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Sven Doornkaat :: Photographer & Light Master

By October 26, 2013Interviews, Photography

Recently, photographer and Bonneville racer, Gunther Maier introduced me to the work of Sven Doornkaat. His mastery of night photography came from many years of trial and error.

Sven Doornkaat :: Photographer & Light Master
Sven Doornkaat :: Photographer & Light Master

“I was born in Germany, raised in Austria and came to the US more than ten years ago. It took me quite some time to find my niche in photography. I started as a photo reporter for a local newspaper, had a still life studio for a couple of years, worked as a food photographer for a PR firm, was hired by a big news photo agency and traveled all over Europe, I even worked for an adult magazine for a while.”
– sven doornkaat


View more photos, and read the entire interview with Sven Doornkaat after the jump below…



Jeff Brock's Bombshell Betty
Salton Sea, California. Broken-down

When did it become apparent that photography was your calling?
I remember exactly the day I felt in love with photography. I was 17 years old and had landed an internship at a weekly newspaper in Vienna, Austria. I had no idea about photography whatsoever before a seasoned photo editor took me under his wing and showed me how to develop films and make prints. The moment the piece of Ilford paper was entered into the developer tray, I was blown away. That moment I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life! Two years later I moved to Hamburg, Germany, where I studied photography.

Photo by Bjoern Kommerell. © 2010 All Rights Reserved.

Photo by Bjoern Kommerell. © 2010 All Rights Reserved.

When sizing up a subject or shot, what’s the first thing you focus on?
It’s all about the perfect composition, framing of the shot. It sometimes takes me up to 20 minutes to find the perfect angle and decide on a lens.

You’re known for your night shots with multiple exposures and different light sources. How does this process work and what are its challenges? What type of camera do you use for this type of night shots?
I use a Canon 5D Mark III and a 5D Mark II. After scouting a scene I have to make sure that the scene is completely dark by night. Street lamps or driving by cars can make it challenging. Depending on the scene I want to capture I often use full moon nights to get a good basic exposure. Then I start applying light with a handheld light source. The direction of the light is almost as important as the light source and the modifier. It took me years of practicing and tons of errors before I was able to master this technique.
Today I use mainly three different light sources: One is a Brinkmann Q Beam, a small Surefire flashlight and a Protomachines. I also use all kind of modifiers – from softboxes to umbrellas, also flags, reflectors and snoots. One of the secrets is to apply pools of lights instead of blasting the entire scene with light. Depending on the subject I do up to 60 or sometimes more single exposures. Later on I convert the RAW files and start stacking them up in Photoshop.

Sven Doornkaat :: Photographer & Light Master

How do you go about capturing that perfect slice of time?
I try to start before sunset and have to wait until it’s completely dark – roughly an hour after sunset I start shooting. If I decide to use the moon light I have to wait until 11 or even later until the moon is high enough to illuminate the scene. It can be very time-consuming but it’s often worth the wait.

How have you evolved as a photographer from your first days at this craft?
When I look at my earlier work today I shake my head in disbelief. They are technically okay, in focus, correct exposed and nicely framed but they lack of a signature, a personal style.

Best piece of advice you ever received about photography?
One of my first mentors once said: If you are able to shoot a decent photo during a pitch black night you understand exposure.

Sven Doornkaat :: Photographer & Light Master

“These days I am doing a lot of at-home-shoots with celebrities and assignments for editorial clients. Whenever I find time I go out and do light paintings.”

From your experience, have your best shots come from perfect planning or accidents?
Planning is actually a big part of a successful shoot. I scout the location, check the weather and plan on how to illuminate a scene and what equipment to bring.

If you could shoot any event in the world – what would that be?
There are no events on my bucket list really, but I have a very short list of people I would never presume I have the opportunity to photograph. On top of the list are Jeff Bridges and the retired actor Gene Hackman, who lives in Santa Fe. And of course there a many places where I would like to do light paintings. Detroit comes to mind but also a couple of places in Texas.

Photographer and or artist that has inspired you the most?
Gregory Heisler, Art Streiber, Kurt Iswarienko, Frank Ockenfels to name just a few. These photographers are true masters when it comes to lighting.

Sven Doornkaat :: Photographer & Light Master

You have 30 seconds to leave for an all-day outdoor shoot, and can only bring one camera what would that be?
Although I like to use my iPhone here and there I would still take my 5D Mark III and a 50mm lens.

Sven Doornkaat :: Photographer & Light Master

Best thing about being a photographer?
That you never stop learning. Even after more than 25 years in the business I still learn new things all the time.

What has photography taught you?
The toughest part is maybe to find a partner that understands how crazy life with a photographer can be. I am blessed with a wife who is very, very understanding…

Favorite mantra or saying while you’re working?
When you photograph you have to be prepared to fail, perhaps fail many times.

Sven Doornkaat :: Photographer & Light Master

What’s next for you?
As an editorial photographer you have to be ready all the time. Sometimes a last-minute shoot comes up and I have to leave for the airport within an hour. Other than that I am planning a light painting workshop at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops for 2014.

+ Source: Sven Doornkaat