Interview Photographer Yeshen Venema

Here we extend our interview series to share the thoughts and work of Yeshen Venema, who specialises in Designers/Makers/Craft. He is the Co-founder of @WeBlogDesign and writes for @thedesigntrust.

“Find you niche and work your ass off. Be nice to people. Quit Facebook.” – Yeshen Venema


What is product and lifestyle photography?

It’s about making products look their best, either as a cutout or in a ‘lifestyle’ context. The social side is very important because most often I’m dealing with the actual maker or designer of the products. It’s important to get along with them, make them feel comfortable and manage their expectations to get the best results.

Traditional product photography is often a ‘cutout’ (the product isolated on a pure white background). This is the type of shot used for trade brochures, price lists and e-commerce websites. The press generally request these, as they can be easily placed into an editorial layout. Lifestyle photography is very different, here the product is placed in a complementary setting where the background, surface, props and environment is suitably styled. This could be anything from a close-cropped tabletop shot of a greeting card, to a wider angle shot of a room with furniture.

Shooting cutouts can be more technically challenging because the products will viewed full frame, brightly lit and in isolation, so every detail will show up. Lifestyle photography is much more varied (and fun) as there’s so many options for location, surfaces, backgrounds and props.

How do you work with independent designer/makers? What is a typical project?

I worked for a couple of years with an independent home accessories company called Nom Living which lead to meeting quite a few makers and designers who were selling online. I noticed they were keen to use professional photographers, but in many cases could not afford the rates. So I created a special offer, catered to this niche, and as a result have built up a solid client case. I price myself so that a client can afford 3-4 shoots over a year instead of one, which means we create a larger portfolio of images together.

It starts with an informal chat to find out what they’re looking for. I then look not just their current photography, but also their website and other selling platforms to see how they are positioning themselves and get a feel for their brand. Prior to the shoot I send them a webinar I made for The Design Trust called ‘How to work with a professional photographer.’ It’s full of tips on how to prepare, manage and evaluate the shoot.

Every shoot is different, sometimes it’s a location thing where I visit a studio or workshop. Last week I went to a manor house in Kent to shoot a banquet table setup, then the following day I was shooting jewellery at my home studio. At home I have greater control over the lighting, so most of my work is done here. Every product or food photographer should build up a good range of surfaces, backgrounds and props to give them options, this is one of the most rewarding parts of the job actually – creating a unique look for each client.

Almost all of my clients are selling online in some way, either through a selling platform such as Folksy, Etsy, Culture Label or Not on the High Street, or on their own website. Sometimes they only need one or two images out of the shoot for a press request, but often it’s a wide range of 30-40 products shot from a consistent angle with suitable props. I always try and share my knowledge of photography and lighting with my clients, as they’ll usually be taking their own photos are home during the rest of the year.


Who are your favourite people to follow on twitter?

resources: @TheDesignTrust

film and movies: @mubi @bfi

new writing on the web: @Medium @thegentleauthor

tech stuff: @TechCrunch @TheNextWeb

photography news and links: @petapixel

design: @coadg

podcasts: @Radiolab

craft: @folksy @craftyfoxmarket @CraftCentralUK

inspiration: @brainpicker @openculture

cycling: @CycleLoveHQ

What is an average working week for you, or does it change all the time?

As a freelancer you take the work when it comes! So some weeks it’s a shoot every day and processing into the night, then the next week I might only have one shoot but spend the other days catching up on my website, writing blog posts, social media and following up with potential clients. As any photographer will tell you, we love to be busy! There’s always something to do on the admin side, but there’s nothing like the buzz of going out on shoots, meeting new people and working in new locations. There’s no real downtime, I was exceptionally busy in January for example… and I also work with the animator Natasha Tonkin on film projects, we just finished this short film called CycleCities.

CycleCities from Pandahorse on Vimeo.

Looking forward to the first proper holiday in years this August!

What is your current working setup? Do you have a favourite set of equipment?

I shoot tethered to a Macbook Pro and use both Canon (60d) and Nikon (D40x) DLSRs. The Macbook is used both in studio and on location, but for editing I use an 27″ iMac – the best investment ever. I also switched to a Wacom Intuos 5 last year, far less back pain! Tripod is a Benro (amazing value). Lenses are 40mm, 50mm, 100mm Macro and 18-55mm. Out and about I use my iPhone because it’s quicker, less obtrusive and easy to share direct to Flickr/Twitter etc. I actually just entered an iPhone shot into a competition, lets see if they notice!

If you didn’t have a budget what would be your ideal setup?

I believe working to a budget makes you a better artist, having unlimited tools would be a blessing and a curse. That said…

Two Thunderbolt displays and the new MacPro would be awesome. Camera-wise, I don’t shoot sport, nature or fashion so don’t need a top of the range DLSR like the Canon 1Dx. A full frame Canon like the 5Dmk3 is on the list, for both it’s video capabilities and build quality. I would also love a dedicated video camera like the Canon C300. When it comes to lenses, photographers really never stop buying them! A set of Carl Zeiss primes would be nice.

A 400sq ft warehouse space near the beach with huge windows, skylights and a massive prop cupboard is what I’m aiming for in a few years.

What advice would you offer to students wanting to follow a similar career path?

Find you niche and work your ass off. Be nice to people. Quit Facebook.

What do you enjoy away from working?

Running, walking and cycling clears my head. I’ve always love walking in London, discovering new streets after living here for 12 years and dropping by museums/galleries like the Wellcome Collection or the V&A. No TV in the house, but we watch a lot of films and documentaries. If we eat out it’s almost always Vietnamese (Loong Kee on Kingsland Road).

What are your favourite films and what music do you enjoy?

I’m an IMDB addict and watch a movie or documentary almost every day. A few all time favourites they would include Goodfellas, Alien, Office Space, Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, Old Boy, WALL-E, O Brother Where Art Thou, Groundhog Day, The Goonies, The Prince’s Bride, Spinal Tap, Dr. Strangelove, Days of Heaven, Into the Wild, The Last Waltz, Apocalypse Now…

I sometimes have a weakness for a commercial action flick like Fast and Furious! Aside from films, nothing beats Breaking Bad and the original House of Cards (BBC) is superb.

Music-wise, I used to DJ a lot so have a lot of vinyl, sadly not played much these days. One day I’ll build a ‘record room’ with all analogue equipment! The bulk of it is hiphop, soul, funk and reggae. My father has a musical instrument shop in Amsterdam so my intro to vinyl was through his collection. It covers folk, blues, rock’n’roll, country, spoken word, jazz and ‘world’ music from every conceivable corner of the earth. More recently I find myself listening to online radio Fip from Paris which is fantastic and very diverse and BBC6 Music (The Huey Show, Giles P and Don Letts being the favs).


Follow Yeshen Venema on his Website | @yeshen