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  • March 19, 2018
  • 22 min to read

An Interview with Landscape Photographer Daniel Laan — A Look into a Fantasy World

An Interview with Landscape Photographer Daniel Laan — A Look into a Fantasy World

Daniel Laan is a professional landscape photographer from the Netherlands with a strong preference for moody imagery. Daniel teaches photo workshops around Europe and gets inspired by fantasy imagery and the great outdoors. 

What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos?

Seeing a professional in the field is just an amazing jumpstart to your photography. But not just in the field. I’ve  seen a number of  processing tutorials myself back in the day that taught me to realize my vision faster, cleaner and ultimately with better results. 

Teach yourself to be a good photographer and what makes good post-processing that fits your own vision. But don’t go straight in the deep end. Get your feet wet first if you’re not familiar at all with post-processing software. Really get to know powerful software when you’re ready for processing. I chose both Lightroom and Photoshop and read and watched hundreds of tutorials and videos on YouTube, Lynda and CreativeLive. Most importantly though: don’t think for a minute that you’re ever done learning photography or any of its aspects like post-processing. It’s a journey into a dynamic world.

Why do you take photos? What inspires you?

At heart, I am a passionate outdoorsman. I love the cold, the wind and the rain. Visually appealing natural phenomena are the object of my fascination and I feel amazingly small when I stand witness to a sprawling Milky Way, zigzagging northern lights or a momentary rainbow next to a hailstorm. 

Photography really comes second to the outdoor experiences for me. It’s just that I needed a tool to express what I experience when I’m in all these wonderful places close to nature; preferably away from human civilization. It might as well have been painting or drawing, but photography made things simpler for me. When feeling uninspired, I watch “The Lord of the Rings” for the 38th time or flip through a bunch of Magic the Gathering cards. The look and feel of my work is primarily derived from those two sources.

Which photographers influenced you, and how did they influence your thinking, photographing, and career path?

It’s interesting to note that over the course of my photography career, several influencing photographers have sparked my inspiration. An artist from the Pacific Northwest, Greg Martin, was one of the first who inspired my to look at the landscape with new eyes. It is undoubtedly the manner in which Michael Frye told about Ansel Adams that got me hooked to taking my camera with me on my outdoor adventures. Next, I discovered a range of artists with a really dramatic vision who all captivated me. One of the first in that list was Alexandre Deschaumes. I later learned that this amazing French landscaper happened to be moved by the same types of music as myself. It probably explained why his visual work was so appealing to me. 

Other influential artists to me were Marc Adamus, Ted Gore, Erin Babnik, Enrico Fossati and Alex Noriega. But today, I’m not that influenced by visually appealing images. I need to get in the zone to produce works that I’m happy with. One artist that really helped me to achieve that state of mind is Guy Tal. The way Tal speaks about the landscape is both illuminating and daunting. I’ve never looked at mountains in the same way since reading his book “More Than a Rock”.

What do you want to say with your photographs, and how do you actually get your photographs to do that?

Many don’t know that I always have a song running in mind when I’m out there in the elements. Songs just come to me and I start humming along when I’m in my element the most. Melancholic, cinematic and dark music flows through my mind as I press the shutter button every time. During the editing phase, I listen to that particular song again and I remember what I saw in my mind’s eyel; what I felt like and what it smelled like there. You will not see representations or recordings of landscapes from me, but rather works of digital art that have some basis in photography. I recreate not only what my eyes saw — as difficult that may be for any camera — but tend to forget about any worries while pouring heart and soul into each and every finished print.

To me, there isn’t a greater compliment than someone or some company saying that your images resonates with them, especially when they pick up on some of the less obvious aspects of an image. I just happen to tell a visual story, but what I actually show you isn’t a landscape at all. I’m showing you myself.

So think “fantasy” or “drama in the sky” and you come close to describing the main body of my work. If you’re familiar with Magic: The Gathering, then I’d tell you my photography looks like basic lands. They’re more dreamy now than my early work. Looking back, my scapes nearly always looked harsh. They were full of contrast, with a histogram ranging from pure black to paper white. Mostly through the use of HDR software and the often harsh algorithms therein. What’s changed is that today I process by hand. The look and feel of my photography has changed significantly. I no longer seek to occupy the full tonal range of the histogram and many of my work now features analogous color ranges as opposed to complementary color harmonies or more complicated harmonies.

What technology/software/camera gear do you use?

Currently, I shoot with a Nikon D750. But my gear changes from time to time. It’s really not that relevant. I have switched main rigs from Canon to Nikon and have shot with a 550D (T2i), an infrared modified Canon G5, Canon 70D, Nikon D600 and D610 previously. 

Current lenses are the fabulous Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 and the 70-200 f/4 also from Nikon. I also shot with Samyang (Rokinon) 14mm f/2.8, Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and many works with the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro. I do not use graduated filters, as I can easily do this in post, but do like the effect of a 10-stop ND filter. The polarizer however, is a must in this field, but really tough to use well at 14mm. I use Sirui tripods and ballheads and F-stop backpacks. As for software, I’ve mentioned Photoshop and Lightroom. I’d like to mention Tony Kuyper’s luminosity mask panels too, because without them, I would be spending much more time in Photoshop than I do now.

How do you choose what you are going to shoot?

Both the weather forecast and an intimate knowledge of the landscape help to find subjects and ideal conditions. Clear, moonless nights are  perfect for night shoots and warm humid weather in summer means storm chasing. If there’s fog out and about, it’s usually in the morning and that’s when I visit the forest. 

I’ll describe a normal day. It’s spring. The vernal equinox (March 20th) has just came to pass. Looking out the window at around three in the afternoon, I see a build-up of large cumulus clouds in the south. As this is often a prelude to changing weather here in the Netherlands, I quickly check the forecast and satellite images for the coming sunset. Thunderstorms are unlikely in March, but I do check the tides to see if the tide will be receding after sunset. If that’s the case, then I go to the beach (facing west) at sunset. 

I inform my wife that I’ll be making diner once she gets home from work and that I will go out tonight. This buys me some relationship kudos. As I fire up Google Earth and align the sunset with some of the higher dunes in the coastal areas of the Netherlands, I see that there isn’t much there. I decide to go for the coastal waters, essentially winging it. My 14-24mm is coming, as is the D750 with tilting screen. I envision low angles looking up at the clouds, so the screen might prove useful later. I move out on a fifteen minute drive to the coast at two hours before sunset. This leaves me with plenty of time to setup near the shoreline. Clouds gather and it starts to rain as the winds pick up. It promises to be a good shoot when I see there are some holes forming in a thick cloud cover: The last rays of the sun piercing through that cover is what I’ll wait for. I try to keep my camera dry and my tripod from falling over as I wait patiently in the shoreline for the sea to align with the fading sun.

What kind of tools do you use for post-processing? Tell more about your workflow.

Whatever it is that’s necessary to reproduce what I saw in my mind’s eye. That can mean anything from slightly altering curves and lens corrections on a single shot, to blending 40 shots at varying focus distances, exposures and even focal lengths by hand. Sometimes I love to emphasize things I see in the clouds, the waves and the sand by dodging and burning with a pen tablet; almost drawing on the image. I really don’t care anymore if somebody doesn’t agree with my choice of processing. I don’t make reservations or lie about my processing techniques, since I think this impedes the evolution of artists and the profession of photography. Photography for me is the start of creating a fantasy world. I want to convey what I felt through choice of composition, angle and perspective but for a large part also through post processing and that selective dodging and burning.

Among your works, which one is your favorite? Why?

There are a couple, each with a different story to tell. Among those is “The Waking Forest”, which I have on the wall here. It signifies a grand, solitary experience in one of the most spectacular fantasy forests in the Netherlands.

What was the most curious story behind your photograph?

That morning I stumbled into the woods in the dark without a plan whatsoever. Stumbling usually makes a sound in the thick mulch and it got the attention of a big group of wild boar. One of them announced that there was an early-bird photographer on the loose and the rest thought it should be a good idea to move somewhere else. Not long after a close encounter with these fascinating animals, I found a bit of a clearing in the forest and put my tripod down for a great display of blue tones in this verdant forest. The sun started to punch through the fog and it usually creates a short moment of perfection. I tend to rush from place to place in such conditions, but not this morning. It was just fine where I was. Then, a sharp rustling in the bushes. For a second I realized those boar might make an appearance, telling me to back-off. Instead, two fallow deer came skipping closer and closer to me and my tripod. I stood completely still as one jumped passed within a meter to the left of me and the other even closer to the right. This was such a beautiful experience that I got completely into the fantasy zone, which helped tremendously in the creation of this image.

Three new things (names, places), you learned in the past year about photography

1 — Kroondomein het Loo, the Netherlands — It’s a big place in the Dutch Veluwe with so many great woodland subjects that I will be spending much more time there in the coming autumn. 

2 — Lagazuoi, Dolomites — Easily reachable by cable car, this mountain in the Dolomites is home to many great subjects and spectacular 360 views. Even though this place is often packed with tourists, you can get original images here if you’re willing to look for them.

3 — The moon during the northern lights — A couple of years ago, I struggled so much to get a dramatic and razor sharp foreground in Iceland. When you rely on the aurora to illuminate your foreground, you’re ending up with more than a couple of images taken at large apertures. With the subject at minimum focus distance, focus stacking then becomes a chore. This year in the Lofoten, the moon did most of the foreground illumination. A couple of 30 second exposures at medium apertures resulted in much less work, better results and less time spent with frozen hands. 

More of Daniel’s work is on display on his website, although new releases are often found on his 500px profile first. Follow him there or on his Facebook page to view his latest images.

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