Shoot to Thrill: Catching Up With Desmond Louw
If Instagram’s anything to go by, everyone’s a photographer these days. But what separates the hobbyists and hopefuls, from the true professionals?
Whatever it is, Desmond Louw and Antonia Heil have it in spades. As DNA Photographers, the husband and wife team shoot everything from vehicles to people, sports and weddings. They’re almost never not working, and while they call Cape Town home, they stamp their passports regularly while on assignment.
Their client list is extensive and enviable, as is the list of publications that have printed their work. A little arrogance would be understandable, but Desmond has none. Instead, he exudes a quiet confidence—a special blend of humility and a genuine love for his craft.
Since Desmond’s currently in Europe, we reached out electronically and asked him about his work, his process, and what it’s like to live in Cape Town.
Traffic Magazine: Where are you right now, and what are you doing there?
Desmond Louw: I’m currently in Levi, Finland, shooting for Porsche.
What’s Finland like, this time of year?
Desmond: The coldest time of the season is almost over, but it’s by no means warm! Yesterday I was shooting outside for six hours in minus 22. But if you have good clothes it’s surprisingly not that bad!
Levi is a small tourist ski town, and because it’s out of season it’s pretty empty—perfect.
You’ve been shooting for Porsche a lot—how’d that come about?
Desmond: Porsche saw our work, and then we worked on a small project. We rocked it—they liked the way we worked, the way we deal with them and the attitude we have.
How big a chunk of your work is automotive?
Desmond: Well, the past year we shot a lot for brands that were not car-related. Our automotive and other work is 50-50, I would say. This is a very good thing—variety keeps us excited and and on our toes.
And what is that other work?
Desmond: We shoot commercials, portraits, editorial work, weddings, events, concerts… anything that excites us. The shoots I do for Red Bull are amazing, those guys always push me to the limit.
Your work’s pretty spectacular, across the board—how do you keep that standard consistently high, regardless of what you’re shooting?
Desmond: Ha ha, thanks! I have been shooting for 16 years.
From day one I was obsessed with the technical side of photography. Back then I spent hours in the dark room, this was my happy place at night. I switched to digital in 2004, then Photoshop became my happy place.
I think what makes me so versatile in different types of photography, is that I experimented for years on how to get certain looks. I have been consistently studying adverts in magazines and trying to solve the way they shoot those photos. How did they light it, Photoshop it, etcetera?
I also think the fact that I never in my life assisted another photographer is a good thing, in a way. I created my own way of photography.
What’s your take on getting the right shot up front, versus fixing it in Photoshop?
Desmond: You always need to know what you will do in Photoshop before you even take the shot. Recently I have been moving away from Photoshop and trying to give my photos a more natural look. I did a big campaign for a gym, I hardly used Photoshop at all. Just some skin tones and retouching. Keep it natural!
I’m very hard on myself while shooting to get the RAW footage close to perfect, and using the right equipment is key.
What’s your weapon of choice?
Desmond: I have been loving my Nikon D750’s—such powerful, small, light cameras. I also try to always shoot with prime lenses.
And what’s your go-to pocket camera, when you’re sightseeing rather than working?
Desmond: My iPhone!
Opinion seems so divided on phone photography…
Desmond: Phone photography made me a better photographer. When Instagram started, back in the day, I could not stop shooting! I was shooting everywhere!
Personal shots are more about the memory than the quality of pic.
Getting back to the fact that you’re in Finland right now… when last have you actually been home?
Desmond: Just two weeks ago. But the word ‘home’ means something different to us. Home is where my wife is. We don’t have kids and we live a very free life, and very minimalistic. I do miss my bikes, sport and friends… and the best city in the world.
Do you spend more of the year abroad than you do in Cape Town?
Desmond: Nope, it’s about 60 percent Cape Town, 30 percent Europe, and the rest anywhere else.
What’s it like working with your wife; who’s responsible for what?
Desmond: We usually shoot together. On big productions she is often the producer and directs—she is amazing at this. We sometimes feel like a small ad agency—we like that idea!
What are some of your favourite places to travel to?
Desmond: America! And Berlin, it’s our second home.
Any specific state in the US?
Desmond: Oregon and Cali!
What took you to Oregon in the first place?
Desmond: We did a shoot in Texas, and decided to do a road trip from San Fran to Portland, along the coast and through the redwoods. This was high on my bucket list. We camped every night, had IPA and ribs. One of the best weeks of my life!
You said Cape Town’s the best city in the world… why?
Desmond: I live right below Devil’s Peak, and I mountain bike. I try to go up the mountain every morning, and I do this with my best friends—we look at the sunrise at the blockhouse and race down to one of the many awesome coffee shops in town. I don’t know anybody that has a better start to a day.
It’s world class. Cape Town is a trendsetting city like Portland, Berlin and all the others. I spoke to Dave Cotton and Paul van der Spuy about this, and they told me that even 30 years ago it was exactly the same. This city has been cool forever!
What’s in the garage, back home?
Desmond: I ride a Land Cruiser VX-R Series 80, American Spec. I also recently bought a 1979 baby blue Passat station wagon, and I have a Honda Africa Twin 650, I love that bike! My mountain killer is a Specialized Enduro Expert.
The Africa Twin is a Swiss spec, and I think it must be the only one is SA. It only has one headlight in front.
Tell us a bit more about that Land Cruiser…
Desmond: I bought it from a old man in Stellenbosch. I love it because it’s very unique. It’s left hand drive, in amazing shape, goes everywhere and only has 140k on the clock.
The best thing about it is that it is a bit of a movie star—it mostly ‘models’ in German movies. It makes more money than the fuel it swallows, it gives me 6km/l—yikes! Its a 4,5l, straight six petrol.