Herman van Gestel

17 March of 2010 by

Hello Herman, fellow Dutchie! Please share a little about who Herman van Gestel is and how you became a fashion photographer.

VAN GESTEL: Probably not the regular situation, but in my case, I never had photography as a hobby. I think this gave a head-start regarding vision.

Let me elaborate: during my studies of Aeronautics design, I realized my life was like a planned journey. So I needed to get out and find something that would allow me to do what I really wanted to do…meet people, travel, experience, and live more intense…so in the mean time I went to the army. There I had a comrade in my platoon who was taking really great pictures. Mind you this was just with a simple SLR, no flash, no thrills, just simply outstanding, and on regular Kodak Gold film and normally processed. So I was wondering: what make his pictures stand out? As with most jump-evolutionized questions it boils down to a simple WHY? At that moment I realized that photography gave me all the options that I wanted from life. Travel, people, and a way to satisfy my curiosities. So from that moment onwards I studied and recognized “great images” that I was fascinated about, with the same question “Why does it talk to me? Why does this appeal to me?” After a year of studying all the main facets of photography I looked at what I considered to be the best photography education, not only in the Netherlands, but also in Paris, London and even Dublin. I decided to go to Art-Academy St. Joost which in my opinion was the best for what I wanted. To my great surprise I was accepted, even though the enrolment was full and therefore closed. It probably helped that before the enrolment I had photographed 2 projects, one about ballet, the other simply about a pub. These projects reinforced my beliefs that photography was for me. A good photographer has access to anything he would be interested in. A camera is basically a key that unlocks many doors, it’s just simply a means to get somewhere. Most hobby-photographers see their pictures usually as an end.

Marc Ecko

Marc Ecko

What is the fashion photography market or rather industry like in Europe? Is being based just outside of Amsterdam, in Leiden, a pro or a con?

VAN GESTEL: Haha…it’s a question I still am puzzled with. Half of the people tell me I should go to Amsterdam as it all happens there… the other half of the people tell me it’s good not to be in Amsterdam, as there are already so many photographers there. Truth lies in the middle. In Amsterdam most of the creatives are there, you really stumble upon them on the bicycle, every single day…so the interaction is simply quite intense. On the other hand, the fact that I’m outside Amsterdam, I have a bigger space for a studio, which is much cheaper than compared to crowded Amsterdam and I can recruit local talent much easier. In fact, I try to stimulate my area more towards creative photography as there is a lot of great talent here, who do commute every time to Amsterdam. It’s also a bit of a great rebellious inspiration, not to do it the Amsterdam way but instead opposing Amsterdam a bit, in a positive way to channel creative energy. But hey, what are we talking about…I’m 30 minutes away from Amsterdam…just as long as going from northern Amsterdam to south-Amsterdam.

And… let’s face it! Amsterdam the Netherlands, the market is simply too insignificant, too small, and too controlled by the “old” crowd…I find it more interesting to see what is happening in Belgium….not to mention the really obvious places like London or Paris….Luckily one is there reasonably fast.

Furthermore, the market….hmmm…I guess maybe 5 photographers in the Netherlands can live full-time from fashion…that’s the hard reality. If you want to live full time from photography you need to be flexible. The markets are getting hit quite hard as well…in December last year I lost 4 magazine clients as they have disappeared.

When composing your shots in your viewfinder or even before looking in the camera, what do you look for at all times?

VAN GESTEL: Emotion, but also discriminating edge…a twist, a revelation, more levels….and an opportunity to surprise the team and clients when all the creative ingredients come together and share a magic moment, an anomaly….I usually say…”A beautiful image is there, but I want more”…simply put I want everybody to operate beyond their viewed capabilities….So far I’ve not been disappointed.


Finding the right agency or agent to represent you can be tricky – what do you look for when seeking agents? Or rather, what do they look for in you?

VAN GESTEL: I like interaction with agents…I know what I’m good at, but I want an agent to challenge me, look into other directions….I see the market in a specific way based on visual-communication, and an agent in a different way (more commercial)…an agent I consider to be my necessary commercial alter-ego…I’m not commercial at all. What do they see in me…creativity, versatility, multi-purpose, a thrive to deliver exceptional images…I expect a good face-to-face talk about how to deal with things….from both sides, the creative part and the commercial parts….In my opinion a good agent is like an inspiring symbiosis, they fill up my commercial side, and I feed their creative needs, which they somehow need to posess.

The hardest part is that most agents are fairly lazy. They prefer a photographer with one style, and with an already fixed clientele…. They are too much focused on the commercial-easy-money part. It’s easier to market them (but hey I could admit this is viewed from my non-commercial point of view ;))

In any case recently I’m now with a different new agent/manager, who has all these above qualities….I’m looking forward!


Was it a difficult process to leave the art direction/design career behind and focus solely on photography? Why?

VAN GESTEL: Don’t forget, we’re dealing with visual communication, it’s an universal language, and as an art-director you understand much easier the mechanics of convincing visually your target-group, and if you transfer that to photography you have a more conscious tool at your disposal. Photography was and is exactly one of the things that can be exceptionally good…art-direction and design were more bread-earners, I was not really standing out with my work, maybe because I was not passionate about them. So moving back to photography was easy…but it was a scary thought to be totally focused only on photography, I had to start from zero…..but it was (and is) a must to be totally submerged in it, to be able to keep at the head of the pack….If you want to work at this level, you have to give it 200% and only then you are aware of the subtleties of moments in photography.

And absolutely; it was highly beneficial for me to have a art-director/graphic-design background because I know what clients expect from me….how clients view my work, and what they are looking for. It’s beneficial to have been sitting on the other side of the table. It certainly gives me an edge. Photographers easily seem to forget the clients perspective, they are usually photo-centric.


How important is it for you to be part of a photographer’s association such as PANL? Are there a lot of benefits that you gain from it?

VAN GESTEL: It’s quite important actually, especially because the PANL has a high standard in accepting members. In other words, I’m in good company, and most art-directors of the top agencies have been working with PANL-members. Altogether PANL has a broad experience of working on the highest levels of photography.

What do you think about education in photography and its equipment, does it exceed the importance of concept?

VAN GESTEL: Your question indicates that you value concept so much more…good to see that! The answer in this is however dualistic. it’s yes and no…because of digital photography it’s too easy to make pictures where in the past you had to consider the cost of film and development-time. You needed more careful planning then. Some people were able to use that planning-time to develop concepts and others were getting stuck in the planning that there was no room for concept, except for plain’ it safe. Now with digital photography….it has become too easy, that people forget about concept…others however, can respond much more ad-hoc and try out so much more and effortlessly shoot 1000 pictures. In that case photography has then been reduced to merely choosing afterwards… I respect both views….my final view is that education should spend less time in equipment and more on concepts..as the new digital equipments only have a lifecycle of maybe 2-3 years…compared to 10-15 years with analogue photography.

What does a typical lighting setup for you look like when shooting a fashion editorial on-location? Do you use studio lighting or just reflectors and diffusers?

VAN GESTEL: I’m open to anything…studio or reflectors..it depends on the amount of sets, speed (reflectors and diffusors work 5 times faster), location, available light, ambiance demanded by the client….. If I look at the last year I’ve being using reflectors in 70% of the cases, 25% with 1 strobe and reflectors, and the rest either with 2 or 3 location-strobes…I don’t have a typical light set-up…it will vary hugely even per set…just look at my images….the light set up is usually ridiculously simple, but highly effective…the proportions of the light-power is actually more important.


Can you share with us a little bit about how you get your models to give you what a model should? Especially so when doing test shoots, what kind of things do you say or do to encourage your models?

VAN GESTEL: Haha…well…you should be there once ;)…I do all the initial poses before them, if I can’t do it, they don’t need to do it ;)…Obviously the models look better doing it *grin*…but at least they get the idea….a big No-No is “Just do something”…..before the shoot I collect some additional poses from the internet or magazines…but then again just as a base…a mood-board for me includes poses and expressions. But what I do demand however, is total rendition to the emotion…even the toes and ankles should believe in the expression….I strongly believe that even the position of your big-toe has influence on the shoulder.

When shooting for magazines, do the art directors have specific comps built for you to follow or do you get creative freedom to carry our your own vision/concept?

VAN GESTEL: A carte-blanche is great, an honour even, but I prefer challenges…….I believe in inspiring each other…it’s a paradox but the more (open) challenges an art-director gives the more creative I need to be to find solutions. Even if it’s a concept where I approach a magazine, I ask them to fill in the direction they see fit. They inspire me with their views as it’s something beyond me and makes me step out of my comfort-zone towards them, and vice-versa, I hope to inspire them. But be aware, I keep my style in things – it’s more about complementing and fusing the vision of the creative or art-director.


What kind of things do you enjoy doing when not shooting in order to gain new insight on new ideas?

VAN GESTEL: Films, museums, but even books….or just looking at another photographer’s work, even if they’re new…anything that gives me new insights… even from a series like “House” I get inspiration…like an observation of Dr. House about “the 7 stages of Grief.”

Do you notice the competition in fashion photography? What kind of things do you do to stay ahead of the competition?

VAN GESTEL: It’s not really competition, it’s more about breaking into the stronghold of the older group, that are bonded by networking…I’m starting to realize it’s more about networking than talent, if it would be about talent I would see other photographers moving faster forward. The only thing you notice is that there are fewer magazines with fewer pages, with about the same amount of photographers… how do I keep my edge? I know I’m good on light, emotions and communication so I build on them, but keep in touch with movements and shifts in perception….and above all….I try out so many different styles, that I can mix them effortlessly during a shoot…sometimes I intentionally forsake technique just in order to find new ways of expressing.

You get a call for an assignment to shoot a fashion editorial for a high-end magazine… Can you walk through your process? What’s the first thing you do? How do you ensure that on the day of the shoot, your results are what you had in mind but more importantly, the client’s mind?

VAN GESTEL: The most important thing remains communication, communication. After I know what the fashion-director wants, I look around for images that appeal to me, and possibly appeal the fashion-director….not what the end shot will be, but more the single ingredients…poses, expressions, ambiance, …then I communicate with the team, ask them how they see the theme and my mood-board images, their interpretation, asking for their own examples, and what their thoughts are…scouting location, putting the logistics together (hair and make-up sequence). If possibly a test-shoot with a model to try out a new light, and what works practically…..with a new mood-board to the fashion-director, to see if there are any new changes. At that moment the fashion-director/stylist has an idea which advertisers clothing and what sample-clothing will be used, brand names, images from catwalk shows….then based on all that we make a selection of the models, and a week before the shoot we add one model as an option, just in case…we try to involve the creative team as much as possible in selecting the model, as long as time and flexibility permits….but sometimes it’s just the fashion-director and me. Fortunately I have training as a make-up-artist and hairstylist so I can communicate with them in mind…and shortcut the communication. In any case the day before the shoot all the noses are pointing into the same direction as we say it in Dutch ;)…we confirm everything, and run once more to the following order of the hair sets and clothing sets, and make-up-styles. …the day of the shoot the creative team comes 90 minutes beforehand to make the final arrangement, set-up the workspaces and prepare the briefing for the models involved. During make-up (i take about 60-90 minutes for the initial start), they can preview the mood-boards and from there on they will have a framework to work on…depending on the client and how much leeway they give, we can elaborate…I must admit, the first shot takes more time to decide for the proper direction. It’s a natural thing to develop during a shoot, so it’s often difficult to match the last image with the first one, so it’s very crucial to have a good base….after the first shot, and the approval of the client, we steam ahead.

We noticed you provide your images for stock if someone is interested – have you gotten a fair amount of requests for stock?

VAN GESTEL: No it’s something I’ve included since recently…so far I just got some requests…so I can’t say it is substantial.


What’s next for Herman van Gestel? Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

VAN GESTEL: Would like to be working more international….I think it’s everybody’s dream in my field to work one day for Vogue. For me it’s still essential to keep my self moving forward and it’s a great feeling too, to notice how much room there is for expansion of styles.

Furthermore, I would like to start giving more workshops! I noticed how well other photographers respond to my work, combined with fun chatting and talking about photography, and exchanging visions. So recently i noticed how much fun it is to give workshops, ….it’s daunting too, realizing yourself showing techniques and visions to photographic veterans with 30 years of experience….but at the same time it’s nice to see that they can be surprised too…and how wonderful it is to give them new incentives and inspiration, literally opening their eyes more….I genuinely have fun giving that to them….must be my secret teacher-gen ;)….so yeah…hope to give more workshops, as well ….Would be very interesting to do this abroad, in the US, Canada or Japan!…as soon as I have some time to organize that…..but if anybody want to help out on that? 😉

Any parting words?

VAN GESTEL: I feel so lucky to work with all these wonderful talented people, and the collaborations I’m receiving with my projects…..it’s still a solemn gratefulness.


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Mike Ruiz


Chris Large

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