Once in a while you stumble across a photographer whose work takes things to the next level… International award-winning black-and-white fine-art photographer, Joel Tjintjelaar, is one of those artists of photography. Asking him a few questions and learning more about the person behind the lens was a tremendous privilege and an eye-opening experience.

“I don’t take photographs, I create them.” Joel Tjintjelaar

Black and white fine art photograph of architecture

Please share with our readers how life was as a young boy growing up in the Netherlands.

Although I grew up in the Netherlands I wasn’t actually born there, I was born in Jakarta (the capital of Indonesia) to Dutch-Indonesian parents. I’m mentioning this because it might be the very reason I’ve never truly felt at home in the Netherlands. I don’t want to make this a melodrama or an analysis of the Dutch society in the early 70s and 80s… and how that influenced me as a young boy, but I can’t say I had a happy childhood. Since I’ve always been reserved, quiet and observing, my life took place mainly in my mind, almost as if living a fantasy.

Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar

Besides photography, what brings great joy to your soul?

There are many things that bring me joy, mostly, the simple things in life. I know it sounds boring and perhaps a bit cliché, but it is true.

I like a good cup of strong coffee, reading a book, listening to music or making music myself. I also like art, a good movie and I love being among people who make me think and feel differently. People who empower me, not suck the life out of me. That’s why I also like to empower other people. You see?

Furthermore, I love travelling (as evident in my work). The excitement of planning a trip, getting on the aeroplane, and knowing that you’re going to be somewhere else in a matter of hours. I like places where people talk, dress, eat and are… different. Unfamiliar landscapes, architecture and weather all add to the joys of travelling. Even subtle differences in social values and interaction intrigue me.

Funny fact: I love being in airports! I even enjoy the waiting and watching all of the globetrotters. Airports make me feel alive – I could probably spend days there if I had the time.

Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar

What or who played a big role in the person you’ve become, both personally and in your career.

I enjoy your questions: They are completely different and they challenge me to either tell the truth or lie? Up until now I’ve only told the truth and I plan to do so throughout.

My strong mindset played a big role in who I have become and, of coarse, my parents also played a big role since they helped shape me in my formative years. They insisted I get a good education and made it clear how important education and knowledge was. For that I owe them a lot!

Unfortunately my father died when I was young, leaving behind not only us, the children, but more importantly my mother. She never quite got over the grief of losing my father. So basically, my father wasn’t there when I needed him, and neither was my mother. In her mind she was with my father and not with us anymore, which had a big impact on me.

With no role model and no one to turn to from a young age, I needed to find different role-models. That, I found in movies, books and in the world of music, among others. In retrospect, I found them all in the world of art.

So, to answer your question, I can’t name just one person who played a big role in whom I’ve become and if I need to pick one, it will have to be myself.

Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar

You studied Criminal Law and worked in IT before becoming a photographer. Please tell us the story of how you transitioned.

As indicated in the previous question, I grew up in an environment where I was encouraged to learn. I decided to study Criminal Law because I couldn’t study architecture, which was my first love. Back then in the Netherlands, if you wanted to study architecture, you needed to be strong in the exact sciences, especially mathematics and physics and I wasn’t. I had to find an alternative and decided on law since it was something that could give me a solid foundation in life and a topic I found to be interesting. I first studied Dutch Law and then majored in Criminal Law.

After my studies in law, I entered into a society that was at the cusp of the institutionalising of Information Technology. Computer technology was starting to become the “next big thing” it actually is today. IT professionals were in high demand and I could make a lot of money, so I ventured into that. Purely for the money. I worked in IT for 20 years, but I was never that happy with my job and needed to do something fulfilling, like photography, my passion.

My work was first published in American Photo magazine around 7 years ago, very unexpectedly, when photography was still just my hobby. Thereafter, I won my first major award, also, very unexpectedly! At that point, I started getting published more often and won more awards and around 6 years ago, I got my first professional assignment. Things started changing very quickly and quite dramatically thereafter. So much so, that I was working 50 hours per week for my day-job and another 50 for photography.

Subsequently, I had to give up one or the other and since photography actually brought in more money than my career in IT and made me happy – I quit my day job.

Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar
Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar

What is it about black-and-white photography that you find so attractive?

I can give the short answer and say the things that other photographers also say: It’s more emotive, more atmospheric, it draws you in more, etc… But I hate repeating others and myself.

So here’s what I have to say:
If you want to create fine-art, which I aim to do, you need not only create specific aesthetics to draw the viewer in, but you also need to communicate something meaningful that will move the viewer. You need to evoke an experience that the observer didn’t experience before and that said experience should preferably an emotion.
You might wonder how you can do that if the object in your frame can only be taken in a literal way? Its just an object, right? The answer is that you need to symbolise and spiritualise the object in a fine-art photograph, essentially taking away its literal meaning.

My premise is that the more you move away from reality, the less chance the object in your photograph and your photograph as a whole, will be taken in a literal way. This might be good for news photography, but not in fine-art photography. Black and white is one step away from reality, since reality is not black and white but colourful. Long exposure photography is a second step away from reality. I’m not saying that by creating black-and-white and long exposure photographs you can create fine-art, but those elements move away from reality and are therefore possibly a step closer to fine-art photography.

Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar
Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar

Why did you choose to specialize in architecture?

I have always been drawn to architecture and wanted to become an architect.  Architecture is the ultimate visible expression of the state of technology, art, culture, social-economics and the history of a civilization. Everyone can see it. It’s not hidden in books, on the Internet, in museums or in private gatherings of groups of people. They’re out there, prominent in any city skyline or a small town, literally for everyone to see. Great architecture is symbolic, it symbolises everything we are and aim to be as a society as well as how we want to be seen.  Due to their symbolic nature, architecture is the ideal subject matter for the type of photographs I aim to create: fine-art photographs.

Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar
Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar

What would you say are the must-have items for anyone interested in producing high-quality architectural images? And what would you say are the bare necessities for those who are budget conscious.

I think that gear all depends on your budget, as you’ve already indicated.
If money is less of an issue, then I would definitely go for a digital medium format camera with tilt and shift movements like the Cambo WRS-1600 with a PhaseOne back and a good wide-angle lens, which is the ideal camera for someone like me. Of course you would need a good solid tripod from RRS or Gitzo and ball head, or rather a geared head like the Arca-Swiss Cube to support this all. This is basically all you need. You can add some filters for those long exposure effects, but it’s not a necessity.

On the other hand, if you’re an enthusiastic architectural photographer but can’t afford the digital medium format cameras, then I’d suggest a good DSLR in combination with a 24mm Tilt-Shift lens. In my experience, a 17mm T/S lens would be even better but my experience is that a 24mm T/S lens is most commonly used for architectural photography. I recommend good solid tripod like a Gitzo or Sirui (I have both) and a ball head like the FLM CB-58 FTR tilt-lock system as bare necessities to support the camera.

If you are on a very strict budget you need not worry as there are more affordable, yet competent DSLRs on the market you can use in combination with a wide-angle lens like the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8. You may have to correct the perspective in post-production though, so try to leave enough redundant space in your photo to make this perspective correction possible. Having a good tripod and ball-head are still important! I will suggest any one of the Manfrotto tripods.

Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar
Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar

Please take beginners through the basic recommended process of retouching photographs of architecture.

It’s not that easy to describe the recommended process in just a few lines because the processing can become quite elaborate.

Here’s the rough outline:
My black-and-white post-processing method starts with the premise that essentially, every photograph only consists of shapes and light. Color is just a specific form of light, objects are just shapes and contrast is the difference between the darkest and the lightest part. So keeping in mind that every photograph is basically just shapes and light, you know that if you can control the shapes and light, you can fully control every photograph.

If you are wondering how you can control shapes and light in a photo, the answer is by isolating them. Next question: how do I isolate them? Shapes can be isolated by hard selections and light can be isolated by luminosity masks. I use of gradients and curves to join these elements together in a subtle manner. (Tonns of gradients and curves to be more specific.) I rarely use the brush, dodge or burn tool, since they’re not subtle or effective enough. I only use them to create selections. In a nutshell, that’s the technical essence of my black-and-white workflow.

The aesthetic essence of my workflow is that black-and-white photography is not about global contrast. Good black-and-white photography is only about selective contrast. That, and the very limited use of the darkest zones (zone 0) and the lightest zones (zone 10) in favour of emphasising the adjacent zones (zone 1 and 2 for the darkest tones or zone 8 and 9 for the lightest tones), and the aesthetic importance of mid-grey tones.

If you feel like you would like to learn more, feel free to get a copy of my book, From Basics to Fine Art, written together with Julia Anna Gospodarou, or if you prefer, watch my video tutorials on B&W processing. The videos have a less theoretical and more practical slant that focus on techniques.

Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar

What is your favourite spot/city/country in the world for photographing architecture?

That is easy! I love going to New York: with so many interesting architectural creations I never get bored of that city. I love art-deco architecture and there’s plenty of that in New York. On top of that, the energy of the city inspires me to convert it into my photographs. I aim to infuse energy and life into the buildings I photograph.

Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar

Please share with our readers the top 5 tips to remember when heading out of the front door for a photography-filled day.

  1. There’s no ideal time of the day for great photographs. The ideal time is not the early morning, not the late afternoon, but is the time that you forget about all the photographs you’ve ever seen and see with your own eyes. (Wow!)
  2. When shooting architecture, try to keep the horizontals and verticals straight, unless you’re looking up. Although it may seem spectacular, it rarely results in good architectural photographs.
  3. Get as close as possible. Fill the frame with the object – is shows that it’s about its architecture and not about “negative space”. I don’t believe (anymore) in negative space in architecture; only in space that is occupied by architecture. That’s the essence of architecture – it FILLS space. Knowing that, show it (and nothing else) off.
  4. Forget about the rules of thirds or golden ratio in architecture. Those rules are designed to arrange spaces around objects, but they don’t say much about the architectural object itself. The only rule is to find a good and dynamic perspective… and usually one that is up close, really close. Shoot from an angle where you have a view on more than one vanishing point, taking note that a two-point perspective is usually more interesting in architecture than a single-point perspective.
  5. If you want to create fine-art with architecture, then it’s not about the spectacular B&W effects in post-production or the surreal effects of long exposure photography. It’s about the feeling and the experience you communicate to the viewer. To quote painter Mark Rothko: ‘There’s no such thing as art about nothing’.
Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar
Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar
Black and White, fine art architecture photograph by Joel Tjintjelaar