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Out of the shadows: the night narratives of Richard Vantielcke

Out of the shadows: the night narratives of Richard Vantielcke

© Richard Vantielcke

May 2017

At first glance the images of freelance photographer Richard Vantielcke seem to be stark, appearing to simply show the cold reality of urban cityscapes in the middle of the night. But look a little closer and you can begin to see humour, narratives and clear concepts within his pictures. In an exclusive interview he spoke to CPN writer Steve Fairclough to discuss his inspirations and reveals how he creates his quirky style of photography.

From a young age Richard Vantielcke realised there was something different about his photographic style. “I began to be interested in photography when I realised I was unable to take normal photographs. When I look back to my vacations or family pictures I made when I was young it was always with unusual, strange angles; framed with shadows or shadows becoming with backlighting, mirror shots and funny reflections. I just cannot succeed in getting a normal photograph.”

© Richard Vantielcke
© Richard Vantielcke

Automatic Consumption. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D with an EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens at a focal length of 10mm; the exposure was 1.3 seconds at f/8, ISO 200.

Richard says: “I gave up the idea of shooting normal photographs and started to experiment with a small Canon compact, taking every opportunity to shoot. I began photography for real thanks to the breakthrough of digital photography. Until then my interest in photography was dormant because I found analogue photography too restrictive and costly. When I discovered digital photography it was like ‘Wow! I can do that’. It was easy with the possibility of shooting multiple pictures and easy post-production.”

A friend showed Richard images he’d shot with a Canon EOS 350D DSLR with a 50mm lens and he was “just blown away by the quality of the pictures. I told myself, ‘If he can do that, I can do that too’. I started to take every opportunity to shoot and learn.”

Richard bought his own 350D and 50mm lens: “…just to take a lot of pictures and I got ‘bokeh fever’ – that was my start. At first I was taking lots of random pictures of everything – myself, nature, landscapes, macro, friends, family, my dog. I tried to imitate what I liked in other photographic work and then I understood that to feed that growing passion I had to move on to do something different; to find my own way to express myself through photography.”

© Richard Vantielcke
© Richard Vantielcke

Dumb Peeping Tom (series: Dumb guy). Taken on a Canon EOS 7D with an EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens at a focal length of 20mm; the exposure was 2 seconds at f/8, ISO 400.

Ideas for images

Richard’s photography is usually low-light and the portfolio section on his website, ‘Ludimaginary’, lists his styles as: conceptual and narrative, night, urban, self-portraits and light and shadow. When asked what ‘Ludimaginary’ means, Richard replies: “It’s a mix of French and English. They are two terms because I try not to take myself too seriously. I try to put some absurd notions and humour in my frames. There are two ways to understand the word – it's ‘ludic’, which in French [sort of] means playful, [mixed with] imaginary or ‘ludicrous imaginary’.”

Of his night work he explains: “My shots are very spontaneous. I always work like that. I just go out for a long walk or bike ride and try to lose myself in Paris or nearby and shoot what inspires me at the moment. Sometimes I think my subconscious takes over. I don’t know, maybe it's because it’s the night – at 2am you’re tired and maybe your rational brain lets go. But the ‘reptilian brain’ sees something – I’m really aware of the moment and then I just click [the shutter] to get the pictures.”

Richard points out: “Night photographs can increase the graphic strength of an urban building; the façade, the portrayal, even a simple alignment. I love to play with light and shadows to fix the viewer’s eyes – I just want him to fix in at what I want him to look at and to leave what I don't want him to see to the shadows. Sometimes I think that my main work is to hide more than to show. I just want the spectator to do the rest when he sees a photograph. I just love it when it can involve the imagination of the viewer; that he can put something of his life and experience in my photograph.”

On the flipside to his spontaneous night shoots Richard also works on bigger projects or ‘series’. He reveals: “On bigger projects, like my series ‘Cardboard Box Head’ – the one with the man with the cardboard box on his head and he just walks around on the street – I write down ideas and spend quite some time to conceptualise it because I have a story to tell. But it begins with just a sentence or phrase. For Cardboard Box Head I just wrote down ‘It will be fun to get a man on the street with a box on his head’. From that I just tried to get a story arc and then I arrived at this concept of Eat, Work, Sleep.”

Richard continues: “If you’ve got no story to tell a photograph is useless. I’m bound to put narrative in my photographs – I can’t do it any other way. Even when I’m doing architectural photographs I need to get something in the frame for duality or maybe the fight against light and shadow. I need to get something to motivate your imagination.”

© Richard Vantielcke
© Richard Vantielcke

Tumbling down the rabbit hole (series: A bit like Alice). Taken on a Canon EOS 7D with an EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens at a focal length of 18mm; the exposure was 1/10sec at f/5.6, ISO 400.

Equipment choices

To shoot his pictures Richard relies on the simple combination of the APS-C format EOS 7D DSLR and an EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM zoom lens (equivalent to around 16-35mm in 35mm format). “With regard to the 7D body the main asset is that it is indestructible. To get everywhere on my bike in my trips between each spot it often drags on the floor and, despite the cold and the rain, I’ve never had any problem with it. Because it’s so reliable it’s great to be able to forget your camera and focus on your shooting. I forget that I’ve got a high-tech thing in my hands – it’s just a piece [of kit] to create something.”

Richard originally experimented with various macro and zoom lenses but says: “In the end I understood that [shooting] wide-angle was the way to express myself. I decided to go for the 10-22mm – there’s a unique quality of image with it, better rendering, better colours and better acutance. I often use the wider angle and shoot at 10mm and it’s obvious the Canon lens works very well.”

He adds: “Right now, for night photography I only work with a tripod for long exposure shots and a remote controller when I’m in front of the camera when I use my photographic alter ego – that’s the way I refer to my character. Sometimes for other work, like self-portraits with my white background, I just use a simple flash – the 430EX. Regarding gear it’s quite simple for me. My work is not very challenging regarding technique. I’ve got my routine and, for me, the wide-angle [lens] quality is more important.”

Exposure settings & composition

Richard has a pretty straightforward approach to his exposure settings. “There are two things I don’t touch – with ISO [speed] I stay at something like 200 or 250, that’s it, and with aperture I stay at f/8 in order to keep a perfectly clear plane because with night I just want to get the most control of the frame. I try not to get [too much] depth-of-field, so I stay at f/8.”

He continues: “Then, depending on the intensity of the available urban light – I have no flash at all during my night trips – I just play with the exposure time. That’s the only setting that I will play with; trying not to exceed 1.5 seconds, which is just a constraint I put on myself. Sometimes I’m my own character for the photograph and it’s just impossible to stay still for more than 1.5 seconds to avoid blur. That’s the main constraint for me – to stay still.”

“Regarding the construction of the frame for night photography, the composition depends so much on the light of the urban city. For me the location and the placement is just in evidence, so the placing of the urban light will define the position of my camera and the frame of my photography. I like when the shadow naturally defines the framing of the image. In fact, I just love vignetting. I let the darkness of the night and the lights of the city tell when where my frame is and I’ve got to get my story in it – that’s all.”

© Richard Vantielcke
© Richard Vantielcke

Before it gets here (series: Before it gets here). Taken on a Canon EOS 7D with an EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens at a focal length of 10mm; the exposure was 1.6 seconds at f/8, ISO 125.

Image files & post-production

When asked if he shoots RAW or JPEG files Richard laughs and replies: “RAW and JPEG. I’m a bit ‘old school’. My routine for post-production is that at first I use my JPEGs and do a simple view to select the best shots; then I extract the RAW file I prefer and work on it. For post-production I use the RAW file, as it’s so simple to manipulate. I work in Lightroom just to re-adjust my initial settings.”

He adds: “At three o’clock in the morning when it’s cold and you’re tired you just don’t want to spend so much time on settings. I prefer to put all of my energy into the creation of a good frame and then back at home with my computer and a good cup of coffee I spend all of the time to re-adjust all of my settings. So, RAW files are my favoured choice.”

When he renders his images Richard applies a working name to them. He explains: “For me, to put a name on a photograph is very important. It’s part of my process and I really need to give a name to my photograph – I cannot use a random name. Sometimes it’s just simple, self-evident and immediate or sometimes it’s just an idea or a sensation of an idea. Then I use Photoshop to give a graphic and aesthetic touch to the photograph. My night photographs are always colour but I try to attenuate colours that are too vivid. My colours are often faded and ‘washed out’ a little bit.”

Richard reveals: “I try not to spend too much time on post-production. For me, if the initial frame is not good post-production will not correct it. Post-production is only here to enhance the visual, not to make a new one. I’m not a graphic designer; I’m just a photographer."

© Richard Vantielcke
© Richard Vantielcke

Obey (series: Watching Big Brother). Taken on a Canon EOS 7D with an EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens at a focal length of 17mm; the exposure was 0.5sec at f/8, ISO 160.

Favourite style & ambitions

Out of all the styles he has – whether it be urban, night, self-portraits, – we ask which one is his favourite? Richard shoots back: “My favourite one is the one that mixes all of that – night, urban photography with my alter ego and a conceptual, narrative flavour. That’s just the way I want to get photographs.”

Richard reveals: “I have some difficulties with putting a label or tags on a photographer. [If people say] ‘OK, he’s an urban photographer or a street photographer’. No! I hate hashtags on Instagram; I just hate it. Everything has to fit in a box! Maybe it’s presumptuous but everything has to be out of the box [for me] with no label and no tags. I hope my personal universe may be a bit different from those thousands or hundreds of thousands of photographers. I just want to do something that’s maybe a bit different. That’s what I want to achieve with photography.”

As for his future ambitions Richard is quite reserved and admits: “Right now I just want to express myself through photography – it feeds me and I need it. I just want to continue; I want it to be a passion and I just want to be proud of what I’m making and look back and think ‘OK, maybe I lit something in myself’.”

Biografía: Richard Vantielcke

Richard Vantielcke

Richard Vantielcke is a self-taught French freelance photographer who is based in Paris. His low-light photography is often conceptual and narrative and covers a variety of subjects such as the night, urban architecture and self-portraits. It is heavily focused on storytelling and Richard’s influences include the artist René Magritte and the film directors Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone and Brian De Palma. His work has been featured on Japanese TV station NHK and in magazines such as Poland’s Camerapixo.


Solitude together. Both images taken on a Canon EOS 7D with an EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens at a focal length of 14mm. For the left hand image the exposure was 1/20sec at f/6.4, ISO 100 and for the right hand image the exposure was 1 second at f/6.4, ISO 100.