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Interviews with Photographers – Johan Vandenhecke

johan vandenhecke thumbnail

Johan Vandenhecke is a drone photographer from Belgium, going by the alias of Johan Drone Adventures. In January 2019 his girlfriend and he quit their 9-to-5 corporate jobs to travel the world.

In the last 15 months he has amassed an impressive portfolio of drone photos from beautiful places all over the world. Which are reposted almost daily by big travel accounts on Instagram.

He mainly shoots nature landscapes and the occasional urban/architecture photography. Always trying to be creative and finding a unique angle. He likes to find inspiration from nature’s surprising forms and patterns.

Since they both had to go back to Belgium – because of the Coronavirus – he is now trying to turn his newfound passion into a full-time job. One professional pillar will be live by the end of April, when his online drone photography course will be launched as the ‘Drone Adventurer Masterclass’.

How and when did you start with photography? When did you start / take your first photo?

I first started playing with the idea of a drone when we had decided to leave on a world trip. I felt it could add to our perspective and would create more unique memories. So I bought a DJI Mavic Air in August 2018.

I soon discovered that I really liked flying the drone around and that’s when I started to learn more about drone photography. You know, all the boring stuff, like the right settings, RAW, ND filters, theory of composition etc …

This really became a thing during our trip to Slovenia in September 2018, where I would always have my drone in my backpack and try out new stuff all the time.

Some of the photos I brought back from that trip are still really good today in my opinion. And so from that time onwards, we’ve been inseparable, haha 😀

johan vandenhecke bled
Bled, Slovenia

Always trying to learn more and improve my drone photography, either by watching other great drone photographers on Instagram, or by exploring locations that are off the beaten path, or really just trying different perspective on popular destinations as well.

Can you tell me more about your blog / YouTube channel?

Once I really started enjoying drone photography – somewhere October 2018, I came up with the idea of using it to get more partnerships for our world trip. So first thing you need, is a good website, right? 😊

At first there was a lot of focus on my travel blog where I would write about the adventures from our trip. But then I shifted my attention more towards drone related topics and showcasing my portfolio as well.

Today my blog is still way underdeveloped unfortunately. I plan to still write those travel articles though. However the priority has always been on traveling itself, on showcasing our partnerships (see page real-estate) and now the post-production on my drone photography course is taking up all my time.

I still really like the design of my website, which is created myself. I think it’s a great way to showcase my portfolio in a qualitative way.

The second thing you need is recognition on Instagram. So I converted my old account with like 200 followers into the drone photography account it still is today. And I started posting daily. Some photos were good, others were less good.

But I got a lot of feedback and improved from there. I actually wrote a 3-article blog series on how I quickly grew my account, which has over 15.000 followers today.

My YouTube channel on the other hand, was born out of the necessity, to host all my drone/travel videos. And it still is today. I’m not using it actively. I might start posting interviews with other drone photographers on my channel. It’s something that I’ve done for my online course and it’s always a lot of fun. So might be a good idea for a future project.

What kind of gear do you use?

When did you start with drone photography?

Well I’ve actually never done regular photography. Never had a DSLR or anything. So drone photography was the first time I got involved with photography.

My girlfriend had bought a mirrorless Sony A6000 camera right before our trip, to take our regular travel photos. So that was also the first time I held a proper camera in my hands, haha.

Which drone do you use?

My first drone was the DJI Mavic Air. A great and fun little drone, perfect for traveling. However halfway through our trip I decided to upgrade it to a DJI Mavic 2 Pro, because I realized the quality of the sensor and the pixels was just way better.

And if I ever wanted to do something professional with my photos, like sell them, I needed the best possible quality.

I’m still very happy I upgraded back then and I wish someone had pointed this out to me even earlier. On the other hand, buying 2 expensive drones in only 9 months’ time … some people call me crazy already, haha. Luckily I was still able to sell my old Mavic Air for a decent price.

johan vandenhecke Bromo
Bromo, Indonesia

Where did you learn to shoot with a drone?

Everything you ever need to know is available on YouTube. So that was my go-to platform, and it still is. But the information is very scattered.

So you need to watch a ton of videos to get all the good information. And not all of those self-proclaimed experts are actually giving you the correct information.
One channel I would really recommend is Drone Film Guide. Really good information and always updated. However they are really focused on the videography part of it.

That’s why I decided there was still a niche for drone photography as well, hence the idea for my online course was born.
With that knowledge, you just need to go out there and shoot as much as possible. That’s the only way to really learn.

Do you have any tips for our readers who are just starting or planning to start with drone photography?

Other than YouTube, you need to talk to photographers who inspire you. Connect with them on Instagram. Ask them how they shoot, how they edit and you will learn a lot 😊

I also provide 2 free eBooks on my website, with tips on drone photography and tips on Lightroom. So go get those.

I often get the question what a good drone for beginners would be. I always say it depends on your budget and your ambition. The DJI Mavic Mini is a great little drone for example. But it doesn’t shoot in RAW.

So if you are used to working with RAW’s as a ‘regular’ photographer, you won’t have a lot of fun with the Mini. That’s also why I started with the Mavic Air, because it offers RAW.

On top of that 2020 promises to become a great year for consumer drones. Lots of new models coming out.

johan vandenhecke Whitsundays
Whitsundays, Australia

Which of your photos is your favourite? Does it have a backstory?

This photo from Padar island in the Komodo National Park in Indonesia is probably still my favorite photo. It’s one of the first photos I shot with the new drone and new filters.

And I immediately noticed the difference in color vibrancy and depth. It’s already such a gorgeous island with the view on those 3 beaches on both sides of the island. And from the air it looked even better.

It also brings back really good memories from our visit to the Komodo National Park. We had to climb all the way up that mountain in order to get the famous view. Not that easy in your swimming shorts and slippers.

In general Komodo was an amazing trip! Definitely one of the best experiences from our entire world trip!

johan vandenhecke padar
Padar island, Indonesia

Among the gadgets that you own, is there something that you wish you hadn’t bought? Why?

We actually try to travel light. So not many gadgets. Only the basics. Maybe I’ll start buying some gadgets now that I’m home.

Have you ever travelled to another country / continent for photography purposes?

Is that a trick question? 😊

I have photos from all countries we visited. But I would say Myanmar, Indonesia, Australia and Colombia were definitely the ones where I had the most fun flying my drone. And that also shows in the photos. 

johan vandenhecke bagan
Bagan, Myanmar

Do you have your favourite local area where you take photos?

I personally believe you can take beautiful photos everywhere. You just need to look at those locations with open eyes. This great photo was taken just a couple of kilometers from my house, in Lille in France. It shows the old market during the last light of the day. Even looking at it now, 1,5 years later, I still like the atmosphere and the first lights being illuminated.

johan vandenhecke Lille
Lille, France

In the field, what are your settings?

Aperture – between f/2.8-5.0 (as of 5.6 it starts losing sharpness)
Shutter Speed – Depends
ISO – 100
White Balance – Sunny
Focus – Manual/Auto -> for photography on auto, for video on manual to block the shutter speed at 1/50 or 1/60
Image Format – RAW/JPEG -> both, JPG for previewing and RAW for editing

What kind of tools do you use for post processing? What do you like about it? Explain your workflow.

I always edit in Adobe Lightroom. I have the latest CC classic version.

Learning how to edit was a process of searching for clues on YouTube as well and took a while to fully understand. Nowadays I consider myself quite good with Lightroom and have created the following workflow:

  1. Merge my 5 AEB photos into 1 HDR RAW (with maximum deghosting)
  2. Crop according to the rule of thirds in a 5:4 ratio for Instagram
  3. Basic: Auto settings + toggle a bit to get the maximum dynamic range
  4. Tone curve: Medium contrast S-Curve which I edit a bit to soften up the blacks
  5. HSL: go over the color tones first, then adjust the saturation (usually boost the oranges a lot and yellows a little) and then brighten up the colors (usually oranges/yellows a lot while darkening some others, to get a smooth golden hour touch)
  6. Sometimes I use the Split Toning to add even more orange glow into the highlights. Always balance it off by adding some blue in the shadows.
  7. Detail: crank up the sharpening to about 75, the radius to 1,2 and the Masking to about 35% (this is specific to the Mavic 2 Pro, I used different settings with the Mavic Air for example)
  8. Then it’s time to add some gradual filters and finish off by erasing some unwanted details with the Spot Removal Tool.
  9. And then export for Instagram, where I always add an output sharpening for the cleanest result (for: screen + amount: high)

Whose work has influenced you the most? / Do you have a favourite photographer?

I really look to other good drone photographers on Instagram, in order to analyze what they do, how they shoot and how they edit. In order to get inspired. Some of my favorites I check almost daily: @borsch @merrwatson @airpixels @abstractaerialart @boyanoo

What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos?

The thing that changed the most in my drone photography from a technical point of view, was starting to shoot in 5x AEB mode. This really enables you to capture a lot more detail and you get a much broader dynamic range. Which you really see afterwards in Lightroom.
More from a creative point of view, the moment I understood the difference golden hour makes in the mood of your photo and also the way you can edit it. I’m not a morning person, but I always try to shoot during golden hour. Even if that means I have to get up at 4.30am …

Do you have any formal training as a photographer, and have you work in a professional studio before?

No, all self-taught.

What details do you believe make the best photographs? How do you go about focusing on them in your work?

I try not to take topdown photos all the time, but I rather look for perspectives that can’t be shot with a normal camera. By hovering over the edge of a cliff for example or flying over the ocean.

And then adding a compelling subject into the frame, often that would be my girlfriend or the both of us, casting a long shadow on the beach for example.

johan vandenhecke Fraser Island
Fraser beach, Australia

If I do go for topdowns, then I look for cool patterns or symmetry. Those always work really well.

johan vandenhecke Tatacoa
Tatacoa desert, Colombia

From your point of view, what makes a good picture?

A good photo is where you feel an emotional connection to the subject or the scene (e.g. you can picture yourself standing there, enjoying that view) or a photo where you are surprised because you are not accustomed to this view of point-of-view (e.g. because you can’t tell what it is exactly, or because it’s a unique view)

An example is this photo from Vietnam. These coconut palm boats are a popular attraction close to Hoi An, but the point of view was something that I hadn’t seen before. That’s why this photo is still my most shared photo on Instagram to date.

johan vandenhecke Hoi An
Hoi An, Vietnam

Since the photography techniques and equipment change quickly, it is important to stay up-to-date. What do you do to always keep up with the times?

I’m part of several drone community groups on Facebook. To my surprise they have a lot of members and are very active. So any hint or leak is posted there right away. So it’s easy to stay informed.

Nowadays almost everyone has access to devices with which it is possible to take pictures. What do you think is the difference between a professional photographer and any other hobby photographer?

Your question reminds me of that fashion magazine cover that was shot with the Iphone X and nobody noticed.

I think the composition and the edit makes all the difference. A high-end smartphone or in my niche, a beginner drone like the Mavic Mini for example, will shoot a very decent photo. Just by looking at the jpg’s you wouldn’t notice that much difference in pixel quality.

But the composition will make it stand out and once you add your magic sauce in Lightroom, that’s where a beautiful photo becomes a BANGER. And those 2 steps are something an amateur can’t do.

Image quality and resolution were reduced for Web. To see Johan’s photos in full size, use one of these links.

Instagram | Facebook | Email | Website | YouTube

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