Zaanse Schans: Shooting Windmills

Located just 20 kilometers from Amsterdam the Zaanse Schans is one of my favorite places to take pictures near the city. After a 20-minute ride, you are in the middle of typical traditional Dutch scenery: A dyke with a bunch of windmills on it engulfed in fields. It’s a very popular destination for photographers – and rightly so!

A bit of history

The “Zaanstreek” or Zaan area is one of the oldest industrial areas in Western Europe. At the end of the Golden Age, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the region flourished. During this period around six hundred windmills were constructed in the Zaan area. They were of great importance to the shipbuilding industry and where used for various purposes, such as sawing wood and creating paint

Shipbuilding capital

The invention of the crankshaft greatly contributed to the industrial importance of this area. The crankshaft allowed the horizontal wind on the blades of the mill to be converted into a vertical sawing movement. Many of the more than six hundred windmills were refitted with crankshafts which enabled Dutch shipbuilders to build their boats much faster than competitors. It’s location close to the sea and major shipping routes allowed the Zaan region to grow into the center of shipbuilding in Europe during the late Golden Age.

De Zaanse Schans “fake”?

De Zaanse Schans in its current state did not always exist. By the mid 20th century many of the older windmills and (mostly wooden) buildings had been destroyed. Therefore a growing call arose to protect what was left of this heritage. In 1946 Architect Jaap Schippers came up with a plan to create an area resembling the heritage of the Zaan district. The plan consisted of moving existing old buildings and windmills to one location in order to create a Dutch Heritage based tourist attraction. Starting in 1961 buildings were moved by land and water to their current location at the Zaanse Schans. This included entire windmills and historical buildings. The Zaanse Schans actually has a really cool historical timeline on their website with photographs of the buildings being moved. Worth checking out.

Where does the name “Zaanse Schans” come from?

The Zaanse Schans takes its name from an earthen rampart, a so-called “sconce“, which is a defensive fortification dating back to the Eighty Years’ War (the revolt against Spanish rule). Sources indicate that there were 13 or so of these “sconces” in the Zaan area. Unfortunately, they are not visible anymore.

Getting the shot

De Zaanse Schans is a great place for taking photos. It is best to get there before sunrise or sunset. The sun comes up behind the four windmills if you look out over the water. If you are lucky the mist that comes from the fields behind the windmills will creep over the dyke and float over the river. This makes for amazing ‘creamy’ shots.

The windmills are a great subject for a variety of moods and getting there when it is still dark allows you to make use of blue hour, golden hour, and the mist that comes from the fields behind the windmills in the early morning. Sometimes the mist creeps over the dyke between the mills and over the river in front of it. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing this properly but I will keep going back for it! I did capture the mist coming up from the fields towards the mills, which allows for some pretty moody shots.

Some tips

Every time I go here I try to find new frames to shoot and do some extensive research online for inspiration. I usually arrive half an hour before sunrise and position ourselves at the starting point as mentioned below. In my experience the most efficient way of taking shots at sunrise is to:

Starting Point

Start at the bridge next to the parking lot. This gives you a view over the water towards the windmills. If you are lucky the mist will creep from the fields behind the mills, over the dyke, and onto the river in front. Very spectacular!

Stop 2

The view is similar as that of the starting point. However, you are closer to the water which allows you to capture reflections of the windmills in the river. Also, there is a willow tree on the bank of the river. If you position yourself correctly you can shoot a windmill through its branches!

Stop 3

After walking through the old village you will arrive at the water again. Here you have a view of amazing frames. First, you have the windmills in front of you and if angled correctly you can get all three with full reflection from here. Second, if you get here early enough the village on the other side of the river gets a really cool glow due to light pollution! Finally, if you turn around, you have a great view of the cute “Specerijenmolen De Huisman” which should be basking in the early sunlight by now.

Stop 4

Here you have at least three great frames to fill. Firstly, you have an awesome view of the fields that should be pretty misty by now! On your left hand, you will see the windmill “De Gekroonde Poelenburg” which will also be basking in the early sunlight. With a bit of luck, the mist from the fields engulfs its base…So cool…Finally, if you turn to the right, you will see the “Cheese Farm Catharina Hoeve”. Walk around it and you will see some great reflections in the little river in front of it. Usually, you will also find some old Dutch ‘props’ lying around, such as antique milk cans and carts.

Stop 5

Walk along the Kalveringdijk 7 with the Windmills in perfect lighting on your left and misty fields of the sun on the right.

At sunset, you can venture into the fields behind the windmills and get great shots of the windmills behind red glowing fields.

I hope these tips will help you take awesome shots at the Zaanse Schans. Have fun shooting!

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