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