This week on the blog, we follow a professional German architecture photographer who started his career as a high-end commercial retoucher: Matthias Dengler.
A great interview in which Matthias explains to us how his perfectionist approach to retouching has shaped his work as a photographer.
Let's travel with Matthias in this series of 15 photos, let's go!
A few words about you, how did you start photography?
I had picked up my first camera at the age of 15 when the first social platforms started to grow. In the beginning, I simply wanted to have the coolest pictures on social media and wanted to impress other people. At that time, Lightroom wasn’t really a thing, so I threw my pictures into Photoshop and simply played around.
As I graduated and moved to the other end of the country, I wanted to know more about photography and my camera. So I spent almost every day photographing my surroundings. I purchased a tripod, neutral density filters and other tools to achieve great results in long exposure photography. It was a great reason to leave your home and go outside. Having explored almost every corner of the city, I started to travel around the world to diversify my portfolio, over the last couple of years.
For now, I can say that through more than 13 years of dedication I have taught myself from scratch to reach only one goal: Being the best I can become as a professional photographer. There is no one-way recipe solution to reach this goal. After a few detours, though, I finally started my company and now make a living from photography. Hence, my passion, endurance and hard work have led me to a creative career in photography and retouching.
Before I decided to jump into freelance, I was employed as a full-time photographer, Photoshop artist and videographer for one of Germany’s biggest real-estate companies based out of Nuremberg, Germany. As a photographer, I mainly traveled through metropolitan areas of Germany to create the company's lifestyle, landscape, architecture, interior and portrait imagery. Aside from photo assignments, I joined the team of Photoshop artists, retouching photographs and compositing 3D renderings with 2D photographs. As a videographer, I was responsible for planning, recording and editing the company’s image and event videos.
Being born and growning up in Germany, I finished my geography studies in Gdansk Poland. There, in 2015, I made a fresh start in the photographic branch as a picture editor at Thomson Reuters’ global picture desk. Seeking for more photographic experience, I continued my professional work as a studio assistant at the Polish fashion studio POPin in 2016, until I left Poland to establish my travel photography portfolio while working part-time as a tour guide for Nordic Gateway AS in Stavanger, Norway.
In Stavanger, I created a visual outdoor story for the sports and outdoor brand Bolder, until I returned six months later to Gdansk to work for almost 2 years as a retoucher at Quad Graphics, the biggest printing company in the US. In June 2018, I moved to Nuremberg, Germany, grabbing the opportunity to work as a full-time photographer and Photoshop artist at Project Immobilien Wohnen AG.
On my way, I have already been published several times by National Geographic, was interviewed for and featured in Flickr’s spotlight, worked for multiple well-known clients, won numerous international photo contests, and served as a judge on Poland's national stage of the pan-European photo contest “Discover Europe.” Further, I have given public talks in Gdansk to share insights from my travels and photographic work. So far, I have already visited 25 countries on four continents.
How do you split your time between your different photography genre and retouching? And how do create synergies between them?
For my own work as a photographer, professionally and especially commercially successful photographs are always intertwined with retouching. Being on-location, looking through the viewfinder and planning out my shot, I already think about all the things I’ll have to do in Photoshop to bring my vision to life. I create many exposures that I manually blend together, using luminosity masking, manually created masks and other imagery from my personal stock from my hard drive.
Beforehand, I already take into consideration what distractions I would need to remove from the picture (traffic signs, election banners, drainages and suchlike). I place those distractions in a way that is easier and faster to remove in post-production. So, from start to finish I think about post-production. Especially for commercial jobs, if the weather conditions are bad on the day of my assignment, I still need to be able to deliver exactly what my clients want. Hence, I need to have a strong hand for retouching to deliver my product the way my customers expect it.
Many people think that using Photoshop is manipulating reality. For the most part, it depends on what your expectations and goals are. I use Photoshop mostly to enhance reality, compensating for the transformation of a three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional reality – a photograph. The human eye also has a higher dynamic range than any camera on the market. So to recreate my vision and my perceived reality, Photoshop is the go-to tool to recreate this moment in a photograph. This process of start-to-finish retouching allows me to offer and deliver a product to my customers that many others can’t. Besides, my retouching is so specialized that it cannot be outsourced to almost any other retoucher. This combination of photography and retouching gives me the possibility to take care of my photograph from start to finish, which is very important to me.
Everyone, who knows my work, knows that I’m a pixel-peeping perfectionist. If I have to remove objects or create a mask, I do not want to leave any trace behind. My pictures are known for being super clean and I really cannot stand obvious clone-outs and sloppy work in Photoshop. At one of my fulltime jobs, it was my task to find out if a picture had been altered or not. So you can imagine how critical and precise I am when doing drastic changes in Photoshop. I want everyone to be able to zoom in or print it in large without seeing any obvious flaw in retouching
Are you inspired by the work of other photographers or artists?
Yes, definitely! Basically for ten years, I was looking up to other people, browsing the internet for inspiration, creative ideas for photography and colour grading inspiration in Photoshop. While recreating imagery, I somehow gave it most of the time “my own personal twist” or “modern edge” to it, at least people told me so. In the end, they liked my work way more than the original.
Over the last two years, I’ve stopped this copycat behavior. Still, there are photographers I look up to, but less for artistic inspiration than for being successful and transitioning from an artistically driven approach towards the commercial side of photography. Many of the photography tutorials or behind the scenes footage of hand-picked Fstoppers photographers are really helpful for that. The knowledge I gained there allowed me to grow as a photographer and to create a signature look for all my photos across all genres of my photography.
Is there a place in the world you dream to photograph?
Yes, my biggest dream is to go on an expedition through the Arctic and Antarctica, the frozen wilderness of this world. I would love to explore a place that is under constant change. That way, all pictures will be unique and can’t be recreated. We cannot go back in time; glaciers melt, land disappears. As sad and scary as it is, I would love to explore places not many people have seen so far. I want to see, feel, experience and photograph in my own personal way.
Nowadays, before you go somewhere, you check online what places to visit; you open Instagram and you immediately see thousands of pictures of the same place. You know exactly what to expect. Exactly that diminished my enthusiasm on my trip to Iceland. In the past, it was my biggest dream to travel and photograph Iceland. Sadly though, when I arrived, I already knew exactly what to expect. All the fascination of this place vanished. All the magic was gone.
That is why I’m dreaming of having the money or getting paid to go on an arctic expedition. Lake Baikal in Russia in winter also really interests me, as it is remote, time-consuming and difficult to reach. I like to feel extremes. It makes me feel alive! After Chernobyl, which I already photographed, I’d also love to photograph other big abandoned places like the Hashima island near Japan or even lesser-known abandoned places. Places in decay fascinate me. I suppose, my artistic soul needs it as an antipole to my pixel-peeping perfectionist approach in my commercial work.
About your photography gears, what are your favorite tools?
When it comes to my photography gear, I like to say: “Buying an expensive camera doesn’t make you a good photographer. Neither does buying an expensive frying pan make you a good cook.” Consequently, I do not really focus too much on my gear. The majority of the time, I used to use different Canon DSLRs but I never really felt comfortable with them. I change my camera mode from AV to TV and the same button does different things in a different mode. It always confused me. In Iceland, I also ran into trouble with the weather-sealing features of Canon cameras. I wanted to have a reliable, weather sealed, intuitive and small camera on my travels.
Consequently, after my Iceland trip, I sold my whole Canon gear and switched to Fujifilm. The Fujifilm X-T1 (now I mainly use the newer X-T3) was a total game changer. I could program all buttons to my personal needs, got the dials on top and the aperture ring that work at any time and in each camera mode in the same way.
In the end, I come to the conclusion that my camera body is my favorite tool. The 16-55mm F 2.8 lens is also a perfect lens that covers almost all of my needs (except for architecture). It is weather sealed, can be used for landscapes, portraits and all the other things I photograph while traveling. It is heavy on the small body, but well you cannot have it all. In combination with the 10-24mm F 4.0 lens for architecture, those two lenses are the most frequently used. If I want to go really low-key and want to sneak into places where professional photography is prohibited, I attach the very small 23mm F 2.0 to my camera, so I look like an amateur point-and-shooter. So far, the camera system of Fujifilm fits my needs the best.
Do you have projects for the future like workshops, personal series or travels?
Currently, I mainly focus on my business. I just started my own company and would love never to go back to corporate life. Once my business is established, I plan to take my savings to travel the world slow-paced, to go off the beaten path and discover the world by myself, not only chasing the main tourist attractions of a country. On that journey, I would love to start a personal series about Soviet monuments, which are spread out all over the former Soviet Union. Those monuments are gigantic, massive, brutal pieces of concrete. Some of them look even like monuments from a different planet. This series will be a combination of two things I really like: Decaying abandoned places and architecture.
To see more from Matthias:
All photographs copyright Matthias Dengler and used with his permission.
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