Sharp Shooter Katinka Bester

The 23-year-old photographer helps you document your best summer ever

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon

“Ballet gave me discipline. Painting taught me composition.” We’re visiting  the home of sometimes Superbalist photographer Katinka Bester, who is busy walking us through the steps she took to get to where she is today.

“I was six when I first picked up a camera. My dad had given me a, I dunno what, like an Olympus point and shoot. All you had to do was click a button. That’s it. I thought, ‘Wow, this is magic, you click a button and what you see appears on a piece of paper!’”

However, it was ballet that was Katinka’s primary focus until she hung up her pumps at 18, because, like she says, “You can either dance or have a life. You don’t get to have both.”

As much a realist as she is a talented artist, Katinka knew that sustaining herself on her painting would be difficult, and so she decided to put all of her energy into photography. The result is a documentary style where  her pictures peel back the layers, show off vulnerability and capture moments that are important to her and sacred to the subject that she’s photographing.

Funnily enough Katinka doesn’t actually like being in front of the camera. “I’m a digi-operator, so I have an excuse not to test for white balance or lighting or anything because I need to see the screen.”

Still, after geeking out with our photographer Nick in shutterbug jargon, she finds the best light falling into her flat and then works with him to get the shots that we need.

Katinka never really poses though, and is either paging through a magazine…

“I’m shooting for these guys (Self Service) next month in Paris. Ulrich kind of hooked it up for me. I’m shooting the first looks for Fashion Week. Backstage. Just before they go on to the ramp.”

…or a book…

“Chavs and skinheads – Yorkshire Boys by Alisdair McClellan. Not all nudes. Mostly portraiture. ID magazine brought out an edition featuring only his work as a kind of tribute. He’s only late 20s.”

…or playing with Harriet the cat…

 “Not really my cat, it found us.”

The point of us being here today isn’t to put Katinka in front of the lens, although she does possess an undeniable fresh faced beauty that makes for beautiful pictures, instead we want the young photographer to share her skills so that you, dear reader, are able to take better photographs.

I don’t think gear is important. When someone asks me what they should buy I’ll always say an old film camera. Preferably a 35mm. You can take 36 images on a roll of film and therefore you’re more mindful of what you’re taking pictures of. You’re limited by the roll of film in your camera. You’re more considerate.

I own over ten cameras. Lenses I’m not too big on. When I become a commercial photographer I’ll build up my lens collection. Now I just rent because they’re really expensive.

The best places to find the type of old film cameras that I love are Gumtree, Tothills and all those little antique shops in Woodstock. Just give them your number and then when something comes through they’ll call you and you can score a deal.

If I do a photo mission, like when I went to Scotland, I take a Contax, a Pentax and a Canon. Contax is a 35mm instant film camera, Pentax is medium format and the Canon is just a digital backup really. If I can only have one camera with me I’ll grab my Nikon FM2. That thing is unbelievable when used with Tri-x film.

Keep your film in the fridge. It will last longer.

Correct exposure is really important. You don’t want to over or under expose a pic. It depends on the camera but it will have a little meter that you can see through the viewfinder.

The other important thing is subject matter. Even if you’re not technically good at using a camera, the important thing is making a picture that moves you. If it’s fun it will come naturally and a scene will catch you. Whether it’s taking a picture of a child on the street or a pretty flower in someone’s garden, it’s all about you and what you find interesting.

Composition is my strong point. You need to look at all four corners of the image and not just the object that you’re taking a picture of.

A selection of Katinka's work, which you can see more of here: katinkabester

Rule of thirds is where you take an image and divide it into three. Horizontally or vertically. It’s said that you should place the object that you’re shooting in one of those spaces. It’s good to break that rule when you’re discovering your personal style.

Some of the best new photographers do not use this rule. By doing this they become unique, or their work becomes unique. And that’s what people are looking for. There are so many photographers and images going around that when something is unique, skewer, too colourful, too red… they like it because it’s something different.

Harley Weir, she’s unbelievable at this concept of breaking the norm in photography.

ISO, aperture, shutter speed…  All that isn’t necessary. People who are interested in photography might close their brains if I start speaking about that. The beautiful thing about photography is what you take pics of, you’re just using a camera as a medium of what you see.

It’s not about the camera. It really isn’t. it’s about what you see and the thought process of going into that that makes you a good photographer.

Understanding light and how it works is important. Light is the only thing. Sometimes I’ll take a subject and walk around with them watching how the light falls on their face, and they think I’m mad, but when the light is perfect I get that eureka moment.

It’s a gut feel. I know what I want. I have an image in my head that’s not a reference or anything I’ve seen before but something I’ve imagined and now want to go out and create.

Instagram is great.  I love how the average person is using photography as a medium to document their life. And to me documenting your life is so important. Because it’s a memory that in 50 years time you’ll be grateful for. Take that picture. Make a souvenir.

My most prized photograph is of my mother and I.  I’m about four and she’s holding me. We both have the exact same smile. It’s a very cheesy smile.

I think camera phones are great because they’re so accessible and we’re so saturated by the pics. There are so many images taken every day, and because of that there are some great pics coming out.

I took a cool pic of my cat  on my iPhone this morning. Why I like this pic is because it’s accentuating the familiar. A cat is generally aloof, posh, and that was accentuated by how he’s posing in this photograph.

I love shooting on Polaroid. I love how it’s instant. That instant gratification of having captured a moment. A memory that can be made then put away and then brought out and shown to someone. Again you’re limited to the amount of pics you can take. Images sometimes get lost when you only shoot on digital. You’ll take 200 pics and then forget about them. Whereas if you take 10 photos on a Polaroid you tend to treasure them.

Ulrich Knoblauch is my mentor. I was scheduled to be on a shoot with him at his house and was sitting on my bum on the floor putting together a light shaping tool, barefoot. He liked that. 

My assistant will need to be a really great person. Someone who’s very hard working, always says yes and… isn’t scared to work hard. They don’t need to know everything, that can all be taught, rather start with someone you can get along with.

When I have an interest in shooting someone it’s usually because I want to know what the person is. Not necessarily who they are, I don’t care where they hang out or anything like that, but there’s something that strikes me when I first see them that makes me want to dig deeper.

I spend time with my subjects before I shoot them so that there’s a level of trust. I ask them what they want out of an image. People are generally quite self-aware.

I prefer shooting characters. Models know exactly how to pose, how to move, but an ordinary person doesn’t and it’s that naivety that I find so special.

I was the photographer for the Design Indaba expo. They have those days where there are like 2000 school kids, and out of 2000 kids this one girl stood out. I became obsessed and started following her in the expo area until I’d worked up the courage to ask her if I could take photos of her. This is the girl, here, look. I love this picture. You can see she still has her milk teeth.

I’m holding on to these pics. Collecting characters. Trying to create something unique. I have my eye on this girl that I find so beautiful. She’s got that androgynous look that I love. I’ve asked her already and now just need time and then I’ll shoot her.

Confidence was my biggest hurdle. I feel so shy asking a complete stranger if I can take their picture, but it’s that rush that I get from doing it and I know that if they say yes I’ll be so happy. I love that. It becomes easier the more you do it. But that was definitely my biggest problem.