Picture the iconic dance scene from Singing in the Rain but with a troupe of 14 dancers, performing ankle-deep in water on a mirrored set. With the sparkling water spray and ever-varying lighting, this would be a real challenge for any camera and photographer. Ilvy Njiokiktjien, an award-winning documentary photographer based in the Netherlands, used one of Canon’s new L-Series lenses to capture Dutch water dancing troupe Conny Janssen Danst as they performed their exciting show Mirror Mirror in Rotterdam.
“The dancers are in water,” Ilvy explains. “It looked spectacular with the spray splashing up, and a huge mirror hanging from the ceiling – it almost looked like two shows: the one I could see in front of me, and the one I could see in the mirror. It was incredible for pictures.”
Working as a professional for over a decade, Ilvy mainly covers current affairs and contemporary social issues. “I started out of curiosity,” she explains. "Back then, I could never have realised that my camera, and my job as a photojournalist, would give me the chance to enter so many different people’s lives.
“Winning the trust of people is essential for good reportage,” she adds. “I am genuinely interested in people's lives, their stories and the way they live. This has led me to photograph very special people, often in very tough times.”
Talking to people, and trying to get to know them, helps me to photograph them.
Ilvy’s approach has always been to photograph real life as it happens, and she refuses to stage her shots. “To me it’s most important to show the human side of the person I am photographing. I have photographed hunger in South Sudan this past year, an unbelievably sad experience. It would have been very easy to just go around and take quick pictures. But I really tried to sit down and engage with people. Trying to get to know them, helps me to photograph them.”
Ilvy’s modern ballet shoot may fall on the lighter side of her documentary work, but with darkness, water, fast-moving subjects and, at times, a deafeningly quiet theatre, the shoot was by no means a walk in the park. Finding a silent, fast lens to capture the action was a big part of the challenge. According to Ilvy, the new EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM was the ideal lens to use: “It’s great for portraits, especially those in low light conditions, and it has beautiful sharpness.”
Sitting in the front row at the ballet to capture the action put Ilvy at risk of getting splashed, “but as both the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens and my EOS 5D Mark IV are water resistant, I was able to shoot it all," she says. "At times the show fell completely silent, but thankfully the Mark IV is very fast, even on silent mode, and the lens was very quick to focus.”
Needing to be fast on her feet, Ilvy was grateful for the low weight of the lens. “It was much lighter than I thought it would be, so that made me happy – I love it when lenses are strong but not too heavy so I can use them out in the field.”
Ilvy’s top tips for documentary images
Whatever the subject you’re aiming to capture, Ilvy advocates taking a methodical approach to documentary photography:
Check out the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM product page for more information about the lens.