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Surreal reality: <br class="br_visual" />the fine art storytelling of Jovana Rikalo

Surreal reality:
the fine art storytelling of Jovana Rikalo

© Jovana Rikalo

March 2017

After starting to study for a law degree Jovana Rikalo got distracted by a new found passion for photography and put her law career on hold. And now, just over three years later, she is building a growing profile for her quirky, highly stylistic fine art and portrait work. In an exclusive interview she spoke to CPN writer Steve Fairclough to reveal her approach to shooting pictures and how the Canon EOS system has helped her creative process...

“I didn’t study photography [formally] but I have always loved it,” Jovana admits. “When I was studying law in my second year I bought a new camera and I started exploring photography. At that time I discovered the talented [fashion photographer] Tim Walker on the Internet and his work really inspired me, so I wanted to give myself the chance to make something out of my photography.”

© Jovana Rikalo
© Jovana Rikalo

Too close but yet so far. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a 35mm lens; the exposure was 1/800sec at f/4, ISO 125.

She continues: “At first I was taking random pictures of myself, nature, friends and family. I didn’t take it seriously until 2013 when I bought a better camera, a Canon, and I realised how passionate I was about photography. Then I really started growing… I was taking pictures every day and learning the editing process. I was also watching YouTube videos and tutorials online and I’m still learning today.”

Jovana was born and raised in Serbia, and still lives there in the city of Novi Sad, but she is aware of the limitations of being based in a country of just over 7,000,000 inhabitants. “Serbia is a little country and you cannot do a lot here because we have a small market. I travel a lot and meet people from all around the world because I want to see how other countries work for me and if I can do any projects abroad.” She sometimes travels to other countries to shoot personal projects and often finds her models through Facebook or Instagram.

Cameras & lenses

When quizzed on what’s in her kitbag Jovana reveals: “I shoot with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and an EF85mm f/1.2L lens and an EF135mm f/2L [lens] for portrait clients and an 35mm f/1.4 for the wider angle [shots]. I always shoot with natural light because I really love that soft light [look] but when I don't have so much natural light I use a Visico reflector – that’s all the gear I use.”

She explains: “I love Canon colours because they are so vibrant and colourful. I’ve always used Canon; I haven't used any other cameras – I really liked the colours and Canon is the best for me. The best purchase for me was my favourite lens – the EF85mm f/1.2L USM – because the depth-of-field is amazing; subjects really pop out and you can make wonderful portraits, especially when you shoot outside with natural light, you can get that ‘dreamy’ effect.”

© Jovana Rikalo
© Jovana Rikalo

Floral girl. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF135mm f/2L USM lens; the exposure was 1/400sec at f/2.5, ISO 250.

One of the key aspects of the EOS 5D Mark III that Jovana has been experimenting with is the in-camera multiple exposure mode, so she can compose dramatic multiple exposures in one picture. “I really love [the fact] that they added the multiple exposure setting and lately I’ve been using that to ‘duplicate’ the photos. I really like that because you don't have to go online to find out how to make these or use Photoshop; you can make them with the 5D Mark III. It’s really interesting because you can shoot the model and shoot the prop and then they blend together [in-camera].”

As for her usual exposure settings Jovana reveals: “I love shooting with natural light… during the winter is best for me because I don't have shadows and harsh light. Cloudy weather is best because the light is soft. Also, in summer, the ‘golden hour’ is one of my favourites. For portraits I shoot mostly from f/2 to f/2.5, ISO during the day is always 100 – but if it’s too dark I make it a bit higher – and the shutter speed depends on the light. If I want to ‘pop up’ the subjects more I use a reflector.”

Jovana always shoots RAW files and explains: “I find it is best because later you can manipulate your photos as you want. If you weren’t satisfied with the light you can add more light or make it a completely different image. You can have more freedom [editing] in those fields and can add more.”

Ideas & composition

With a growing portfolio of images that are clearly packed full of ideas, we ask where Jovana gets her creative thoughts from? “Before I take photos I imagine in my head what an image should look like. I imagine one situation I would like to create, a character, and I always write my ideas on paper. It's easier sometimes to draw what I want to create with that idea. After creating the scene, I look for the models. I love shooting female models in long dresses to get that ‘dreamy’ look. I am always looking for unique beauty, bright eyes, big eyes, freckles etc. After that, I find a location that fits the scene and props.”

© Jovana Rikalo
© Jovana Rikalo

Life circle. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a 55mm f/2.5 lens; the exposure was 1/800sec at f/2, ISO 100.

Perhaps unsurprisingly she also composes by her own rules. “The rules are made to be broken. As much as I’m satisfied when I see the whole scene through the viewfinder and if I really like it – that’s it and that is the whole point. Sometimes I love to add some surreal props into my compositions and to make people look and peek more into the whole thing. Whether that’s a balloon, flowers, a dreamy dress, the location. Lately I’ve really loved duplicating the subjects in my photography. I find that really interesting – to have a subject but a couple of them [props] in the same photo.”

Storytelling in stills

It is clear from viewing Jovana’s work that the element of storytelling in a single picture is key. She explains: “Telling a story is the whole point of photography for me. I love people to see emotion in my photography and to see the story I wanted to create. For me photography is about emotion because if there is no emotion there is no photography for me.”

Jovana continues: “Sometimes I just create something in my head – I don't know [where from], maybe from my dreams or from life. Always when something happens to me, good or bad, I create that in my photography. So I guess I’m my inspiration to create surreal stories with images. It’s either personal experience or experiences from other people; my friends or when I read some story online something clicks in my head.”

Perhaps one of her standout images is a shot of a crow on a model’s head. “I think a lot of people like it. That image is called ‘Guardian’ – the crow is protecting her from other people, she is staying frozen [still] and it won't let anybody hurt her. Actually that was one of the first images I took when I started in photography. I was taking photos on the beach and the girl had a veil and after that I took the bird in Photoshop and I put it on her. People often ask me ‘how did you get the bird to stay on her head?’.”

© Jovana Rikalo
© Jovana Rikalo

Guardian. Taken on a Canon EOS 600D with an EF50mm f/1.8 II lens; the exposure was 1/1250sec at f/1.8, ISO 100.

Commercial & magazine work

Alongside her personal work Jovana has also developed a few key commercial clients. “I was shooting for a New Wave Project here in Serbia, for Hugo Boss Serbia and also for Movement MVMT watches because they asked me to shoot them. They were all [clients] from Instagram. Instagram is everything now! Hugo Boss here in Serbia [saw my work on Instagram and] asked me.”

She adds: “I don't shoot so much for magazines but that’s my wish for the future. I’m still exploring that field because in my country we have a small market and it’s not too easy to shoot for the magazines. I find it easier to license my images online through a couple of agencies and if a magazine really likes my work they will buy it or contact me on e-mail.”

Jovana admits: “I find it really hard to shoot for magazines as they are all looking for fashion photographers and I’m still more dreamy, fine art [type of photographer] so it’s harder. Here [in Serbia] a lot of photographers only shoot fashion but not so many are only shooting fine art, like me. In my country it’s hard [to get magazine work] but that’s why I travel and that’s why I want to meet more people and to be more involved. I shoot a little fashion but different fashion – I guess ‘it’s fine art fashion’ for me! It’s not just models staying in poses – I want to create a story behind it.”

© Jovana Rikalo
© Jovana Rikalo

New chapter. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a 35mm lens; the exposure was 1/400sec at f/2.8, ISO 100.

Post-production workflow

Once she is happy that story has been told in a location shoot Jovana turns to Photoshop CC for her post-production needs. “After a photo shoot I use my favourite tool, Photoshop, to create a finished image. It requires a lot of hours and effort and time to create that image, which means that I am spending usually more than two to three hours per photo. I am a perfectionist when it comes to an image. I love that everything in a photo can look perfect, just the way that I imagined it in my head.”

Although colour is her ‘go-to’ preference Jovana does occasionally use black & white, “…if I find it interesting or if, when I see it, I think I must put it in black-and-white because black-and-white is better. But I usually shoot in colour because a lot of people see details in the photo and in black & white you can't see the whole [impact] because, for me, some of the colours are important for people to see. Some photos are best in black-and-white – when I don’t have so much colour on a day when it’s too bright then I’ll try it in black & white.”

Intriguing the viewer

With a clear style to her work we ask Jovana what she wants people to see in her pictures. She replies: “I love creating something unrealistic in a realistic world. I love telling stories with my images and when people see my photos I want them to ask themselves ‘is this real or not?’ I love making realistic manipulations with my images and I want them to debate and see the whole beauty of the scene that I wanted to make, to feel that surreal feel for the whole image. I want people to look at my images all the time because you can see some images and people say ‘that’s OK’ but I want to intrigue the viewer.”

She also acknowledges that she prefers to work with female models. “I think there is an advantage when shooting women because you can connect better with a model if they are female. For me it’s easy and maybe for the model it's easier and more comfortable to shoot with a woman and not a man. I think women can see the details and can see all the beauty of other women and it’s easier – it’s an advantage.” She has shot male models for some of her watch campaigns but explains: “It was because they wanted me to shoot a couple, so that’s why. But I’m always shooting female models because I find it more ‘dreamy’.”

© Jovana Rikalo
© Jovana Rikalo

Cold. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF85mm f/1.2L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/800sec at f/2, ISO 100.

As to what she has learnt thus far from her relatively short photographic career, Jovana advises: “You must shoot and practice every day. Shoot all the time and explore. Try to find your own style and don't be desperate if you don't have a good camera. For me, a good camera doesn't always mean good photography. You need to have a good eye to be able to convey the emotion of the photo. Try to find inspiration everywhere and always try to be inspired. Don’t be afraid to ask magazines or agenies for feedback or to ask models to pose for you. You have nothing to lose – the worst thing that can happen is to be rejected but that’s not the end of the road.”

Technical – Jovana Rikalo’s kitbag




EF50mm f/1.4L USM
EF85mm f/1.8 USM
EF85mm f/1.2L II USM
EF135mm f/2L USM


Visico RD-024 reflector

Biografie: Jovana Rikalo

Jovana Rikalo

Jovana Rikalo is a fine art and portrait photographer from Serbia. She swapped her law studies for a career in photography in 2013 and has since built a growing reputation thanks to her dreamy and emotion-packed imagery, which is often shot outdoors using just natural light. Her commercial clients have included Hugo Boss Serbia, Miss Yu and the watch companies MVMT and ZINVO. Her work has been published around the world in magazines such as Vogue Italia, Creative Review, Bella Grace, Spunky and Scorpio Jin.


Black butterfly. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a 35mm lens; the exposure was 1/2500sec at f/2, ISO 100.