Yannick Schurwanz Was An Athlete. Now He Lights Them Creatively

“In the end, we are all just human beings, and that’s often forgotten with athletes. That is also the case as a photographer,” says Dutch photographer Yannick Schurwanz. He was a former competitive athlete when an injury forced him to the sidelines for a few weeks. Picking up a camera during this period got him a funny nickname and a future photography career.

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Yannick specializes in sports photography, much like I do too. But I wasn’t an athlete in any way. I just happened to be a guest with a big prosumer camera at a race meet one evening. An organizer spotted me and gave me the first break of my professional career. It’s all in this article by Dan from last week. It pays to be at the right places and do the right thing. In Yannick’s case, he didn’t sit around when he was on the sidelines due to a sporting injury. He grabbed his camera and began photographing his fellow athletes, even if he was terrible at it to start with. A positive attitude and knowledge of the subject he trained his camera on, meant that he could only get better at the craft. It’s much easier these days than 20 or 15 years ago to learn and practice photography. Grab your camera and start making pictures. Just don’t give up when you see bad ones coming from your lens. 

The Essential Photo Gear Used by Yannick Schurwanz

Yannick told us:

To be honest, I’m a true gear addict; I really have too much gear, I think sometimes hahaha. But on the other hand, I see gear as a tool, so I don’t care which brand or tool I use, as long as it is the very best I can get. A client is paying you a lot of money, so you better deliver the best you can get. That doesn’t mean that good gear makes good pictures. But it helps good photographers make even better work. Good gear should help you focus on the subject you shoot, and it should be reliable for me. I had my camera’s in snowstorms in Lapland with -20 for whole days, and good gear should be able to work in any condition. 

The Phoblographer: Would you mind telling us about yourself and how you got into photography?

Yannick Schurwanz: I’m Yannick Schurwanz, 25 years old from Groningen, Netherlands. I’ve been photographing since 2015, so not that long, actually. It started with my mom being into photography; she used to be in the darkroom herself. That inspired me to buy my very first camera (Nikon D5300 + 18-105mm). I used a camera to take holiday pictures during the summer of 2015. I didn’t know anything about photography, but I really became in love with editing in lightroom. Turning terrible pictures into something decent through editing. 

Later that year, I started studying and rowing competitively; training 8 times a week brought its injuries, so instead of sitting at the sideline, I photographed my freshmen (8+) and soon had the nickname ‘Schwanzpics’ at the club. Meaning dickpics in German, a wordplay with my nickname. That joke was actually the start of my professional career

At some point, my crew pushed me to go to a race, and within no time, I took over the rowing community in the Netherlands with my terribly over-edited images, but well, they stood out, so it gained a lot of attention. Within no time, people were asking me for photography jobs, but looking back at it, I wasn’t ready for it, although I thought I was. So in 2017, it was my side job next to studying, and next to extreme edits, I became a better photographer. From 2019 onwards, I decided I wanted to do photography full-time and put my bachelor in spatial planning on a lower level to focus on making my dream a reality. From there on, I’m still growing and growing, business-wise, but also as an artist. 

Nowadays, my campaigns can be seen on billboards all across the country, and I travel with the German Rowing Federation to a lot of events and training camps. But I also shoot the pro golf circuit.  

The Phoblographer: Most people like to freeze athletic action with super-fast shutter speeds. Tell us what inspired you to slow things down a bit and do this series a little differently.

Yannick Schurwanz: Since I shoot a lot of sports events, I always slow down my shutter from time to time. Most of my assignments aren’t like other sports photographers; I do not work for the press. I work for brands and organizers that give a lot of creative freedom. So it was only a logical move to do the same thing in the studio. I was also inspired by Tim Tadder to do it. His work is a great inspiration for me. 

The Phoblographer: Were there multiple takes required for each shot? Can you help demystify the concepts of front and rear shutter curtains for our readers

Yannick Schurwanz: Well, actually we did not prepare this shoot with much detail, The light setups were prepared, and we had a mood board for poses; other than that, we learned by doing. We just switched up poses together with our amazing model, who has a fitness and karate background, which helped a lot in doing kicks and other movements. Actually, in most shots, I did not use rear curtain sync since the shutter is low; timing was easier with standard front curtain shutter. We took around 500 images that day, of which 300 were just testing setups. 

At the end of the shoot, we had the aha moment, where we understood how to get the most of the lighting. All the images you see were from the last part, where we moved to lights extremely close to minimize spill. 

My mom always used a Nikon, so I had to go for a Nikon. It made it possible to use her amazing lenses, like a 70-200mm which really helped a lot in the beginning since I did not have my own pro gear

The Phoblographer: If you’re in a complex shoot like this and something doesn’t work out, what do you do to change things around? How do you train yourself to put aside such roadblocks and develop new ideas on the spot?

Yannick Schurwanz: This is a very good question and something that splits the amateurs from the pros, in my opinion. I actually had a client who wanted the same effect as the Lightspeed series. We rented a studio and did everything exactly the same, same gear, same assistant. But somehow, we did not get the effect working. It was due to a window which did not enable us to create a full black-out in the studio that was needed. I was telling myself to be calm, be transparent to the client and make sure I have a solution. It wasn’t a problem at all; we had prepared a backup solution. We shot all the assets and fixed it in post. So for me, the best way to overcome these roadblocks is to have back-ups and a shitload of experience and preparation. So for big studio production, I test my complete setups at our own little studio. 

The Phoblographer: Was there a comforting sense of accomplishment after completing the shoot without much Photoshop?

Yannick Schurwanz: Actually, I was at that time a bit burned out, and photography was not that much fun, even thinking about quitting. So a friend pushed me to do a project which I think would give me a lot of energy and fun. This was the Lightspeed series. After getting home and going through the files, making the first lightroom adjustments. I was screaming with happiness. It made me very emotional; it really gave me energy for the next three weeks and a lot of motivation to push further. It also gave me a lot of confidence seeing the whole plan coming together. 

The Phoblographer: So what were some of the ideas and thoughts that didn’t make it to the final series? What kind of pictures or techniques didn’t work out in the end?

Yannick Schurwanz: The whole shoot did go better than expected; only minor things did not make it, like certain poses. But we found even better poses in the end, thanks to our model Roos. We did also plan to do some other colour combinations, but time was a little short in the studio, but otherwise, it was really according to plan. That’s not always the case hahah. But I think the more experience you have, the better you are at coming up with solutions. As a pro, you have a very big toolbox and just pick some things out of that box and combine them with each other.  

The Phoblographer: Why go down the challenging route when this could be done with less effort using readily available stock CGI / photoshop presets?

Yannick Schurwanz: Easy, in lots of cases, you can spot the CGI/photoshop route. There’s something imperfect about doing it in-camera, which has a lot more character. And the in-camera route is faster, I would say, for me. 

The Phoblographer: I often get stuck for creative ideas when I’m thinking of personal photo projects. Do you have any tips on how our readers can plan such creative shoots to work on and feel inspired again?

Yannick Schurwanz: That’s a hard one for me. I actually have an overdose of ideas but not the energy and time to execute them all since I work a lot for clients. I mandate myself to have a personal project every 1-2 months! I push myself because I know it will bring me further; it’s the best marketing out there, showing what you are capable of. A good way to get inspired is to combine techniques and subjects. For example, I like to combine techniques I see on Instagram in fashion/beauty shoots and execute in a sports setting, which makes it feel new because not a lot of people have done it in sports, for example. So mix things up you see. That will create work that stands out. 

The Phoblographer: Have you added on to this series later with some new ideas? If not, do you plan on continuing it soon?

Yannick Schurwanz: I will work on new personal projects with other complex light setups but not a continuation. I actually want to do a continuous series once, but for me to really see a future in such a series, I need to have a very, very strong concept behind it, not just showing cool images. It should be a piece of conceptual artwork. 

At the moment my eyes are on the coming Nikon Z9. If it’s no good I think a switch to Sony is coming up. The new technology is enabling shots that weren’t possible earlier or makes it easier to get them and that’s what my work should be about, getting shots that stand out.

The Phoblographer: You shoot with a lot of athletes in your line of work. What are some of the emotional and inspirational takebacks you’ve absorbed from working with them?

Yannick Schurwanz: I worked with a lot of Olympic athletes, world and European champions, and I have seen them cry, talk of quitting etc. It is just unreal how much work goes into being a pro athlete. And it is very important to not only see the champions. There is only one winner but 1000’s of athletes putting in the same hard work and effort without that being acknowledged properly always. You have to be physically strong but even stronger mentally. But in the end, we are all just human beings, and that’s often forgotten with athletes. That is also the case as a photographer. Especially in times of social media, don’t get fooled. There is always someone online who will have better work than you, and you should not care; be inspired by it, don’t devalue your work by social media, which I see happen way too often. 

I’ve had my own moments where I thought my work was not good enough, sitting at the airport crying because I was unhappy, but after a couple of years, I learned to accept that feeling, that your work is never finished, it is never good enough. But that is okay for me; I just accept that I have this thinking pattern and leave it there. And this is a place where I still can learn a lot from some of the athletes I photograph. 

All images by Yannick Schurwanz. Used with permission. Visit his Instagram and Behance pages, as well as his website to see more of his work

Feroz Khan

Never seen without a camera (or far from one), Feroz picked up the art of photography from his grandfather at a very early age (at the expense of destroying a camera or two of his). Specializing in sports photography and videography for corporate short films, when he’s not discussing or planning his next photoshoot, he can usually be found staying up to date on aviation tech or watching movies from the 70s era with a cup of karak chai.