Lighting like a Dutch master: an interview with Carla van de Puttelaar

A woman with red hair stands side-on, facing the camera. On either side of her are women facing the other way, wearing old-fashioned white servant-style hats and dresses. They’re against a black background.
In a shot from photographer Carla van de Puttelaar's series, Artfully Dressed, fashion historian and author Amber Butchart is pictured in a style inspired by the 17th century Dutch Masters. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/60 sec, f/7.1 and ISO640. © Carla van de Puttelaar

Inspired by the 17th century painters known as the Dutch Masters, modern-day Dutch photographer Carla van de Puttelaar utilises the 50.6MP resolution of a Canon EOS 5DS to capture the intricate details of her subjects, all in natural light. "I've always been fascinated by skin and light. I look at how the light falls on people, how fabric shimmers and folds. I have a huge hunger for art," she says.

The photographer is well placed to satiate this hunger. She holds a PhD in 17th century Scottish portraiture and has lectured at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. She says that her fascination with light, shadow and texture has been nurtured by Dutch painters such as Jan Davidszoon de Heem and Rachel Ruysch.

Carla's work normally focuses on the female body but in her book, Adornments, she looks at flowers with the same gaze. She captures the sensitivity and sensuality of the petals in such detail that it feels as though the viewer can touch the petals with their eyes.

A pink rose is lit from the right-hand side of the picture, casting the other side in shadow. It’s seen against a black background.
"You must have the sense that there is a magic in the photograph," says Carla. In this photograph from her book, Adornments, the simple black background and natural lighting add to the "magic". Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/11 and ISO320. © Carla van de Puttelaar
A pink rose with only a few wilted petals left is seen against a black background.
For her flower portraits, Carla keeps large amounts of flowers and tracks each one as it changes, and withers. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D with a Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens at 1/6 sec, f/11 and ISO250. © Carla van de Puttelaar

Finding the perfect subject

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For such a photograph to be successful – whether it's of a woman draped in elaborate fabrics, or a delicate flower petal rich with texture – Carla van de Puttelaar insists that there has to be chemistry between her and the subject. "The feeling has to be there. You must have the sense that there is a magic in the photograph; that's one of the things that matters most," she says.

For that reason, she takes the 'casting' of her subject seriously, even when it's a flower. "I like keeping a huge amount of flowers and watching them – how they are blooming, changing, withering. It's like they are models to me. Not all of them are the right ones," she says. "Sometimes I have a whole bunch of flowers and I say, 'Ooh, I must have you. You are the perfect flower.' Some flowers have this form and subtlety that suits me.

"I sometimes walk through the room and notice how they change in the light, and I'll run to get my black background and put it up right on the spot, to capture a flower at its best."

A lady in a pink and white striped dress lounges on a chair with her feet up. She casts an elegant profile in her shadow across the back wall.
Zoe Whitley, curator of international art at the Tate Modern in London, England, is seen in natural light in this photo from Carla's Artfully Dressed series. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/5.0 and ISO400. © Carla van de Puttelaar

The same goes for Carla's selection of human models. She usually scouts for models at art fairs and exhibitions, where she knows the subjects will have an interest in art. "I like the personal encounter. The idea that you feel, just like with the flowers, that 'this is the perfect one. That's somebody I could take a really good photograph of.'"

At other times, she might just spot someone in the street. "Once, I was cycling to the circus with two of my kids – one at the front of the bike and one at the back. I saw somebody and thought, 'This is really someone I should ask.' So I turned on my bike, with the two kids, and cycled as fast as I could to catch up with her. We still made it to the circus in time," she laughs.

Using natural lighting

Carla always uses natural light for her photographs, and a set up that is so simple that it can be used at home and on location, as well as in her studio; a portable, black background and light from a window. "I often use cool light from a Northern-facing window, but lately I've included more variety – even direct sunlight occasionally," she says.

The flowers are often best photographed at home, Carla finds. "The thing is with flowers, you want to monitor them when they are changing and withering, to catch them at the right moment. I like to use the light that falls on the petals, and goes through the petals, to bring out the magic," she says.

A woman with red hair tied in a plait faces away from the camera. She wears a low-backed dress that shows off her milky white skin.
A beautiful portrait from Carla's Rembrandt series uses natural light. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/60 sec, f/7.1 and ISO640. © Carla van de Puttelaar
A woman with short blonde hair wears a green dress and scarf and stands against a black background.
Maria Balshaw, director of the Tate museums and art galleries in the UK, from Carla's Artfully Dressed series. Carla photographed Maria at the Tate Britain, setting up her black background in a spot with great lighting. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/2.8 and ISO640. © Carla van de Puttelaar
A woman in a green embellished bodice and glamorous makeup runs a fern frond over her forehead. She stands in front of a green and red floral background.

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On a recent project, called Artfully Dressed, Carla portrayed women in the art world dressed in elaborate designer wear and rich fabrics. She travelled to London, New York and Paris to photograph the most important women in the world of art, using her signature method. "Even when I photographed the Tate's director, Maria Balshaw, I just found a very beautiful spot in Tate Britain, set up a background and photographed her there," she says.

In the past, Carla's exquisitely detailed images required the use of a medium format camera, but now she uses the full-frame Canon EOS 5DS. "I'd been waiting for the 5DS camera and I had to have it the moment it came out," she says.

"With the large range of light sensitivity, and pixels, you can do something that you couldn't do before. You can explore and show things that your eyes can't cope with – I think that's really fascinating. Just like you can store more information than your head can hold by using computers and hard disks, you can expand your vision through the camera."

A woman in a pale silk dress lies on a black floor, flowers trailing over her dress and foliage hanging from above.
Carla's portrait of Lidewij de Koekkoek, director of the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, combines fabulous silk clothing with flowers and foliage. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/60 sec, f/8 and ISO640. © Carla van de Puttelaar

The high resolution of the Canon EOS 5DS has allowed her to work on large-scale photographs, combining several images into monumental pictures, without losing any of the flexibility of a hand-held camera. "Perhaps you can't see it in my photographs because they have a certain stillness about them, but I'm actually a very dynamic photographer, moving back and forth constantly. The Canon EOS 5DS has helped me so much because I can really do something extra with the scale and monumentality, which I could only do with medium format before," she says.

For the same reason, Carla's lens of choice tends to be the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM. "Being a dynamic photographer, I like to have the option to zoom and change my perspective quickly, and it's a really nice lens. I also love using the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM – it's a beautiful portrait lens," she says.

Next up, Carla is planning to experiment with candlelight. "I'm thinking about using candlelight in my photos, but in a different way," she says. "I'm still figuring out exactly how I'm going to do it, but I know that I will need a camera like the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV to work with candles in the way I want. I love natural light sources, and I find [experimenting with them] very exciting. It opens up a lot of new possibilities."

Scris de Kathrine Anker

Carla van de Puttelaar’s kitbag

Key kit for painterly portraits

A Canon EOS 5DS camera sits against a black background.


Canon EOS 5DS

"The Canon EOS 5DS has helped me so much because I can really do something extra with the scale and monumentality," says Carla of the 50.6-megapixel resolution DSLR that captures exquisite detail in every moment.


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