Michou van Donk – Kwanten
Occupation: Art Director & Photographer
Location: Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands
Together with her husband Nordy, Michou van Donk – Kwanten owns a photo studio “Salt ‘n Pepper”, located in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands, and creates atmospheric images for companies and individuals. Michou calls herself “a photographer of special moments”: couples ask her to photograph their weddings and then come back for maternity shoots, newborns photo sessions, and keep in touch for years, for family portraits. Indeed, if you are anticipating a life-changing moment, “Salt ‘n Pepper” will take good care of you! We talked to Michou about photography on the whole and wedding photography in particular. She told us how important it is to create a special bond with the models, why a Rockabilly wedding can be a great success and what Forrest Gump has to do with wedding photography.
– Hi Michou, thanks for taking time to talk! Let’s begin in the beginning. When did you decide to become a photographer?
I made the decision to make photography my main job about 3 years ago. I started my own company as an art director after I finished Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam in 2010. I studied Advertising and combined that with Photography. Later, I chose to focus more on photography, because this turned out to be the thing that I love to do most.
Photography is in my blood, I can’t remember myself not making photos!
Basically, I was preparing to become an art director, learning how to photograph and make concepts for commercial ends. This education taught me how to tell a story using images, how to be original, create my own unique style and stand out. Of course, it was all related to commercial photography, advertising and design but this knowledge helped me a lot in my current job.
– So you don’t do commercial photography anymore?
A little bit. I have an advertising agency, my clients are mostly independent entrepreneurs and individuals. I do designing, company branding, but I always combine it with photography.
– What do you prefer to do?
Non-commercial photography. Most of my regular clients are families with whom I create a certain bond, I know these people, they trust me. I can express myself as an artist and be as creative as I want to. With companies that hire me, it works differently: they have certain requirements, put certain limits.
– How would you describe your style?
Let me see. My pictures are raw, with a vintage, filmic touch; they look a bit like film posters. I like contrasts: a white dress in a dark stairway; clean bright clothes against old dirty background… And I love industrial buildings! Along with that, I find it very important to connect with my clients, to create trust and make them reveal themselves. That’s how I get passionate, intimate and very personal images.
– How do you manage to create this bond with people you shoot?
Well, they are humans, they respond to human behavior. We take some time to get to know each other: when they come to my studio, we have a coffee and talk. I try to be as open as possible, show them my work, talk a bit about myself. I open up, and it helps my clients to open up as well. We talk about what they do, what they like, everyone has an interesting story to share. You need to be sincerely interested in people, otherwise it’s not going to work. When we are off to the photo shoot, I ask them not to pose but to show me their story, in front of the camera: that’s how their postures and faces become more natural.
You need to be sincerely interested in people, otherwise it’s not going to work.
– What is the hardest part in being a photographer?
When taking photos, I always know how they are going to look like in the end; but people, unless they are photographers themselves, can’t see it. And this feeling of unknown sometimes makes them doubt if everything is going to work out. So here I need to jump in and convince them that they will like the result, and it’s not that easy! For instance, I find a beautiful building: very atmospheric, very artistic. I invite the couple to check out the location, super excited about my discovery. So, very enthusiastically, I ask them if they like it. And they are standing in front of this building, very confused: “What exactly are you going to do with this wall?” But in the end, when I show them the pictures, they are always very happy with the result.
– And then they come back to you for more photo shoots?
Yes that actually happens very often, and that’s the beauty of being a photographer of special moments: I photograph a couple’s wedding, then do a maternity shoot, a newborn photo session, or a family portrait. I follow their lives, we grow together.
– How many weddings per year do you shoot?
From 10 to 15.
– Is there a wedding that you liked most?
Every wedding is unique but some of them are really original and memorable. I like it when couples come up with something that really characterises themselves, that shows their personalities. Once, a bride and a groom decided to exchange sunglasses instead of the wedding rings because it was “their thing”: they were wearing sunglasses everywhere. These ones were very expensive, and they engraved their names on them. The idea of exchanging something else but the rings is actually very cool! This year I photographed another interesting wedding. The couple decided to make everything in Rockabilly style: dresses, music decorations, even the cake! She had a black dress and a button on her ring, and he had a ring with a skull. It was a very memorable wedding!
Each couple is individual, everyone has a bunch of stories to tell. And when they share them with me, we usually come up with great ideas for the photo shoot. Even small details can help! There was this couple once who adored “Forrest Gump”, the movie. They even used its soundtrack as music theme for the wedding. So I found this bench and thought that it would be perfect for the shoot! Remember this scene with the bench? I asked the groom to sit on it, he immediately copied Forrest Gump’s posture and we ended up with an atmospheric, yet very personal image.
– Can you describe a regular day of a wedding photographer?
Oh, that’s a really long one! First, I always shoot the groom and the bride preparing for the Big Day, starting with the groom, because it usually takes less time. When I come to his place, he is usually having a breakfast, quite relaxed, so the shoot takes us just 5 minutes. Then I go to the bride’s place: that’s where the nerves are strained. It usually takes her the whole morning to get ready, and there is a lot of stuff happening in this house, a lot of people are around. But I always take the same amount of the bride’s pictures as the groom’s. I always shoot accessories: shoes, tie, earrings, small details. Make up, hair. Sometimes great shots happen unexpectedly: a groom brushes his teeth, and I’m right there to catch it in the mirror. But the moment I like most, is when the groom arrives to the bride’s door. She becomes crazily nervous, and then looks at me one last time before opening the door. This moment, and the look on the groom’s face when he sees the bride, are priceless.
The look on the bride’s face before she opens the door, the eyes of the groom when he sees her… These moments are priceless.
Then we go to the location that we have picked before the wedding and usually have great fun there! The guys are relaxed, we are making jokes, and come up with some nice ideas for interesting photos. For instance, there was this couple with a “Mini” car, which the groom had rebuilt himself, it was almost like a child to him. And this car became quite an important part of the photo shoot, we were goofing around and had a lot of fun. As a result, the images turned out to be very natural and emotional.
– Do you usually work alone?
Sometimes I work together with my husband, but that’s always the choice of the couple. I find it easier to work together, because in this case we can split up: Nordy goes to the groom’s place, I go to the bride’s. We can shoot from different perspectives. For instance, in church Nordy can go upstairs to catch the whole picture, while I stay with the couple for more intimate images. Nordy focuses on guests, I focus on the couple. It’s easier to work together, but I can also do everything myself, I don’t mind it!
-All right, what’s next?
Then we follow the couple to the ceremony, this is always a bit more serious. Apart from the pictures of the couple, I also like to capture the look on the parents’ faces when they see the couple exchanging rings. When the official part is over, the air is clear, the couple isn’t stressed anymore, the guests are having a great time. We make a few shots of the people dancing but don’t stay there for too long: you can usually get an impression of the party during the first hour. We go home, tired but satisfied. It is really a great feeling to be a part of this magical day, to make someone happy just by doing our job. So we continue working and already in two days the first impression of the day is ready.
– What is the first impression?
It is an overview of the best photos we have taken during the day. This is not the final result, just a sneak peak into how the wedding photos are going to look like.
– What happens after the wedding?
The couple is off to their honeymoon and we make sure that by the time they are back, the pictures are ready. It usually takes us 2-3 weeks to finalize the photos, then we send them a DVD with the pictures, and after a few weeks they receive a photo book.
– You make photo books as well?
Yes, about 80% of all the couples order a photo book. When they come to our studio for the first time, I always show them photo books to give a glimpse into our work. They can choose a cover for the album; I always design the inside of the book and send them a digital version for confirmation before printing it out.
A couple of years ago people preferred to store photos digitally, but now about 80% of all the couples order a photo book.
– So you think that printed photos still have a certain value?
For sure, and I hope they will never disappear! Maybe a few years ago there were not many people ordering books, they preferred to store the photos digitally. But now more and more people actually want to hold the memories in their hands. I print photos out for myself as well, in photo books and on canvas, using them as decorations in my home and studio.
– Which equipment do you use most when photographing?
Depends on the moment. I like to take pictures from the distance: when people don’t know that they are being photographed, they act more naturally, and I can catch some spontaneous moments. In this case I need a big zoom lens. What else? Flash, although I hate flash. But well, sometimes we can’t do without it. I never use the flash directly, though, I prefer applying a reflection screen or a soft box, so that the light is not that harsh. Soft box, combined with external flash, allows to create an artificial sunlight on the location when the weather is not that good. Reflection screen, on the other hand, helps to make nice images in the sun. That’s the gear I use most.
– What is the most important thing when taking photos?
I think that the most important thing is the confidence of the models. Everything can be perfect: the light, the camera, the location… but when a model doesn’t feel confident, we end up with awkward postures and fake smiles. I think that it’s very important for people to stay natural, so that they recognise themselves on the photos afterwards. I also think that it is crucial that people like what I do, like my style. Locations I choose, the light I use, the way I edit photos – that’s all me, that’s how the pictures turn out to be in the end. And clients need to like it initially, that’s why I always introduce them to my previous works.
– What inspires you in photography?
Fine Art photography. It’s a combination of art, photography and design.
– Can you give a tip for amateur photographers, those who haven’t found their path yet?
Come up with your own style. There are so many photographers around, it’s really hard to stand out; you need to know what exactly makes you different from all of them. It’s okay to learn from the others, everything has been invented before, the chance that you will come up with something absolutely new and groundbreaking is quite slim. But you can make your own interpretation of something you like, adjust the photos to your own style.
– What is your life philosophy? Maybe you can give an advice for our readers?
I think that one of the most important things in the world is to do what you love and to love what you do. I work 7 days a week, almost without breaks, and you know what keeps me going? The fact that I don’t consider it as work. I meet hundreds of amazing people, I hear plenty of interesting stories, every day is different, and I never get tired of what I’m doing. I think that if you don’t enjoy your job, you should stop doing it and look for something that actually inspires you on professional, as well as on personal level.
It is very important to do what you love and to love what you do. In this case, you will never get tired.