What’s a polarising filter – beach at Uvero Alto
Uvero Alto with a polarising filter

Uvero Alto with a polarising filter

A polarising filter is used in photography to reduce the effects of reflections and glare. When these distracting forms of light are removed from a photograph it allows colours to really shine through and appear much stronger. Polarisers are a particular favourite of landscape and architectural photographers for the dramatic effect they can have on a sky – transforming it from pale blue to a dense and impressive navy. Here you can see a ‘before and after’ demonstration of what a polarising filter can do. On this occasion I used the filter to darken the sky, firstly producing a stronger blue and secondly making the cloud formations stand out more clearly. The filter has also cut reflections from the surface of the sea, which again intensifies its colour, and the same impact can be seen on the sand as it’s colour becomes more saturated. While the non-filtered image is nice, the second is much more dramatic and eye-catching.

Uvero Alto without polarising filter

Uvero Alto without polarising filter

Rotate for control

The power of the filtration effect can be controlled at the shooting stage by rotating the filter in front of the lens. For these images I have shown the extremes of the effect, but it is easy to tone things down because the filter allows the degree of impact to be controlled at the shooting stage.

Two types of reflected light

In very basic terms there are two kinds of light illuminating this scene – light that comes directly from the sun and reflects off the trees, clouds, beach and sea into the lens. And then there’s light that’s been reflected from something aready, that goes on to bounce off those same objects, but from different angles. If you take the sand, for example, you can see there is light that’s coming directly from the sun and then there is light that has been reflected from the sky that gives the surface a slight haze. The same is true of the sea; in the non-filtered shot most of the colour we see is the reflection of the colour of the sky. Light that has already been reflected before it strikes the subject can be cancelled by a polarising filter, and thus help improve contrast and colour. The resultant reduced light levels will mean longer exposures are needed so, except in very bright conditions (such as in the case here), a tripod is the natural partner of a polarising filter. The filter I was using, made by Hoya, has particularly good light transmission, and so long exposures are less often required.

The angle of the sun

Polarising filters have most pronounced effect when the photographer has the sun on his or her back. The effect is still visible at 90° to the sun, but as soon as the lens moves to begin facing the sun a polariser becomes less useful.

Samsung GX20, with 16-45mm f/4 ED lens. Exposure without filter f/11 @ 1/250sec, with filter f/11 @ 1/125sec. Both ISO 100, and at the 16mm end of the lens.

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Uvero Alto with a polarising filter

Uvero Alto with a polarising filter

Uvero Alto without polarising filter

Uvero Alto without polarising filter

Using a neutral density graduated filter – Beltany stone circle

• Using neutral density filters • white balance for dawn light •

Neutral density filters help to control brightness differences.

Neutral density filters help to control brightness differences.

Balancing the brightness of sky and land is a regular problem at any time of day, but first thing in the morning, when the weak sun has still to cast its rays across the landscape, showing the detail in the foreground requires drastic action. On this morning I wanted to capture the atmosphere before the sun had really got up and started to shine. With a fine cover of cloud in the east the sun was up but only as a giant red ball with no real power, but its influence was enough to add a golden glow to the heads of grass in this late summer field.

I had been pointing the camera skyward to place the stone circle at the bottom of a frame of ‘big sky’. From the many times I have visited this place I knew there is only one angle from which to shoot this stone circle that allows it to be shown as a ring rather than a fragmented collection of rocks. It’s unfortunate that the only shooting position is in a dip in the land, which means it’s impossible not to be looking up at the subject. But with a wideangle lens aimed upwards to place the stones at the bottom of the frame the picture just looked like many others I had shot before. I was shooting ‘big sky’ because that is what I had in my head before I arrived, but I had to look a little harder at the scene when I realised the ‘big sky’ composition wasn’t going to work.

Looking afresh made me realise that I was missing an important and interesting element of the scene – the grass heads. The naturally low angle also meant I could include the grasses without tilting the camera down – so distortion would be kept at bay as the camera would be absolutely level.
While including the foreground solved one problem it introduced another. In the unlit morning, the grasses were much darker than the sky, and even the stones in their elevated position. The answer in this situation is to use a neutral density graduated filter to reduce the intensity of the light from the sky while allowing the light through from the lower parts of the scene. I used a 0.6 ND grad, and picked one with a ‘hard’ transition from clear to dark as the horizon is pretty straight in this shot.

It’s important in scenes like this, where you want to capture the natural colours of the morning light and sky that you set an appropriate white balance on your camera. I always use the normal ‘daylight’ setting, as this produces colours closest to what our eyes see, and will show those pinks, peaches and reds in all their glory. If you use auto white balance (AWB) the camera will do it’s best to neutralise those colours.

Canon EOS 1Ds lll with EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens and Lee 0.6 ND graduated filter. ISO 100, 1/3sec @ f/16.

Find Beltany Stone circle on the map, and read information about it

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Neutral density filters help to control brightness differences.

Neutral density filters help to control brightness differences.

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A sense of depth – The Boathole

Using layers in your compositon • low angles to show the foreground • selective focusing for emphasis

Boat on Loch Foyle, at the Boathole, St Johnston, Co Donegal, Ireland. By Damien DemolderIt’s hard to create a sense of depth in a photograph, as we are trying to convey our impressions of a three dimensional scene using a flat piece of paper. To get the message over to the viewer we have to choose carefully what we show, as well as how we show it.

We are told that a 50mm lens gives the same angle of view as our eyes, when it’s mounted on a 35mm camera or full frame sensor (it’s about 35mm for APS-C sensors). Really, though, this only represents what we can concentrate on, rather than what we can actually see. There is a big difference between what we take in when we look directly at something, such as when we are talking to another person a few feet away, and what we experience when we are taking in a view or enjoying a pleasant scene. We build a profile in our heads of the atmosphere of a place not by looking in one direction or by concentrating on any single element, but by looking around ourselves, at our surroundings and the sky, and combining all the elements to create a whole and complete impression. We analyse the details, notice what is at our feet and what is in the distance, what is to the side of us, and how the place is made up.

The layers
On this morning I was enjoying the high grasses and plants as I pushed my way through their rain-wet leaves to get to the shore. Before I got to the water’s edge I stopped and took in the scene. What I was struck by was the combination of the flowers up to my waist, the stillness of the water and its gently turning boat, and the pale colours in the pre-sunrise sky. The horizon was almost out of sight in the mist, but before it was a splendid foreground, a high-contrast attention-seeking middle ground, and the shapes of the other side of the loch against the pale blue sky.

Lens choice
To get a sense of realism rather than sheer impact I used the 35mm end of a 16-35mm zoom lens, and, fitted to a tripod, dropped the camera to below the level of the flower tops. Rather than stopping down and focusing a third of the way into the scene for maximum depth of field, I focused on the flowers just a few feet in front of me. I wanted them to get the attention, as even when soft the sky, the boat, the loch and the distance could look after themselves. Viewers are going to look into the distance anyway, but by pulling the focus to the foreground it ensures they pay attention there too.

Brightness balancing
Obviously, with such a range of brightness values I wasn’t going to get the correct exposure for the flowers while still showing the colours of the sky, so I used a 0.9 (3EV) neutral density graduated filter to hold back the illumination levels of the sky and its reflection. This balanced the exposure enough so I could show all the elements within the camera’s dynamic range.

With white balance set for daylight I was able to capture the cool tones of the morning without the camera attempting to turn the scene into a Caribbean dreamscape.

I think that what I have created is a picture that has a real sense of depth that allows the viewer to place him or herself there at the scene, on that morning and see and enjoy the things I experienced too. And if you get yourself up at 4am to look at it the experience will become even more real again!

Canon EOS 1Ds III, with EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens set to 35mm, 1.6sec and f/16 at ISO 100. I used a HiTech filter system 0.9 ND graduated filter to reduce the brightness of the sky. TeamWork sells them

Shot at The Boathole on Loch Foyle, St Johnston, Co Donegal, Ireland. Click to see a map.

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Boat on Loch Foyle, at the Boathole, St Johnston, Co Donegal, Ireland. By Damien Demolder

Picture element relationships – skinheads and eyeballs

Seeing relationships • using humour • the importance of straight edges • catching a moment

Hair dressers window in Warsaw, Poland. By Damien Demolder. Pentax K10D DSLRThere is nothing new in street photography about targeting how the world of advertising compares with reality, but it remains a rich stream of original-looking and visually exciting images. It is not just the contrast of the advertiser’s dream world with that of the everyday existence of those these adverts are intended to influence, but this type of picture often has some significance as a document of social trends, wants and aspirations of the time.

Adverts and posters have a very short shelf life and can often really tie a picture down to a specific period in our history.

I spotted this scene in Warsaw, Poland, through the window of a hairstylist shop in the city’s smartest shopping street, Nowy Swiat. I couldn’t tell for sure what the young lad was thinking, or what his motivation was for having a haircut, but obviously he was shelling out a bit of extra cash for this upmarket treatment and I’d say he was expecting to get more than just shorter hair. The ad in the window says it all really – get your hair cut here and you’ll score with a hot chick like this.

I love the way it appears as though the stylist is giving the lad a haircut just like his own, and that the haircuts are so extreme. A skinhead is a proper teen statement, a sign of rebellion – as though shaving your head demonstrates that you have taken full control of your own destiny. Shaving your head is the first step to becoming a man, and attracting a beautiful woman with that strong sense of your own identity. Of course, we can all see that there is no strong identity at all, only a passage of conforming to a series of stereotypes that starts with the beautiful girl aspiration, as though that is what we all want, and ends with the idea that a hairstyle can define a personality.

Bizarrely, there is a certain amount of sexual suggestiveness in the curly bamboo canes as well. The way in which they twist around the girl’s nipples somehow demonstrates what the lad will want to be doing once his hair-do is completed. The look in her eyes suggests that we could all get a slice of the action – so long as we get that all important haircut.

When I took the picture I couldn’t possibly have identified all of these elements, but in a glance I could see there was something quite funny going on. It’s the same with composition – you don’t have to sit and analyse the leading lines to know you are seeing something powerful. On these occasions we need to go with our instincts and analyse later – shoot first, ask questions after.

I know I go on about keeping the camera straight and upright, and not allowing sloping lines or drunk horizons, but in this picture the viewer is allowed on concentrate on the subject because there is nothing to distract the attention away from it. The picture elements are in their own neat boxes and the lines are all parallel. Had that central poster edge been slanted I’m certain the picture would have lost some of its impact.

Although I usually keep my white balance settings to ‘daylight’, whatever the conditions, on this occasion the tungsten balance proved to be a better choice. Again, this is because by neutralising the colours they become less of a distraction, so we can concentrate on the people and their relationships. In fact, I shot the picture in raw and converted it using the tungsten setting, but if you are a jpeg shooter you’d need to be thinking about white balance at the time of the shoot.

Pentax K10D, 135mm manual focus f/3.5 lens, ISO 1600 and f/5.6 @ 1/125sec.

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Hair dressers window in Warsaw, Poland. By Damien Demolder. Pentax K10D DSLR

White balance for atmosphere – Dubai friends

Recognise the importance of colour • Use ambient colour casts to demonstrate atmosphere • communicate emotions to your viewers

Daylight white balance setting brings out the atmosphere in this street scene from Dubai, by Damien DemolderWhat we see and what the camera sees is not always the same thing. Our eyes adjust indoors to the yellow warmth of domestic light bulbs, so we hardly notice they’re light is not daylight, but film can only record what is there. Thus if you shoot with film indoors at night you get very yellow pictures.

Digital cameras have a way of compensating for the colour of different light sources, so you can take the yellow out of the tungsten bulbs in your dinning room, and the green out of the fluorescent strips under the kitchen cabinets. The light on an overcast day can have some warmth applied to compensate for its blue-ness, and there is even a custom setting that can be used to deal with the oddest coloured light you could come across.

White balance control is a brilliant thing, especially the custom setting, and is, I’d say, one of the best features digital photography has given us. Being able to record colours accurately under different light sources is a dream for professionals and amateurs alike.

There are times, though, when the colour of the light provides atmosphere, and we should not forget how important this is to us. We turn the lights down low, or light candles, to create a romantic atmosphere at home because we like the warmth of this kind of light. The blue haze of a cold day lets us know it’s cold before we’ve even gone outside, so removing the cast with white balance settings can actually produce a false idea of what the day was like.

In the shot shown here I wanted to keep all the colours of the street in the picture, as they are half of the attraction. In any case, no single setting could have compensated for such a wide range of light sources. I set the camera to the daylight setting – the one I use almost all the time – and let the colours live.

Street scene from Dubai, shot with the tungsten white balance setting. Much of the atmosphere has been lost. By Damien DemolderIn the second example you can see what the shot would have looked like had I used the tungsten setting. The composition is still there, and there are hints of the warmth of the light, but the blues and greens have cooled the atmosphere too much, and I can’t feel the heat of the Dubai night any more.

Colours play a massive part in our life – we all have strong reactions to colours and we associate meanings to all of them. Would you drive a pink car, wear a bright blue shirt to a funeral or feel cosy in a fluorescent green room? Appreciate how much of a part colour plays in our responses and our emotions, and use it in your photography. Don’t automatically kill colour casts from artificial light, or that which is created by certain weather conditions unless colour accuracy is important to what you are trying to do. When atmosphere is important use those colours, so those who look at your pictures have double the chance of understanding what it was like to be there.

Nikon D80, 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 set at about 70mm.
ISO 3200 1/20sec @ f/4.5

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Daylight white balance setting brings out the atmosphere in this street scene from Dubai, by Damien Demolder

Daylight white balance

Street scene from Dubai, shot with the tungsten white balance setting. Much of the atmosphere has been lost. By Damien Demolder

Tungsten white balance

Reflections in puddles – flat tyre

Low angles – using puddle reflections – keeping a clear message – dynamic composition

Pentax K10D, Sigma 10-20mm wide angle zoom lens. Volkswagon Beatle with a flat tyre, in a rundown area of Warsaw, Poland. Most photographers would agree that reflections are the number one tool for those looking to add a little something to their pictures. It seems everyone is fascinated by them, and quite rightly too, as they provide us not only with an upside down mirror-image view of the world, their lack of clear resolution can deliver a quick and easy impressionist element to our pictures.

The obvious places to find reflections are in lakes and rivers, as well as in the window-fronted skyscrapers of the city – where we like to contrast the modern with an old church spire. We sometimes use the reflections of shop windows to show what is in and out at the same time, which is all very clever.

What we don’t do so often, mostly because we are all slightly afraid of the rain, is use the reflections in puddles to enhance our street photography. Cities and towns are filled with hopeless drainage systems and dips and holes in the pavements. These are brilliant places to find the answer to catching a completely different view of a scene that has been shot a million times, or to producing a more dynamic view of a scene that might otherwise be not so remarkable.

In this shot I wanted to capture a sense of what this slightly rundown area of Warsaw was like. I had tried quite a few different angles and compositions which all showed the street and the flats in a matter of fact sort of way that, while doing the job of communicating the content of the area, looked a little bit uninteresting. Being a rather damp place in December Poland had got me hooked on puddles, and seeing this rather exciting one, positioned perfectly next to the flat tyre of a Volkswagen Beetle, I knew my prayers had been answered.

Taking a low angle automatically creates a picture that looks different, and with the angle I was able to create a really strong horizontal convergence using the lines of the building. This makings it streak through the picture from right to left, drawing the eye right into the depths of the scene, until the eye crashes into the buildings at the end of the road. You can them come back to see the flat tyre, the eastern European car, the bare trees, the knackered kerbstones, the rusting wheel arch and all the things that I wanted to show that build a picture of the atmosphere of the place. Of course, here the puddle itself adds to the sense of dereliction, as it suggests the road is poor too – which it was.

To get such a dramatic view I used a really wide angle lens – a 10-20mm zoom at the widest setting. I didn’t want the dominant effect to be that of a wide angle, and the exaggerated sense of perspective that they can introduce, so I was careful to hold the camera as straight and level as I could. There is some ‘leaning’, but not much, and certainly not enough to draw attention. In cases like this, where the subject matter is strong in its own right, it is important to avoid photographic ‘effects’ that create a talking point in themselves. I didn’t want people to see the picture and say ‘Wow, what a wide angle’; I wanted people to notice the place and the clues that help to get a feel for what that area is like. Sometimes the power of lens effects can draw attention away from what you are trying to show, and to communicate what it is you have to say you have to be aware of that. Use photography to convey your message, not to detract from it.

The picture has a black and white look to it which I have been careful not to undo by adding saturation. I have altered the mid-tone contrast a little, by creating a kink in the central section of the Levels curve, but other than that the shot is just as the scene was.

Unless you have Live View with a flip-out screen, shooting from a low angle like this is either a guessing game or one where you lay on your face in the street. I try to wedge the camera onto the toe of my boot, as I show in this other post about low angles.

Pentax K10D, Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM lens 1/30sec @ f/5 and ISO 400.

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Pentax K10D, Sigma 10-20mm wide angle zoom lens. Volkswagon Beatle with a flat tyre, in a rundown area of Warsaw, Poland.

Flowers at night by lamp light – night lavender

Using artificial light • Beating camera shake • Using walls for support • Shooting at an angle

Lavender shot at night by lamp light, by Damien Demolder

We are used to seeing flowers in daylight, and that is how we most often shoot them too. In fact, we really don’t expect to see flowers at night, as most disappear inside themselves once the sun goes down. I spotted this lavender in flowerbeds around a hotel car park late one night, lit by lamps dotted around that were kept on all night. Lit from below and on a level, the lavender stems looked most unusual. I suppose, looking back, I have seen lamp-lit plants many times before, but this was the first time they really caught my eye, and the first time I really looked.

I was on my way back from dinner, so I didn’t have a tripod with me, so I turned the ISO up to 1600, braced my elbows against my knees, and hoped for the best. Shooting with the aperture opened to f/5.6 I managed a shutter speed of 1/25sec most of the time – so with a focal length of 135mm on a full frame sensor I produced plenty of camera-shake. By trying each shot a three or four times I got at least one sharp frame for every composition. There’s always a wall or something to add extra support, and with a bit of luck the angles all work out well – in fact, restricting yourself to the views allowed by wall-mounting can lead to compositions you may not have thought to try otherwise.

For this particular shot I rested my arms on the top of a low wall and held the camera tightly to my face for extra support. Focusing manually in the low light I gently depressed the shutter release as softly as I could, while breathing very slowly. I was using an IS (Canon’s Image Stabilisation) lens, which helped too. Surprisingly, given the conditions, I did manage quite a few sharp images.

Keeping the white balance on daylight has allowed the colours of the sodium lights to reflect in the colours of the plants. The greens of the stems are really quite vibrant, while the purples of the lavender heads are slightly warmer than they might have been. The lavender was leaning over anyway, as it does, but I shot with the camera on an angle to emphasise the fact and to create a more dynamic composition.

Canon EOS 1Ds III with EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens. ISO 1600, f/5.6 @ 1/25sec. Shot in raw and processed in Adobe Lightroom 

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Lavender shot at night by lamp light, by Damien Demolder

 

 

Using exposure lock – Beach Boys at Sunset

Boat Boys refueling their speed boat on the beach at sunset, Skiathos, Greece. The correct exposure. Cameras are machines, and although they do feature a certain amount of artificial intelligence, ultimately they can only do as they are told. Knowing how your camera is likely to react in any given situation is the key to understanding when it is destined to get things wrong and that it is time for you to take control.
In a situation like this, where we are shooting into the light, and the sun is reflecting off the sea, the camera’s metering system will assume it is looking at a very bright subject – which it is. The camera will try to render the sea and sky so that we can see the detail – so it will aim to create a mid-tone of them. Only you know that it isn’t the sea and sky that you want to see the detail of, but it’s the people and the boat that are the subjects.

Finding a mid tone
To produce a final picture that looks the way we want it to we have to take control of the exposure and so over-ride the metering system. Instead of letting the camera measure the light reflecting off the sea, which is what it would do if left to its own devices, we have to direct it to an area we think is important. To get the right exposure for this scene I took a reading from the sand on the beach by my feet and then locked this reading into the camera, using the exposure lock button. I used the sand to take a reading from as it offered a good compromise between getting an exposure that would show the details of the faces and keeping the idea of silhouettes against the sky.

If you are going to take lots of pictures using the same exposure it can be simpler to transfer the exposure settings into manual exposure mode so there is no danger of the lock coming ‘unlocked’.
This reading has preserved enough detail in the boat and the people to show what they are doing and the expressions on their faces, while still holding on to that backlit sunset atmosphere.

Refueling the speed boat on Big Banana beach, Skiathos, Greece. Underexposed by the camera's multi-segment metering system.

Had I left the exposure up to the camera the picture would have turned out something like this. Although still an effective image, I prefer the version that shows more detail in the subjects.

White balance
Another important aspect of the shot is the colours of the sea and the sky. I kept the white balance set to ‘daylight’ to make the most of the natural warmth of the sun at that time of day. Had I left the camera in auto white balance (AWB) mode the camera would have tried to compensate for the warm, taking it out, which would have defeated the object of shooting at that time of day.

Samsung GX10, Samsung 18-55mm at the 35mm setting f/3.5-4.5. 1/30sec @ f/11, ISO 100

 

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Boat Boys refueling their speed boat on the beach at sunset, Skiathos, Greece. The correct exposure.

Low angles, new views – Lazienki Palace, Warsaw

Lazienki Palace, Palace upon the water, Warsaw. Damien DemolderThere are plenty of places all over the world that have been photographed again and again in exactly the same way from exactly the same place. Often there is a really obvious angle that lines up essential elements of the place so well that it takes will power not to take a picture from that position – even though you know that everyone else who has ever visited that site has the exactly the same shot. In fact, at some sites the famous view is so famous the place is unrecognisable from any other angle.

If you are making a photographic documentary of a place it is probably important to capture the well-worn view, but at the same time we should be looking to start afresh and to capture a different take. I have found that in many cases the most popular views aim for the spectacular image rather than that which communicates what the place is really like.

In shooting the Palace on the Water, in Warsaw’s Lazienki Palace gardens in late autumn, I wanted to get away from the obvious views across the lake with its symmetrical reflections and well formed tripod holes, to assess the place anew so I could show what it all meant to me.

One of the most striking things about the surroundings of the palace, apart from the lake, is the mass of trees. While the popular view shows trees it doesn’t really demonstrate quite how many there are or their importance to the overall atmosphere of the place.

In this picture I used a really low angle to show what is on the ground, the types and volume of trees in the gardens as well, of course, as the lake and the all important distinctive characteristics of the palace itself.

In the autumn the place has a quite distinctive feel, with the golden foliage, wet and colour saturated, lying on the ground, and the lightly overcast low angled sunlight. The air is cool and the atmosphere damp, rich and earthy. I wanted to show the detail of the foliage, its colours as well as the palace itself – so this low angle seemed the ideal route to take. I used a 10mm wideangle lens (the equivalent of 15mm on a full frame or 35mm camera) and closed the aperture down to just f/8 to get a significant depth of field without attempting to achieve complete front to back sharpness. By keeping enough detail on the palace it’s easy to see what it is, but with the focus and attention on the foreground the view is presented in a different way – most people focus on the palace.

The soft light meant a low contrast effect in the leaves and the horse chestnut came naturally, and also meant I didn’t have to contend with extreme brightness differences between the foreground and the background. I took a spot meter reading from the palace and then opened the exposure by 1EV to render it a lighter grey tone – which just happened to be perfect for the foreground details as well.

To get the low angle I held the camera down on the toe of my boot and guessed the framing – checking straightness and composition on the LCD each time. If I had been using a film camera I would have laid on the floor, or used an angle finder to make sure I got everything right first time.

Pentax K10D with Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5-4.5 , 1/15sec @ f/8 and ISO 400.

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Lazienki Palace, Palace upon the water, Warsaw. Damien Demolder