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Atmosphere and a single source of light

Canon Ambassador Jaroslav Monchak is a master of atmosphere, using nothing more than light, space and subject to create powerful narratives.
A black and white image of a barefoot ballet dancer en pointe, looking to the ceiling, in a sparsely decorated wood-walled room. Sunlight falls through the window. He wears jeans and an open blazer but is bare chested. Copyright Jaroslav Monchak
Jaroslav Monchak & Cecilie Harris

Written by Jaroslav Monchak & Cecilie Harris

Atmosphere is everything for Canon Ambassador, Jaroslav Monchak. His eye is attuned to the movement of light, the opportunities afforded to him by space and the simplicity and complexity of the human face and body in front of the camera. Like a hunter, he knows instinctively when it is time to shoot.

“An appreciation of female beauty was probably a motivator in my becoming a portrait photographer. It was a good place to start, and it felt more natural to work with people, But when I bought my first camera – a Canon A400 – I didn't immediately start taking portraits. Instead, I began with landscape and macro photography. After a time, I attempted people and realised this was, indeed, my calling. Since then, portrait photography has become my favourite genre and I find working with people far more psychologically challenging than, for example, still-life. I sometimes wonder if this challenge, this emotional component, influences my work.

I began in a city where there were no photography schools or courses. I didn't even understand terms like ‘aperture’, ‘shutter speed’ and ‘ISO’. My Canon A400 did a lot of the work for me, but the feeling that I could achieve more inspired me to buy a DSLR and master the basics of exposure, autofocus and other settings. Textbooks, such as those written by Lee Frost, helped me to understand many aspects of photography and composition and, over time, I was able to open my own studio, where I then had the trial of learning to work with new equipment. A studio was necessary to continue to work to a high standard, regardless of weather and lighting conditions. This was incredibly important, as light is an essential tool for me and most of my portraits are created using just a single light source – even something as simple as window light – and its direction is crucial, even relegating other factors like intensity to the back seat.

On the right, Jaroslav Monchak in his studio, wearing sunglasses and looking into his Canon camera. On the left, a quote that reads, “Light is an essential tool for me and most of my portraits are created using just a single light source – even something as simple as window light – and its direction is crucial.”

As time passed, I became increasingly confident in my experience and knowledge, I felt it was important to share all I had learned. I organised and held a ‘masterclass’, which brought me immense joy. Sharing my knowledge in this way felt so satisfying and inspired me to open my own private photography school. This, of course, required a larger space and I moved to a bigger studio. I brought together a team of skilled photography professionals and developed an original course aimed at beginners. Over time, we expanded the curriculum to cater for photography enthusiasts and professionals too. Holding these courses also taught me that my knowledge was far deeper and more structured than I had realised, and this was my motivation to continue, progress further, refine my skills and share them with others.

This particular image was created for one of my workshops. I had the idea to photograph a professional dancer in a really lively and dynamic way – but it isn’t easy to do. As per my normal process, I divided the sessions into three stages: preparation, photography and retouching or processing. Working in this way is very important to me. Preparation is everything and this includes finding a location that will best suit my idea, as well as any props, clothes and, most importantly, my model. In most of my sessions I use only natural lighting, so I appreciate any locations where this is available.

A black and white image of a barefoot ballet dancer en pointe, looking to the ceiling, in a sparsely decorated wood-walled room. Sunlight falls through the window. He wears jeans and an open blazer but is bare chested. Copyright Jaroslav Monchak

© Jaroslav Monchak

At the session itself, I try to find at least three or four shooting points from which I can change angles. I often use the rule of three layers. Looking at the photo, you can see that I deliberately placed two chairs on the first layer, then the young man occupies the second. Finally, the background is the third layer. This, in my opinion, strengthens the atmosphere and helps to build the composition in the frame. And since I was only using light from the window, my shooting angles were limited. This meant that I had to constantly monitor it as it fell on him, to make sure that there was the right combination of light and shadow on his body. Shooting in dynamics like this is quite difficult – to capture the pose and the combination of light and shadow took around 15-20 photos.

I try to take photos that require little to no processing. If you take care in your preparations, follow the correct camera settings and work carefully with light, then most of your photos won’t need artistic processing, which is, in my opinion, very subjective. Here, I just reduced the glare from the sunlight and converted it to black and white. But honestly, photo editing has never held anything special for me. I do believe, however, that having a unique talent is not essential if you want to be a photographer. A photographer's style develops from their observations. Technical knowledge can be easily learned, and experience can be gained. These things are accessible to everyone, the key is simply a desire to learn.

Learn more about Jaroslav and his work on his Canon Ambassador profile page.

Jaroslav Monchak & Cecilie Harris

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