but I don’t think for most jobs you need it. It depends on the kind of work you’re doing so if you’re doing high end commercial work you might need a digital Hasselblad or something but for most things you don’t need it. You can only master something if you spend a lot of time using it. When I see people turn up to workshops with 2, 3 or maybe even 4 lights I tell them to put them away and start using one because when i use flash I would say 90% of the time that’s all I use.

Glyn: I’m so with you on that; there’s so much that you can do with just one light and one simple modifier such as a shoot through/reflective umbrella. I get asked to do 1-1teaching sessions when people want me to show them how to replicate a look they’ve seen in a  magazine when there’s rim lights involved an overhead beauty dish and so on. The funny thing is though when I ask them about what lighting they do at the moment and if they know what can be done with one light I’ve had the response of ‘I’m not interested in one light, because this look is what I want to be known for’

Bert: There are so many great pictures that have been made with just one light so often it doesn’t make sense to use lots and lots. For you to Master lighting i think you need to, maybe for the first year or even longer, use just one light and then when you really understand it, consider adding in a second light. It doesn’t matter to me if on a job i have to put up 10 lights because I know how the one works so adding more isn’t a problem. I think it’s vitally important that people understand how light reacts, how it behaves and also be very inventive and improvise with reflectors and so on because that is when you’ll learn.

I hear so many people refer to it as a ‘style’ but really it’s a trick; they have a certain setup that they’ve seen used in a magazine and yeah it’s nice to learn a set up but what happens when one of the lights doesn’t work or they don’t’ have time to set that up? If you know how to use light though, you’ll always find a solution.

Glyn: Now you mentioned ‘style’ there Bert and that is something I’ve been talking a lot about lately here on the blog and recently with Photographer Tim Wallace who has also been a guest photographer here too. What’s your opinion on having a certain ‘style’ and also how did you develop yours because it’s the look and style of your photos that really attracted me to your work…

Bert: My style developed over time but my view on style is that it has to have a deeper meaning than just the colouring and composition. What I try to squeeze into my pictures as much as possible is to have a certain sense of freedom without going extreme. i always feel like I’m in a society where there’s too many regulations and too many rules and I want to have a sense of freedom and be an individual and that dictates my colours, the lenses I use, the light I use to create that vision and I think it’s very important to have a ‘vision’. I’ve talked a lot about this too with my colleague Pieter at LIME. He’s a Wedding Photographer where the main focus is Romance and you can see that in his work; it’s real romance, it’s not over the top or fairytale…it’s real romance between real people. You can see it in all of his pictures.

Glyn: I notice in your pictures that you tend to desaturate the colours…would you say that is part of your style?

Bert: Many people think they know my style because of the colours but I once put my favourite pictures that I’d taken out on the table and I could see completely different lighting styles, completely different angles and that’s when I really saw that it was the sense of freedom, the feeling that I got from the pictures that defined my style and that was a really interesting experience for me, kind of discovering myself because until that time I didn’t really think I had a style.

Sometimes i think you have to allow yourself to be happy with what you do and not get so hooked up with all the technical side of things. If the lighting is not exactly 100% right or maybe it’s not 100% sharp but there’s still this feeling or story in the picture then it’s still a good picture. Many of the pictures i like the best, technically are very bad really. I only have one picture of my three kids together that I really like and that was taken with my compact camera at 800 iso but it’s the one picture that I have in my living room because thats the picture where they all look exactly as they are and it makes me smile.

Glyn: Ok just to get a bit of background on you Bert, how did you get into Photography?

Bert: Well I don’t know why but when I was 18 I asked my parents for a camera and they got me a second hand Praktika, three prime lenses and my grandfather had an old enlarger. After a year or so I started at film school and then began working in television and I eventually got back into Photography by following a Photoshop Course. My neighbour got himself a Canon 300D and when I held it that was it…I wanted one too. I remember i got a video job and was asked if I could take photographs too so of course I said yes and thought that if i charge them then I can get the 300D out of it too. I think maybe 2 or 3 months after I got the 300D I said to myself that I wanted to be a photographer and I’ve never really looked back since although it was quite a struggle.

Glyn: So how long have you been a full time Professional?

Bert: At this point it’s now 3 years and before that i did it as a second profession for almost 2 years i think.

Glyn: How important has social media been to you in developing your business such as Facebook, Twitter and your blog?

Bert: It’s been very important. I started a blog pretty soon after I set myself the goal to turn Pro and I started one in Dutch and very soon it got me clients and exposure. I discovered ‘Strobist’ and I wrote an article in English about how I made my Christmas Cards and I got a lot of response from it and that was what made me do an english blog. My thinking was that it would increase my market place and give me a larger audience. I then began putting together videos for YouTube and started doing this stuff without any real marketing purpose but just because I wanted to and also because I learned a lot from other photographers who shared their knowledge. I think it’s good to use a mix of social media too because for example I get people coming to my blog who maybe saw a video on youtube or a picture of mine on Flickr and then they come over to my Tiwitter page and so on. These things all work together and whereas it can be hard to measure I do see things coming sometimes out of the blue. For example I got an assignment to do some corporate pictures (a 5 minute job) in Geneva from a  client who saw one of my videos on youtube so I got on the plane, did the job and came back. All the work that I put into the blog etc doesn’t equate to just one job in Geneva but that gives you an idea of what can happen.

How and what you communicate to the world on your blog and twitter etc is down to you. I’m not afraid to post quite personal stuff but that’s just me and what you do is down to you and what works for you. Social media will show your personality and make you human as opposed to being this faceless photographer, but above all be genuine and honest; be yourself and in the long term this will help people to trust you.

Glyn: Bert you’ve recently released a DVD called ‘Motivational Light’ which Joe McNally recently commended on his blog. Can you tell us how this all came about?

Bert: It’s basically the result of three to four years worth of blogging, Workshops and YouTube Videos and it’s all about me reverse engineering my own thinking about how and why I light the way I do. I wanted to show what I understand about lighting and how to make it ‘real’ and ‘right’. For example why did I put the light in a certain place. Look it’s not too hard to learn to light with a flash..if it’s too bright then you dial it down, if it’s too dark then you dial it up. If you want hard light then use a bare flash, if you want soft light then use an umbrella or a softbox; that’s not too difficult and most people could learn that in a couple of hours but why is it that so many people who know this technical side and have been shown it don’t make the pictures they’re happy with? That’s because the light has to look right and that comes down to having a greater knowledge of light so you can recreate anything.

Glyn: What I love about your lighting is how it looks so natural and at times it can be hard to distinguish whether a photograph you shot was taken using natural or artificial light.

Bert: Well I think that it’s very important to know how to mimic natural light and that’s a very important skill even if you want to make unnatural looking portraits then so long as you know how to do it right, then you’ll know how to do it different. It’s fine to break the rules but you have to know the rules to break them.

I get people asking me what power i had a  flash at and what aperture I was using but that stuff just doesn’t matter because they’re never going to be in the same situation as i was with the same lighting, time of day and so on.

Light is such  an incredibly powerful tool for creating a mood, an atmosphere and an emotion and when you know what it is you want to create then knowing what you need to do is easy and that’s what I cover in the second part of the DVD.

Glyn: For want of a better word, do you have any ‘heroes’ in the Photography World that you look up to?

Bert: I don’t have any heroes no, but what I do have are people that I admire. On my computer and my iPhone I have an inspiration folder that has between 3 and 4 thousand pictures in it that I Iook to, but maybe 3,500 of those pictures are from  unknown photographers so I’m more into admiring pictures than admiring photographers. There are of course people I admire for their technicality and for sharing such as Zack Arias, Joe McNally, David Hobby and Chase Jarvis because they have changed the industry and let me learn and they do all make great photographs but it’s not like I love every picture they make so I’m more a photography fan than  a photographer fan.

Glyn: Bert if there was one golden nugget of advice you would give to someone looking to start out in Photography or who may be struggling a little to move things on what would that be?

Bert: It just comes down to a lot of hard work. Have fun, play around but you’re not going to make it as a professional photographer. So, with the passion the hard work comes but what is also important is to be open and share yourself because then things come back. i don’t believe there’s any secrets in photography but you have to learn it some way and by knowing people and being nice to people and doing stuff together you have access to a lot more information and will make a lot less mistakes. I cannot imagine not having someone to help me if I need it but that is purely because I too help people. Now you don’t give to receive but if you give enough and give genuinely then it will benefit you in some way. I’m very glad that I have so many people I can count on but don’t do it because it’s business but because we have become friends. It’s very important to have your network of photography friends that you can count on and help each other out.

Glyn: Bert before I forget I didn’t ask you about the lighting equipment you use…

Bert: Ah right, well the best and least expansive piece of lighting gear I use is a shower curtain that cost me 10 euros. i can put it almost anywhere and instantly I have a 2m x 2m softbox with beautiful light; best 10 Euro I’ve ever spent I can tell you.

A lot of the work I do requires me to shoot fast and flexible. I use mix of Canon and Lumopro hot shoe flashes with Pocketwizards in those situations. As well as using the small hot shoe flashes a lot, in the studio I use the monoblocks from Hensel and if I’m out on location and need a bit more power I use the Hensel Porty. Both on location and in the studio, I use California Sunbounce reflectors very often. The quality of the light is just superb and they can stand a severe beating.

Glyn: Bert thank you so much for giving your time again for this chat I really do appreciate it

Bert: Hey no problem at all. Look if I ask someone something I’d like them to answer so I just feel the same about it; we’re all here to help each other after all. Cheers.

* * *

For more information about Bert and his work you can check out his main website Confessions of a Photographer, his blog and of course his YouTube Page.

Also for more information on Bert’s superb new DVD check out the main site over at ‘Motivational Light‘.

Again, having an idea of how busy Bert’s schedule is at the moment, I’d like to just say a HUGE thank you to him for taking some time out and being this month’s Guest Photographer.

Thoughts? Comments? Why not make use of the ‘comments’ section below; it would be great to ‘hear’ any feedback…thanks:)

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  1. Jürgen

    Hi Glyn,

    Thanks for organizing this interview and thanks for Bert to share his knowledge so generously.
    Bert has been an inspiration for me and I simply enjoy his relaxed commentary on his videos. Great work and keep it up.

    Big take away from this post for me personally is to challenge myself and work only with one light.

    • Glyn

      @Jürgen…You’re welcome mate. Bert was so willing to participate in the Guest Photographer; testament to the kind of guy he is…generous & very talented.


  2. Tim Wallace

    Great interview Glyn,
    I totally could not agree more with the comments about forcing yourself to shoot with one lens sometimes, looking at the options just in that before you open up to more equipment. I work in the same way and far to many people out there think equipment or indeed buying more of it is going to somehow make them a better photographer or open a new door, in truth it does to some respect but also means that they leave the first room behind without really giving themselves the time to explore its contents first.
    I didn’t realise Bert had been Pro about the same length of time as me, that’s great and a huge well done for the work and the drive he shows to move forward, break with convention and try new things, this is truly what ‘real’ photography is all about.


    • Glyn

      @Tim…Cheers Mate.
      Speaking with Bert reminded me very much of our chat when we went through your Guest Post; same values and thought process about minimal kit and taking the time to really understand light; I guess there’s really something to be said for that huh 🙂


  3. DaveT

    Another great interview Glyn this blog is going from strength to strength.

    Thanks for sharing those insights Bert, its so hard not to get into the mindset of wanting to acquire more and more bits of photographic gear, and having professionals like yourself, reinforce the message that it’s not essential to making great images is a good thing.

    It’s wonderful how both of you (Glyn & Bert) are so generous in passing on your knowledge to the wider photographic community. THANK YOU.


    • Glyn

      @DaveT…Thanks very much for your kind words; it’s great to know that the blog is being well received.

  4. Neil Holmes

    Hi Glyn, great interview with Bert, I stumbled across him on You Tube a year or to ago, I love his quote ‘I’m more into admiring pictures than admiring photographers’

    Cheers Neil

    • Glyn

      @Neil…Thanks for the comment and yeah his quote makes great sense huh 🙂


  5. Keith Hammond

    thanks Glyn @ Bert a great read, i do love reading what makes different photographers tick. I think i must haves watched nearly all of Bert’s vids on Youtube and Lime and i to love the easy style, a bit like yours Glyn, not to bogged down with techy info, good basic easy to follow info. I love this time we are in where people are willing to share info etc, it’s a great feeling.
    Best wishes Bert. Regards Keith

    • Glyn

      @Keith…Thanks for dropping by and commenting mate.
      Like you I watched all of Bert’s videos on YouTube which is how I first got to know about him and yeah, too technical and I risk being lost so I like to keep things simple 🙂

      All the best to you,

  6. Leigh Woods

    Thanks for the great interview. Bert’s incredible contribution to aspiring photographers is really inspiring. I too started following him after watching the “confessions of a photographer” youtube vids and now look forward to his blog and lime updates (i wish they would get the lime podcast links fixed so the first 15 can be downloaded though 😉 ).
    Its hard not to get caught up in the gear talk that seems to follow anything photography related but its refreshing to be reminded that all it really takes is a working camera, perhaps a flash and some inspiration.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Glyn

      @Leigh…You’re welcome and thanks for the kind words; I really appreciate it.

  7. neal

    Great stuff, a most enjoyable interview with a top photographer. Nice one 🙂

    • Glyn

      @Neal…Cheers Buddy

  8. Nat

    A very insightful interview, I really appreciate Bert’s guidance especially with regards to lighting, it’s easy to get confused by all the gear on offer esp. when one doesn’t really understand it in the beginning.

    • Glyn

      @Nat…I know exactly what you mean there 🙂

  9. David Kelly

    Glyn / Bert, thanks for another informative guest blog. As Keith says it’s nice to have togs such as both of your good selves who are willing to freely share their insights into Photography via the internet.

    Thanks / bedankt!

    • Glyn

      @David…Thank you so much for the kind words; really appreciate it 🙂


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