Valsdarkroom: Exploring the Unexplored

Valerie is a photographer and explorer based out of Belgium. She is the queen of taking pictures of abandoned places.

The following is an interview with Valerie where she discusses her photography techniques, working process, and inspiration. The interview has been edited for brevity.

Niaz: Thank you, Val, for taking the time to join us at eTalks. We are thrilled to have you.

Val: Thank you for having me!

Niaz: You’re a photographer and explorer from Belgium. For the people who don’t know about you, can you start with telling us a little bit about yourself?

Val: I’m Valerie, but most people outside my close group of friends call me Val. I live alone in a small flat in Liège, Belgium and I love it there.

Niaz:  You do some complicated and amazing photography works. Before I dig into it, I would like to know how did you get started with photography?

Val: It started at a very young age, my dad is a hobby photographer and we used to have a dark room at our house. I learned to shoot with manual cameras and to develop my own black and white photos. When I was about 20 years old I hung out with a lot of skateboarders and I would take pictures of them. Photography has always been something I loved but it turned into a real passion once I started exploring abandoned places.

Niaz: As far as I guess your favourite subjects of shooting are abandoned places. On one side, it’s very hard to find those places. On the other side, it’s very hard to get access to them. But you have been exploring a lot of abandoned places. I understand it’s very challenging but that’s what you probably love to do. Can you please share us your inspiration of shooting abandoned places?

Val: Before I even thought of taking pictures in abandoned places like I do now, my friends and I loved finding abandoned places and checking them out, exploring without really seeing it from a photographer’s point of view. It is thrilling to find places and walk inside, find things and wonder why they were not used anymore. Abandoned places have something very peaceful about them for me. I don’t like crowded places much, they make me feel uncomfortable. While in a forgotten place you hardly see anyone there, I love that feeling. And I love wondering what happened and why things are left the way they are.

Niaz: Is there any specific book, movie, music, or something else that has been also instrumental for you to shoot abandoned places?

Val: Not really anything in particular to shoot abandoned places. It all came naturally, a next step in my life. I’m constantly inspired by life though, and with this also by music and movies, I used to make music myself, but that’s another passion I’m not gonna get into now :)

Niaz: Share us the stories of finding those epic location as well as getting access to them.

Val: In the beginning it was very hard, it’s sort of a closed off scene, hence why I started doing it alone. I looked at pictures from other people and tried to find clues as to where places were, that’s how I quickly found some classic places everyone gets to shoot when they start. Getting access is always a thrill, you never know what to expect, someone might give you advice, but by the time you get there the access has changed, or you have no info at all and you need to find your way in. Bottom line though: I never break anything to be able to get into a place, if there is no door unlocked, no window open, no basement access, etc. I walk away. As to finding places now, I have a good group of friends with the same passion from not only Belgium, also UK, Holland and France, and we sort of work together, help each other out.

Niaz: What type of cameras do you shoot with and what is your favorite lens set-up?

Val: I shoot with a Nikon D700, and my all round lens is the Nikkor 16-35mm f/4G, I also use a Nikkor 35mm f/2G for my detail shots. The bokeh on that one is just amazing. I would love to get a lense that is still a bit wider than my 16-35mm. I also have a little Sony nex5 camera that I always have with me. And I recently got an Instax camera that I have a little project with, a couple of those pictures are on my Instagram.

Niaz: Do you use any additional equipment, accessory or technology that helps for your composition?

Val: I use my tripod, Manfrotto MT190XPRO4, a very sturdy one. Sometimes I’m annoyed with it because I have to carry it and it’s heavy, but my camera is pretty heavy so I don’t have to worry it will fall over.

Niaz:  When did you join Instagram? Why have you chosen Instagram as a platform for sharing your art?

Val: I don’t remember when I joined Instagram to be honest, but I remember when I started my @valsdarkroom account, that was september 2013. I had been on instagram for a little while, but decided to make an account where I wouldn’t post any phone pictures, and it turned out to be pretty much only abandoned places.

Niaz: What are your favorite hashtags on Instagram?

Val: I check the #abandoned hashtag mostly, I used to be part of the whole group thing on instagram, but I stepped away from that, it is nice those groups are out there, but I don’t have enough time as it is, so I leave it to the people that have the passion for it. I did start my own hashtag #valexplores, at some point I might ask people to tag to it if they see something that they think I would like.

Niaz: Can you list some of your most favorite Instagrammers?

Val: Definitely @jamiebettsphoto, he’s a big inspiration, I especially love his post-processing skills. Some others I love are: @trashhand, @black_soap, @_soliveyourlife_, @le_blanc, @hannes_becker. You will notice that these don’t all shoot abandoned places, but pretty much all the people I follow are an inspiration to me on some level.

Niaz: You are very skilled in terms of using post-processing softwares. Your final output is very impressive. Tell us about the software and tools do you use for post-processing?

Val: Thank you. My main tool is Photoshop, I’m a real addict. And I also use the Nik collection and Topaz plugins. I used to process mostly HDR, this is several bracketed pictures combined into one. But nowadays I don’t do HDR anymore, I take several pictures with different exposure time and I mix them with layers in photoshop, until I get the good lighting for the overall picture. Then I start the real process of coloring and adding character to the picture. I spend a lot of time on my post-processing, it can go from 30min to several hours for one picture.

Niaz: What is the one most important lesson that you have learned since you started taking photographs?

Val: I’m not really sure, I would have to say: make sure to check your settings on your camera at all times. Sometimes you get carried away in the moment, and the excitement of being in these crazy places make you forget things. I once shot a whole day with my iso turned up way too high, I was just too excited and my pictures turned out like crap. Must have been one of those days…

Niaz: If you were advising a young photographer today, what words of wisdom would you share?

Val: Keep your eyes open, your eyes are the biggest tool you have, if you don’t see it, you won’t be able to take a good picture of it.

Niaz: Where do people find you to know more about you and your works? (Website, Facebook, Twitter …..)

Val: I have my own website (that I’m not being active enough on I have to admit) You can find me on Flickr as valsdarkroom. And I am @valdilda13 on Twitter.

Niaz: What does photography mean to you?

Val: That’s a tough question, it’s always been a part of my life and now it’s become the biggest part. If I could only take pictures and explore for the rest of my life, that would be a dream come true.

Niaz: Any last comment?

Val: Thank you so much for having me here! I thought it was gonna be hard to answer all these questions, but everything just flew out. Thanks again!

Niaz: Val, thank you so much for sharing incredible ideas with us. We would like to wish you very good luck for all of your upcoming great endeavors.

Ending Note: You can follow Valerie on Instagram at  @valsdarkroom. The interview has been conducted by Niaz. He is the founder and curator of eTalks. You can follow him on Instagram at @neohumanity.

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Previous Interviews:

01. Nois7 on Limitless Imagination

02. Abel Perez on Capturing the Future

03. iamcued on Unbound Imagination

04. Puji Faisal Nawawi on Behind the Beauty of Beautiful Art

05. Dominic Liam on Capturing the Shadows

06. Sloppystick on Photographing Abandoned Buildings

07. Debra Harder on The Art of Photography

08. Daria Khoroshavina: The Art of Metaphoric Photography

09. Cole Thompson on The Ultimate Photography Manifesto

10. Jeff Haden on Pursuing Excellence

11. Hugh Mac­Leod on Creativity and Art

Debra Harder: The Art of Photography

Debra Harder is a Portrait and Landscape photographer. She is well respected in photography community for her wonderful works.

As an art student in college, she developed an interest in photography. Originally, inspired by the works of Ansel Adams, she focused entirely on black and white images.

In December of 2006, she was in a position to return to serious photography. She became forever inspired when she purchased her first digital SLR. Her passion for the Photographic Arts has been very steadfast and serious since that time.

You can learn more about her works from 500px and her Official Website.

The following is an interview with Debra Harder about photography, camera, lighting, art and creativity. The interview has been edited for brevity.

Niaz: Dear Debra, thank you so much for finding time to join us at eTalks in the midst of your busy schedule. We are thrilled and honored to have you. At the beginning of our interview, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

Debra: I was born and raised in the Bay Area, California. I married in 1986 and we moved to Medford, Oregon in 1992 to open up a Veterinary hospital (my husband is veterinarian). We sold the business in 2006, which has allowed my husband and me the opportunity to travel more, and for me to pursue photography fulltime. As you can imagine, we love animals. My “children” consist of two Boston Terriers, one American Pit bull, and three cats.

Niaz: How did you get started? Did you go to school to study photography?

Debra: In the late 1980’s, I decided to take a black and white film photography class at Solano Community College in Fairfield, CA. I was inspired by Ansel Adams’ landscapes and focused solely on black and white film photography. I experimented with exposures and the zone system, and the art of printing in the dark room using old-fashioned dodge and burn tools, e.g., a piece of cardboard attached to a wire hanger. Since that class, photography became my passion.

Niaz: How would you describe your style?

Debra: I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to landscape photography, so I don’t go overboard on effects. For example, I have a problem with over-saturation in landscapes. There are a lot of images on-line that really push color for the “wow” factor with some to the point of being garish and losing the rich, realistic tonalities of the scene. Years ago, I took an on-line class from the great landscape photographer, William Neill, and our assignment was to hand in a portfolio of 5-6 landscapes. His honest and valuable criticism of over-saturation has always stuck with me and I do my best to stay within the guidelines he espoused. I’d rather have an image that conveys a mysterious mood than a candy store.

With respect to portraits, I do gravitate towards a ‘Hollywood’ style. I also love Rembrandt lighting to convey an “Old Masters” feel.

Debra Harder - 05Copyright © Debra Harder, 2014

Niaz: What type of cameras do you shoot with?

Debra: I currently shoot with a Nikon D4 for portraits and a Nikon D800E for landscapes. I just purchased the Nikon D810, and am ready to try it out!

Niaz: What is your favorite lens set-up?

Debra: For landscapes, there is no doubt my favorite is my Nikon 14-24mm. I’m always looking to shoot wide before anything else. I’m not suggesting this is always a good thing. I would suggest, however, considering other lenses for a closer perspective. For portraits, I most often use my Nikon 85mm, and with my current studio project, I’ve been using the Nikon 24-70mm so I have the ability to zoom in and out.

Niaz: What lighting equipment do you take on a shoot?

Debra: It really depends on where I am. With respect to landscapes, I rely on natural light, and depending on the contrast, I bracket my exposures to cover the entire dynamic range. With respect to studio portraits, I use Elinchrom strobes and Westcott Spiderlite Td6s (continuous lighting).

Niaz: What are your favorite editing software and application? How important are they for the final works?

Debra: My favorite is Adobe Photoshop CS6. The processing is very critical in my final works. As Ansel Adams once said, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance.” The negative being the digital RAW file, and the performance being the digital processing of the print.

Debra Harder - 02Copyright © Debra Harder, 2014

Niaz: How do you educate yourself to take better photos? Can you please name some of your favorite online resources/websites for our readers?

Debra: There are so many great on-line photography sites (e.g., 1x, 500px,, BetterPhoto) that I constantly refer to for inspiration. I continue to take on-line classes and refer to other instructional media to improve my photographic techniques. Most importantly, I’m out there doing it. I learn more from my failures than my successes. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t learn something. It’s what makes the photographic journey so interesting and exciting to me!

Niaz: What is your greatest fear? What do you do to overcome your fear?

Debra: I hate heights…lol. I wish I could overcome this fear, but it doesn’t seem to be getting better…lol. I had previously hiked the Eagle Creek trail to photograph Punchbowl Falls in Oregon. I became panicked on a precarious stretch of the trail. There was a cable to hold onto, but I had a 25 pound backpack, a tripod in one hand, and rain falling from above…not to mention the 100 foot drop just inches away! Someday I would like to photograph this waterfall in the dead of winter, but only if I can muster the courage…lol.

Debra Harder - 03Copyright © Debra Harder, 2014

Niaz: How do you get inspiration to keep doing all these great works?

Debra: Thank you for the generous compliment! As to what inspires me? I would have to say my passion for photography and the desire to excel at it. Honestly, I never feel that I’m “there,” i.e., peaked, and I never will. I work very hard to learn as much as I can so that I can produce my best work.

Niaz: Can you please tell us how do you stay creative?

Debra: Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” As much as one would like to think he or she has an original idea, it is difficult to fathom that outside sources have no influence. My creativity is a byproduct of my life experiences. I’d be disingenuous to say that other photographers’ work doesn’t inspire me to go in a certain direction. For example, I was intrigued by photographer Mark Seliger’s recent Academy Award images for Vanity Fair magazine. His concept was to take a platform and capture the stars’ personalities in portraits utilizing just that small space. I decided to use this inspiration for my own portrait series. I similarly created a small two-walled platform structure in my garage and am currently photographing a wide diversity of portrait subjects highlighted by a splash of their own individuality. Not only has it been a great learning experience, but I am able to inject my own style and creativity from both sides of the camera.

Niaz: Please tell us five of your favorite photographers?

Debra: That’s a tough one. There are so many great photographers. It’s hard to nail it down to five, but if I had to say off the top of my head: 1) Ansel Adams; 2) Nick Brandt; 3) Annie Leibovitz; 4) Art Wolfe; and 5) Joel Grimes.

Niaz: And five of your favorite photography books?

Debra: I don’t have many “coffee table” books. Most of my photography books are instructional. I’m a big fan of Scott Kelby’s books. When I began my photographic journey, his books and video tutorials were instrumental and still are today. I also subscribe to most photography magazines in order to keep up with the latest, e.g., up and coming photographers, products, etc.

Niaz: If you were advising a young photographer today, what would your words of wisdom be?

Debra: I would advise a young photographer that if he or she chooses to display their work on an online community photography site, they should take the feedback with a grain of salt, whether it positive or negative. Stay true to your aesthetic regardless of the pressures driven by a selected few in photographic circles. I have personally got caught up in this trying to mimic other landscaper’s work in hopes of receiving the same amount of praise. Receiving the accolades is intoxicating, but in the end it doesn’t distinguish you from the rest of the sheep.

Debra Harder - 04Copyright © Debra Harder, 2014

Niaz: Any last comment?

Debra: Thank you very much Niaz for giving me this opportunity. Happy Shooting!

Niaz:  You’re welcome.  We really appreciate your time. Keep up doing great works and all the best wishes for all of your upcoming great endeavors.

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Further Reading:

01. Hugh Mac­Leod on Creativity and Art

02. Shaka Senghor on Writing My Wrongs

03. Daniel Pink on To Sell is Human

04. Naeem Zafar on Entrepreneurship for the Better World

05. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

06. Jeff Haden on Pursuing Excellence

07. Barry Schwartz on Wisdom and Happiness

08. Gautam Mukunda on Leadership

Hugh Mac­Leod: Creativity and Art

Editor’s Note: Hugh Mac­Leod is one of the leading authorities on the creative process. He is the author of  ‘Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity’, Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination’ and Freedom Is Blogging in Your Underwear.  He is about to publish his new book ‘The Art Of Not Sucking’. He is a cartoonist, entrepreneur, technologist, speaker and professional blogger, known for his ideas about how ‘Web 2.0′ affects advertising and marketing. After a decade of working as an advertising copywriter, Hugh started blogging at in 2001. You can read his full bio from here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Hugh Mac­Leod recently to gain his ideas and insights about creativity and art which is given below.

Niaz: Hugh, I know you as a Cartoonist, Best Selling Author, Public Speaker, Entrepreneur, Technologist, Blogger, Marketer and this list goes on and on and on. What do you think about your best identity?

Hugh: Cartoonist! I am a Cartoonist.

Niaz: But you are doing a vast array of activities. Why do you think being Cartoonist is your best identity?

Hugh: Well there is no point of being a billionaire if you don’t feel it. Being cartoonist is the thing I can be from my inner soul and cartoon is the thing I can do my own where everything else is just the tools that you need to interface with the world. They come like the delivery mechanism.

Niaz: As a cartoonist what is your vision?

Hugh: My world vision is to make people think differently about office art. I want to transform the world of business art. From my personal view, I want to make better and faster cartoons.

Niaz: So you are creating art. Changing minds. Telling a long story with impressive creative art by using only few words. Integrating complexity and problems to provide easy solution via your cartoon, sometimes via your art and sometimes via telling an excellent story. So what do you think about the significance of creating art now?

Hugh: I don’t think that there is any difference of creating art now then which was thousands years ago. Art is the reflection of our inner soul, our beliefs and the fact that we love from our heart. I think creating art means showing the world that we are not alone. I don’t know what Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang. I don’t understand whatever language he did speak. But you know there is a spiritual dynamic to his work that connects you somehow. You go and look Ancient Art, Native American Art, Chinese Art, Hindu Art or whatever; you will find the spiritual dynamics that connect you genuinely. So when you ask, why should we make art, you should have asked ‘why should we pray’ and then you should have asked ‘why should you believe in god’.  Creating art is always significant. It doesn’t belong to any time dimension. It’s innocent. It’s the true connection.

Niaz: You are a great marketer. You have been working with all big corporations and helping them for getting things done. Now, what does the term marketing mean to you?

Hugh: Well marketing to me, is the art, science and everything. Marketing is associated with all of the things that you need to get your idea spread.

Niaz: What do you think about the core problems of marketing?

Hugh: I think the core problems are marketing is very selfish, marketing is very loud, marketing is ill-mannered, marketing is wasteful and marketing is all kind of horrible things.

Niaz: So what are your ideas about how ‘Web 2.0’ affects advertising and marketing in this connected digital economy?

Hugh: Well from my perspective, it takes a way to need to scale. For example when I was a kid, when I was in your age, self publishing was so hard and expensive as there was no internet. So the way to be successful was hardest. Your cartoon had to be discovered by the Magazine, Newspaper, TV Shows or something like that. You had to get the approval of the record company. What I figured out a while ago, how much I need for living? I just need paying my bills. I have figured out, if I have 10,000 people who will give me money whether to buy t-shirt, cartoon, book, print or painting, I can make a living. And so to me, finding these 10,000 people using the Blog, Twitter or Facebook is cheaper, faster and easier that we couldn’t do before that. For example, in the old days, you ran a cartoon in the magazine. Then you had to wait until a person saw your cartoon in the book shop or saw your add that you pay at the back of the magazine and tell someone. It would also need a lot of peers. You had to wait for other people to tell your stories. So you had some other things beyond your own control. Now internet has made this business model for a cartoonist that is cheaper, better and faster. As a result our advertising and marketing has been changing revolutionary.

Niaz: You have been creating Social Objects. Can you please tell me about ‘Social Objects’?

Hugh:  The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the rea­son two peo­ple are tal­king to each other, as oppo­sed to tal­king to some­body else. Human beings are social ani­mals. We like to socia­lize. But if you think about it, there needs to be a rea­son for it to hap­pen in the first place. That rea­son, that ‘node’ in the social net­work, is what we call the Social Object.

Niaz: Can you please give an example of ‘Social Object’?

Hugh: Oh there are so many. Social object is something that is cool. When people mean cool, they mean it only because it is social object. Cool doesn’t reside in products. It resides in the interactions. Once Nokia Phone was cool. Now the social dynamics has changed. So it’s no longer social objects. I would say, it’s not social object because it is cool. It is cool because it’s social object. I love Bangladeshi Cooking. I love Seth Godin. I love Beatles. All of these are social objects.

Niaz: I first came to know about your impressive creative arts at the beginning of 2006 via your most popular manifesto ‘How to be creative’.  Till now, it’s the most popular manifesto of Why do you think creativity is so much important of doing and making things happen?

Hugh: Well that’s how we are designed to survive. You know we aren’t cockroaches, tigers, or elephant. We have our brains. And our brain is genetically designed to figure out how to hack the world. If you look at our species, our ability to evolve, survive and dominant the world is all about creativity. It’s a biological spiritual necessarily. God made us creative. And it’s our nature.

Niaz: Can you please explain the title of your book ‘Ignore Everybody’?

Hugh: Well this isn’t saying to ignore everybody from the day you born to the day you die. I think there is a trouble to ignore everybody. What I mean is that nobody can tell you whether you’re idea is any good or not, especially in the beginning. All you can do is soldier on alone…. ignoring everybody.

Niaz: What are the secrets of being creative? Can you please tell us some points on being creative and asking interesting questions?

Hugh: You already are. You already born that way. Keep it simple. Keep it cheap. Keep it consistent. Practice. I think you could be loaded up with complexity and problems. But keep patience. Keep trying. Grow up your stamina.

Niaz: Hugh, Thank you so much for your time. I am wishing you very good luck for all of your impressive works.

Hugh: You are welcome Niaz. Thanks for having. Good luck to all of your ideas and endeavors.

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Further Reading:

01. Philip Kotler on Marketing for Better World

02. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

03. Daniel Pink on To Sell is Human

04. Naeem Zafar on Entrepreneurship for the Better World

05. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

06. Jeff Haden on Pursuing Excellence

07. Rita McGrath on Strategy in Volatile and Uncertain Environments

08. Gautam Mukunda on Leadership