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Q&A With Bram Berkien: An Active Lifestyle Photographer

Bram Berkien is an active lifestyle photographer based in the Netherlands.  iLHP wanted to gain insight as to what being an active lifestyle photographer entailed.  Bram’s photographs capture the dedication and expressions of the athletes he shoots in his images. We are proud to have had the chance to share our exclusive interview with Bram and hope you appreciate the hard work and skill that is involved when shooting under these circumstances.

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iLHP:  Hi Bram, thank you for your time to answer some questions for us. How long have you been into photography?

Bram:  About five years ago I got my first DSLR. I still remember promising to myself I wouldn’t put more money into it, not get another lens. That didn’t quite work out. Then a year later I started doing small assignments, which quickly grew into more serious projects. About a year and a half ago I finished my master’s degree of science and since then I’ve focused on photography. I felt like that was something I needed to do in order to live my life to the fullest, passing on a career as an engineer. Since I’ve decided to do this for a living I’ve been refining my niche and style.

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iLHP:  Did you know early on the genre you wished to shoot?

Bram:  Absolutely not. I was on the streets shooting flowers and dustbins for quite a while, not having a clue what I was doing. I think as a photographer you need to pay your dues and hone your craft. Practice endlessly with the technical and compositional aspects of photography until you don’t really have to think about those any more. Then pour some more hours into post-processing. Then learn flash photography. Just at least try everything. Then eventually you’ll naturally find yourself gravitating to applying all those skills you’ve acquired to a genre that resonates with you. For a while I actually thought I was going to be a documentary or street photographer. I still like bringing a small camera to the street and just shooting random stuff but in the end I preferred shooting exciting sports and connecting with people through shooting their portraits.

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iLHP:  How did you start photography active lifestyle & performance climbing images?

Bram:  Actually, I started climbing kind of accidentally, tagging along with a housemate who never returned to the climbing gym afterwards. After some months I asked the gym’s owner if he happened to need a photographer. From there the whole climbing, active lifestyle thing developed. It does definitely help that climbing is a really friendly and open sport. It’s so easy to walk up to some of the best climbers in the world. I couldn’t imagine having the same access in football (soccer) for instance.

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iLHP:  Do you participate in any of these sports you photograph?

Bram:  Climbing has been a major theme in my life for a couple of years now. I started it pretty late in my life (must’ve been 25) so I’ll most certainly never make the headlines of climbing media but the nature of the sport and the vibe of the climbing scene have definitely drawn me in. Climbing is like solving a puzzle with your body, this is especially true for bouldering (climbing very short and technical, powerful routes). It’s also a complete body workout, climbers have the best bodies.

iLHP:  Do you participate in any other sports you like to photograph? 

Bram:  In addition I also do wintersports and then some cycling and trekking. Two years ago I cycled from my hometown of Eindhoven, The Netherlands to Santiago de Compostela, which is a destination for pilgrims near the Spanish west-coast. The journey took about a month and had me cycling about 2500 kilometers. I’m not a religious person myself but it was an awesome adventure. Seeing the landscape change drastically, meeting new people and just cycling along on my own through these epic vistas is something I’ll ever forget. I did bring along an analog Nikon FE and a tiny 50mm lens and shot this series:

 http://www.bramberkien.nl/en/personal-projects/santiago/

iLHP:  Was it a big learning curve to be able to adept to the various conditions you shoot in and what are some of the challenges you face in this type of sports photography? 

Bram:  Basically in terms of active lifestyle photography there’s probably three different kind of conditions I shoot in. First there’s the indoor comps, where lighting can be a huge challenge. It’s either far too dark, the light is very directional or, on the other end of the spectrum, very boring. Using flash during comps is not really an acceptable thing to do. I usually prefer to get to the sides of the wall and love shooting into the spots that are aimed at the climber. Backlighting makes for such an epic scenery and allows you to simplify things by darkening out some less important areas and also puts a glowing rim around the subject. Some climbing photographers like shooting from on top of the wall, which is something I rarely do. I find it’s extremely hard to get a good angle and all shots taken from up there just look like each other. Second, in outdoor climbing photography, the challenges are totally different. I don’t shoot sport climbing a whole lot (where the climber is leading with a rope below him, being belayed by a second person). The challenges for this type of photography are evident: the photographer is often somewhere on the wall himself, belaying himself. Hauling equipment and finding the right angel is an extreme challenge then.

iLHP:  Is there someone who inspires you?

Bram:  National Geographic photographer Jimmy Chin is a great inspiration for readers wishing to know more. My own challenge in outdoor climbing photography is mostly finding an interesting angle and interesting light. My current flash kit doesn’t allow for overpowering the natural light easily, and hauling high-power strobes into some forest would be quite a challenge. Therefore in outdoor photography I opt for using natural light normally. Finding a good angle to shoot the action is a wonderful game, which has me climbing on adjacent boulders and doing quite some legwork. I also really love shooting the climbing lifestyle though, in that case the main challenge is just connecting with the people you’re shooting and having them open up to me. Which is mostly social skills, interestingly.

Finally, shooting wintersports, the challenges are obvious. You’re again doing a whole lot of legwork and hauling equipment. Keeping your gear safe and clean can be a hassle, being confident on skis or a snowboard is a necessity. It also requires quite a deal of patience from the people you’re shooting, since you’ll often want to go down a slope before them, set up and then shoot them while they’re skiing past you. Coordinating this movement can be quite some work.

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iLHP:  What camera do you shoot with?

Bram:  Several. My main workhorse has been a Nikon D700 for a couple of years now. I dropped it on the studio floor while lending it to my girlfriend, who is also a photographer (Maud Schoonen, she shoots fashion: http://maudschoonen.tumblr.com). The camera was okay but the battery door was dislodged. Pretty amazing what these devices can go through. By that point though it already had duct-tape all over it, so I sent it in for repair. I got a Nikon D800 as a replacement since I had some important commercial shoots coming up. The D700 came back from repair just fine and I use it often still. I find the D800 is an amazing camera but is has too many megapixels, which may sound weird. For portraits it’s amazing and I use it all the time, but for action photography or shooting on location I still love the D700. In addition it doesn’t fill up my memory cards and hard disk as fast as the D700 does :) It’s amazing how much value we attach to these cameras. If a 12 MP D700 camera was sufficient for all of my work just 5 months ago, and could be used to print huge banners, then why wouldn’t it be any more at this time? Cameras are amazing tools, but nothing more than that: tools. I’d rather have an entry level DSLR and great vision and ability to execute awesome projects than a Nikon D4 and none of the former.

iLHP:  What do you typically do post processing?

Bram:  Mostly it’s limited to what can be done in Lightroom, which is a whole lot. People consistently underestimate the program. If you’re not doing any extensive beauty retouching or compositing, Lightroom is all you need, if you ask me. Mostly I just do the standard exposure, contrast, clarity and saturation adjustments. Also I tweak the tone curves and apply some split toning, but I don’t think you should rely too much on post-processing to make photos stand out. Can’t polish a turd and such. What’s also important is to remember why exactly you’re retouching a photo.

Canadian photographer and writer David DuChemin has been a great inspiration for me here. Basically his philosophy comes down to: edit the photo so that it complies to what you felt and thought when you were taking it. He advocates a really conscious approach. Don’t just edit it and see what looks good (though playing around can be a blast as well), but think about what you want it to say and what is important. What is the subject, how can you make this more clear and what is the feeling you want the image to convey. This may inform the toning for instance.

iLHP:  Is it easy to photograph this type of lifestyle where you live in the Netherlands?

Bram:  Excellent question! I’ve thought about this a lot, since the main problem is: we don’t have any mountains here! :) Then again, we have an amazing amount of indoor gyms and more importantly: some major climbing and wintersports areas are pretty close. Fontainebleau, near Paris, is a legendary bouldering area, while Spain, Germany, Italy and Switzerland have excellent climbing and wintersports options. Also, some major climbing comps are organised in Europe each year. My city (Eindhoven) also has an excellent airport which connects to many European cities. The main challenge for me at this point is getting in touch with major brands, but through social media I’ve been able to accomplish quite a lot. Additionally, I’ve been playing around with the idea of getting in touch with American brands that sponsor athletes located in Europe and need photos taken of them. It could be interesting for these brands to have a reliable Europe-based photographer.

iLHP:  If you could shoot one event what it be?

Bram:  This isn’t an actual (organised) event, but I’d really like to be present when a climber finishes a ground-breaking route. It’s kind of like being present for a running athlete setting a new world record. Having the first photos from such an event is a major thing. This mostly comes down to luck and patience, having a good relationship with these climbers and knowing when they’ll attempt such a feat.

iLHP:  If you could take a portrait of any athlete who would it be and why?

Bram:  For sure I’d want to shoot a top American climber. I’ve photographer some of them while they were in Europe for comps, but probably some of the most well-known are still missing from my collection: the likes of Chris Sharma, Alex Honnold, Jimmy Webb and Daniel Woods. I’m convinced I’ll shoot them eventually though.

iLHP:  If you could travel anywhere in the world to shoot where would it be and what would you want to shoot?

Probably I’d want to shoot climbing in Rocklands in South-Africa. The scenery there looks just amazing and would make for a totally different landscape than the forests in Europe. I’ve seen some incredibly pretty climbing photos from there and the best athletes in the world have been paying regular visits to the area.

iLHP:  When are you completely satisfied with your work?

Bram:  Such an excellent question. For starters, I think technical stuff like proper exposure and focus matter but they’re not the be-all, end-all. They’re not what makes a photo memorable. It’s expression and light that draw my attention. Therefore I think the perfect photo would have epic lighting and some scenery or expression that people haven’t seen before or that makes them look twice.

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iLHP:  Do you consider yourself a professional photographer?  

Bram:  These days I think it’s incredibly important to realise that as a photographer you’re not just an artist, but also an entrepreneur. If you really love taking photos and don’t want to do any business stuff, just retain your day job and take great photos in your spare time. I don’t think a professional photographer necessarily takes better photos than an amateur photographer, he’s just supposed to be extremely reliable and perhaps bring some special creativity to the table if he’s talented. As a professional photographer you absolutely have to learn finances, marketing and communicating and planning in a professional manner. I actually happen to kind of like those things, probably my masters in industrial engineering helps me a hell of a lot there as well. It’s quite understandable a lot of photographers aren’t too stoked on learning these things but if you want to reach any level of success you’re responsible for these aspects of running a business.

iLHP:  Thank you for taking the time to do an interview with iLHP.  We appreciate it.

To check out more of Bram’s gallery please visit his website www.bramberkien.com and Facebook page!

Until next time,

Alyssa

Don’t forget to check out my Instagram, Facebook and Flickr and gallery!