PROFILE

Pie Aerts

A silhouette image of a man carrying an elephant tusk over his shoulder. Behind him is a locker full of preserved animal parts.

The silhouetted figure in this image is Canon Ambassador Pie Aerts' friend Albert Odar, a former poacher who became a ranger at Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. Tragically, Albert passed away in April 2020, making the picture even more poignant. "Albert's transition from poacher to ranger is a story of hope, courage and fear. It's about being responsible for the course of your own life and the planet," says Pie. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.6 and ISO1000. © Pie Aerts

Canon Ambassador Pie Aerts is fascinated by the relationship between humans, animals and their natural environments. Whether documenting the lives of Buddhist monks in Nepal or photographing elephants in Kenya, the gifted storyteller has earned praise for both his portraiture and wildlife imagery. "I see my camera as a magnifying glass, drawing attention to smaller narratives," he says.

The Dutchman's path to becoming a full-time professional photographer, however, was anything but conventional. Born in Maastricht in the Netherlands, Pie's early ambitions lay in the hospitality industry. After completing degrees in hotel management, he set about climbing the corporate ladder, working for one of the country's largest food retailers. "I was making good money and my career was moving fast," he says. "I was in the middle of the rat race."
Yet, in the background, Pie's passion for creating images had always been an important aspect of his life. A keen artist as a child, he initially began experimenting with photography after being given his father's old camera – a Canon AE-1 – during his teens.

This proved especially useful while Pie was undertaking an internship in China as part of his studies. When he wasn't in the hotel's front office, he would head outdoors and practise street photography. "Through the viewfinder, I was able to find a genuine connection with people that I couldn't communicate using words," the photographer explains. "It turned out to be a beautiful introduction to the art of storytelling."

Over the next decade, Pie found himself maintaining two separate identities: that of a businessman, firmly on the path to becoming a CEO; and that of a sought-after photographer, travelling around the world at every opportunity.

Location: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Specialist areas: Portraiture, wildlife and landscapes
Favourite kit:
Canon EOS R5
Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM
A black and white image of a herd of elephants walking together across a vast plain.

This photograph forms part of a wider print collection that Pie has named Umoja, the Swahili word for 'unity'. Shot in Kenya during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic and without the usual hordes of tourists, Pie was able to experience a connection with the local wildlife he had never felt before. "It's easy to get caught in the grandness of our egos when we are disconnected from the grandness of Mother Nature," says Pie. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens at 200mm, 1/3200 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Pie Aerts

But trying to strike a healthy balance in life proved impossible. In 2017, while suffering from severe mental and physical fatigue, Pie decided to quit his day job and devote himself to photography.

The timing was fortuitous. Having gained a sizeable following on Instagram, Pie was given the opportunity to compile his own photography book thanks to a partnership between the German publishing house teNeues and independent Amsterdam outfit MENDO.

Soon, Pie and his girlfriend, Jessica Wintz, found themselves planning the adventure of a lifetime. In three months, they had sold all of their possessions and bought one-way tickets to India. With a canvas to fill, the couple spent the next two-and-a-half years travelling the globe gathering incredible human stories – from Argentina's Patagonia to Indonesia's West Papua. The final result was the hardback Tales from the Roads Less Traveled, published in 2019.

"Entering this new phase of my life made me reconsider what my work was really about," says Pie. "It enabled me to return to creating stories that truly reflected my personal identity."
Dead camel thorn trees covered in mist and silhouetted against a sand dune.

Taken on a quiet morning in Deadvlei, a white clay pan inside the Namib-Naukluft Park in Namibia, Pie calls this 2018 photograph 'Serendipity'. "The entire scene came to life by the sudden occurrence of mist, which created changing compositions and patterns," he reveals. "It was a case of preparation combined with luck." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 142mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5 and ISO100. © Pie Aerts

Today, Pie uses the motto 'Because People Matter' for his portrait work. It's a banner that perfectly encapsulates his ethos: a desire to explore what it means to be human during an age in which the planet finds itself in environmental turmoil.

But as much as Pie wants to raise awareness of difficult topics, he seeks to offer hope too. "I'm always trying to find small things to celebrate, even if it's just a whisper. The story of the Ugandan poacher who became a ranger, for instance. When you radiate the right energy, the more people you can carry with you on that journey."
What is your approach to working with light?
"I only ever work with natural light – I don't use flash or any other artificial sources. Whenever I'm on assignments I'll do some scouting beforehand to understand how the sun will be moving and the best time of day to return. A lot of the research actually takes place at home before I travel. In fact, I'll usually plan future trips based on the narrow time windows during the year when I know the light conditions will be at their best."

How would you describe your attitude towards post-production?
"I don't subscribe to the traditional photo-school attitude of 'the rawer the better'; the idea that an image should be strong enough in its own right without the need for any post-production. When I'm editing a photograph, I'm trying to recreate the same emotional vibe I had while shooting it. Sometimes it requires very little work; sometimes a bit more. But I think the beautiful thing about having a particular post-production style is when people instantly recognise an image as being yours."

Do you have any tips for photographing strangers?
"Don't try to rush into the situation headfirst. Explain honestly and openly what you're there for. You need to make people feel at ease in your presence. I actually think some photographers are too focused on developing their technical skills when they should be investing in their people skills instead. You'll not only become a better human but a better storyteller too."

Your career first took off on Instagram, but what do you admire about photography books?
"There's nothing quite like grabbing a random book off the shelves on a Sunday morning, opening it up and looking through the images. When you put a picture on Instagram, it disappears from people's feeds in 24 hours, but a book just feels so timeless."

One thing I know

Pie Aerts

"Always aim to create for yourself. Find out what matters to you as a human being and translate that into an artistic voice without spending too much time worrying about what your parents, friends or people on social media think you should be doing. It's hard not to get distracted, and it took me several years to figure out my own identity. But you should regularly ask yourself: 'What do I stand for? What stories do I want to tell as a photographer?' It's important to believe in the narrative you are creating."

Facebook: @pieaertsphotography

Instagram: @pie_aerts and @because.people.matter

Website: www.pieaerts.com

Pie Aerts' kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Camera

Canon EOS R5

Offering next-level image performance, Canon's flagship full-frame mirrorless camera can capture 45MP photographs at up to 20fps, as well as 8K RAW video. "I'd been shouting from the rooftops that I was never going to switch to mirrorless, but the R5 completely changed my mind," says Pie.

Lenses

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM

A standard wide-angle lens beloved by reportage photographers for its natural perspective, low-light capability and extraordinary optical performance. Pie says: "It's my best friend. I know the focal dynamics so well – I could almost use it blindfolded."

Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM

One of the trinity of essential lenses, the RF 24-70mm boasts a fast aperture and image stabilisation plus a Nano USM motor for silent focusing. "It's beautiful at both f/2.8 and f/11. It's also quite light, so you get a lot of focal range for surprisingly little weight," says Pie.

Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM

Capture the world with outstanding flexibility and quality with a super compact f/2.8 telephoto zoom that incorporates a five-stop Image Stabilizer to ensure great handheld results, closer focusing down to 0.7m and fastest-ever AF. Pie says: "This is a killer lens for wildlife photography. It provides you with the perfect distance for capturing images of animals without disturbing their natural behaviour."

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

A professional-grade 200-400mm f/4 lens with a built-in 1.4x extender that boosts focal lengths to 280-560mm. "If I could only take one lens, it would be the 200-400mm, because I know that some animals will be further away than 70-200mm allows. It would be a brave, brave call to go on a trip to Africa without it," says Pie.

Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM

A high-magnification super-telephoto lens featuring integrated image stabilisation technology. Pie says: "I like having the full freedom to shoot any situation involving fast-moving, emerging animals."

Accessories

Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000

Bring images to life with a superb A2 desktop photo printer. "I love this printer. It not only gives me a new perspective on my images that I can't get from looking at a screen, but it also allows me to create high-quality prints to sell," says Pie.

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