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Jillian Edelstein: <br class="br_visual" />looking through the eyes of others

Jillian Edelstein:
looking through the eyes of others

© Jillian Edelstein

June 2014

The skill of a successful people photographer is to look for a glimmer of character or quirk that can be captured in a fraction of a second. Renowned portrait expert Jillian Edelstein reflects on her career to CPN Editor David Corfield...

© Jillian Edelstein

British actress Hayley Atwell, photographed for Interview magazine with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and an EF85mm f/1.2L USM lens; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/4, ISO 200.

You can tell a lot about a photographer by their eyes. Look deep into them and you will see a rainbow of past emotions. A photographer’s eyes often reveal more than they’d care to admit; they are like the carbon paper of other people’s life experiences.

I greet Jillian Edelstein in a noisy bistro in London’s West Hampstead. She breezes in with the wind and the leaves, her thick long hair hiding dark brown eyes that harbour many tales... She’s at the top of her game and retains an infectious enthusiasm about her work – yet behind the smiles there’s a core of steel within. It’s that determination to maintain high standards and keep producing exceptional work that has kept Jillian Edelstein in demand since leaving her beloved South Africa almost 30 years ago. So why does she still get jittery before a shoot?

“I think if you’re not nervous then there’s something the matter,” she admits. “As far as I’m concerned, as photographers we are performing. It’s like theatre. Being sensitive – in my case hypersensitive – to a subject’s mood is really important. Being flexible, and in the moment, and being real, really is the key. It’s about listening. You can come to a shoot with a preconceived idea but if it’s not happening you need to shift, and think on the spot. That’s the secret of a good shoot. It doesn’t matter if it’s a celebrity or a person in a hut; it is about treating people with respect and anticipating where they are coming from, and moving with them.”

A fundamental fascination...

Jillian Edelstein’s life with a camera came as a by-product of working with people. She studied social anthropology and sociology at university in South Africa, and had been going into the townships with her mother (a medical sociologist) from a very early age. “It’s from there that I developed this real interest in language and people,” she reveals. “And it’s there that I picked up a camera for the first time.”

© Jillian Edelstein

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, photographed for the FT Weekend magazine. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM lens; the exposure was 1/80sec at f/4, ISO 200.

“I discovered photography there and I remember going into the darkroom and printing my pictures for the first time, and seeing the magic of that image come through the developer. I remember thinking ‘wow, I can use this tool’ and it happened just at that tipping point in life when you’re coming out of your teens and are desperately looking for what it is you want to be, or indeed where you want to be. I was in that moment, and started using the camera as my partner. So I’d go into communities – be they tattoo parlours or gang members’ townships that were being demolished – and took a job as a social worker, working with ex-offenders in South Africa, and using my camera to tell the stories.”

“During a holiday I came to travel around Europe for a year and it was while I was over here that I decided that I was going to take an art course with my camera. I wanted to learn my craft. I told my mother that I wanted to be a photographer and she just replied “pipe dreams” which spurred me on even more...”

Making the grade

Realising that the camera was her true calling, Jillian got a job with a local newspaper and quickly began making a name for herself. “I worked as a press photographer for a newspaper in Johannesburg and won a number of press awards there, one of which was with World Press Photo,” she reveals. “But I was still very insecure and wanted to really study photography properly, so came back over to the UK to embark on a photojournalism course at the London College of Printing, which I did for one year.”

“After six months I pulled out because the then picture editor of the Sunday Times – Michael Cranmer – started giving me work. It was the most amazing time for me: I was freelancing and getting regular work to go and photograph some amazing people, and my portfolio grew very quickly. In fact it’s what helped me move into magazines. It was truly the most bountiful, amazing period for a young photographer and I learned very much on the job.”

One of the things Jillian learned was to remember the moment. It’s a mantra she holds very dear, and she urges photographers to remember the circumstances behind their images. “Sometimes I wonder if I get mixed up with the memory of the image and the memory of the experience,” she questions. “I’ve written about this in the past. I said in The Guardian newspaper last year that I could recall the moment when Nelson Mandela tried to grab my light meter, as I was getting ready to photograph him. I remember he didn’t know what it was and I recall that he apologised and put it down to the fact that he was ‘just a country bumpkin’. I will never forget that atmosphere: the light, mood, location, decor and people who were there around us. The camera in my hand served then as it does now, to focus my every sense. It is such an important thing for a photographer: to be aware.”

At one with equipment

Over the years, Jillian has become an expert at knowing her camera, and never has this been more important than in the digital world. But years of loading 4x5inch darkslides into large-format cameras, rolls of 35mm into her Canon A-1 or a roll of 120-format film into her Hasselblad have become second nature to her, and they are skills she refuses to forget. She misses film. “But I do think I disadvantaged myself by not embracing digital sooner,” she admits.

“It doesn’t matter what I do, but my digital work doesn’t ever seem to come close to the depth I used to get with film. But what do you do? I have a Canon EOS Mark II and III, which are both fantastic, amazing cameras. But I still can’t get out of the habit of having some film stashed somewhere...”

© Jillian Edelstein

Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II with an EF70-200 f/2.8L IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/5.6, ISO 200.

She continues: “I went to Zambia in November last year. I didn’t have an assistant with me but I decided to take my Hasselblad medium-format film camera as well as my digital stuff. All that gear nearly broke my back! And of course it took a lot longer with the film processing to see the images I shot but there was no comparison when I got them back. Not only that, but the film camera stuff stood up: there was depth and detail there that was totally different to digital. I can honestly say I can’t see myself ever ditching one for the other. I need them both. I gave the FT magazine the option of using either – digital or film – and what did they choose? Film! Digital is so crisp and perfect – almost too good. But how can you fault it? For me, it just didn’t have the character or depth of film that I love so much.”

“Of course, the real advantage offered by digital is the volume of images it’s possible to shoot, and in the case of the EOS 5D Mark III with near medium-format quality. But that in itself comes with a warning,” Jillian reveals. “I did a shot recently for Italian Vogue with the architect Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, the brother of still-life photographer Tessa Traeger whose work I adore. And during the shoot he said to me, so charmingly, ‘you know, Tessa always says to me, give them four shots, and no more. Because if you do, they will choose the one you don’t like.’ And you know what, I had a shot in mind for the magazine to use which I thought was a no-brainer, but they went and used another one!” She laughs and her eyes light up at the memory.

World aware

By the time you read this, Jillian Edelstein will be on the other side of the world in the middle of the most ambitious project she’s ever undertaken. And it’s caught her quite unawares. “I’m about to embark on this amazing journey,” she explains. “A lady called Albina du Boisrouvray, whose only son Francois-Xavier Bagnoud died in a helicopter crash in 1986, set up a charity in his memory to help care for the hundreds and thousands of children affected by AIDS in India, Africa, China and Columbia. I have to create 25 images for an exhibition that celebrates 25 years of the charity this year. So it’s a very poignant project and I feel a bit under pressure. But it’s such a privilege to be able to contribute and use my skills to raise awareness for the charity.” Suddenly the relative security of shooting celebrities for magazine front covers seems quite appealing. But only for the briefest of moments. Jillian is excited.

© Jillian Edelstein

Yoko Ono, photographed for the FT Weekend magazine. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF85mm f/1.2L USM lens; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/5.6, ISO 100.

“I have always tried to get beyond the obvious. I like exploring stories and discovering. I am forever curious and away from photography I love many things. I love dance, swimming, reading, Radio 4, music (Jillian is a big fan of live music and went to several festivals last year). I’m into everything. Theatre I adore, cinema, nature and walking I also love. I’m a lover of expression. This charity is giving me the freedom to express not only my own viewpoint, but also the feelings of the people I encounter. It’s a huge mission. It’s photojournalism meets portraiture.”

“Of course, I’m no stranger to documentary work,” she affirms. “It’s been a big part of my life for so long, and being invited by World Press Photo to be a judge in the contest (Jillian was the Chair of the People Jury this year) reminded me of the amazing work that is being produced by my fellow photographers all over the world. It was a uniquely humbling experience to be a part of that incredible judging process.”

“I’ve been exposed to the dark side of life and I’m very aware of the hardships there are around the world,” she reflects. “I find it unbearable, to tell you the truth. If you don’t keep your own positive energy then there’s no hope for you. I believe that philosophy very strongly.”

“I always look for the beauty in the people, no matter how hard that can be sometimes. And I’m still on a journey with my camera, even in this new age of digital. I’m taking leaps of faith all the time. It’s all about faith, after all...”

Biography: Jillian Edelstein

Jillian Edelstein

London-based photographer Jillian Edelstein was born and grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. She began working as a press photographer in Johannesburg on the Rand Daily Mail and the Star. In 1985 she emigrated to London to study at the London College of Printing. Her portraits have appeared in many publications including The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair. She has received several awards including the Visa d’Or at the Visa pour l’Image international festival of photojournalism in 1997, the European Final Art Polaroid Award in 1999 and the John Kobal Book Award in 2003. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally at many venues, most notably at the National Portrait Gallery and the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, France.


French writer, photographer and installation artist Sophie Calle. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF85mm f/1.2L USM lens; the exposure was 1/40sec at f/4.5, ISO 100.

CPN in conversation with
Jillian Edelstein

. . .