It doesn't take a trained eye to recognise different locations. But could people recognise your photographs as yours? Do your landscape shots have a distinctive individual style? Award-winning documentary landscape photographer Kevin Faingnaert explains the approach and techniques that help his photography stand out from the crowd.
Based in Ghent, Belgium, Kevin shoots editorial and travel commissions for National Geographic, The New York Times, The Telegraph and others. In addition, he's also undertaken a number of major landscape photography projects, on subjects including the declining industrial landscapes of Romania, life in the remote villages of the Faroe Islands, and the eco-village of Matavenero in Spain. His work has a recognisable, distinctively contemporary feel and aesthetic.
So how does he do it? In a genre packed with talented photographers, how can you stand out?
Shooting landscapes for Føroyar, his award-winning project about life in the remote villages of the Faroe Islands, Kevin was spoilt for choice. "Every cliff, every mountain, every river, every valley is extremely beautiful," he says. "I could go there and photograph hundreds of beautiful landscapes a day."
He didn't, though. "I'm always looking for aesthetically pleasing landscapes, but I'm guided by the story and the people involved, instead of the pure form," he explains. Landscape photography isn't simply an end in itself for Kevin, who studied Sociology before turning to photography. "My focus is mainly on people and how they live. I try to document this through portraits and landscapes; they are pieces in the same puzzle. You connect on a human level to a portrait, and the landscape shows the world that person inhabits."
For his project about Romania’s last surviving coal mines, Jiu Valley, he spent weeks first shooting portraits and developing relationships with his subjects before he came to the landscape element. He says, “When I had a clearer idea of where I wanted to go with the story, I went photographing the landscapes I needed: an overview of a mining town in the valley, an old coal mine, the river flowing through the valley... They make the puzzle complete.”
In the Faroes, he took an approach almost like a filmmaker's, drawing up a list of required shots before he set off. "It said things like: small village, lonely house, island in the ocean, cold/snow," he recalls. "And then I spent days specifically looking for these things. I photographed dozens of lonely houses and small villages as I knew I'd need those landscapes to give depth to my story."
When we speak to him, Kevin is in Bosnia on assignment for the International Committee of the Red Cross, and points out: "I could now go and stand on the roof of the hotel where I'm staying and make a beautiful cityscape, but it doesn't say anything about the story. Without that in the back of my head, I'd feel lost."
The story Kevin has been working on in Bosnia focuses on people who've been missing since the Balkans War of the 1990s. "I'm making portraits of people who don't know what happened to their loved ones," he explains. "They're still waiting for news, even just a confirmation of their death. This is a sad story. When I'm shooting landscapes here, I always have this mood in mind.
"I'm hoping for cloudy days. I'm looking for peaceful scenes, landscapes that reflect the lives of the people I'm photographing. For other stories and assignments, I might need harsh light to accentuate the energy of a place or person."
Kevin finds the versatility of his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV invaluable. "I can do everything with this camera," he says. "Before I make the picture, I always think about the outcome. Do I want to have a dark scene with the shadows going completely black, do I want to blow it out, or do I just want a well-balanced image? I under- or overexpose how I want the image to be and then I shoot."
Kevin's distinctive delicate use of colour is in part inspired by the work of Impressionist painters. "They're the absolute masters of light," he says. "I try to go to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris a couple of times a year to see how Monet colours those French paysages, how he colours his highlights and shadows, how Cézanne builds up his landscapes, how Van Gogh colours his flowers. They didn't paint spectacular views and waterfalls and volcanoes bursting fire in the air. They painted the fields around them, the countryside, and made it come alive through colour."
Kevin is often asked how he produces his distinctive colour palette. "The colours are already there, you just have to look for them," he says. "I hate over-saturated, harsh colours. I like a softer look."
Kevin's favourite combination in his kitbag is a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens. "I love the colours I get with my Canon camera and lenses," he says. "I tend to edit my files so they look like they've been shot on film, and the high dynamic range that Canon captures means there's enough information in both the shadows and the highlights to twist the files in different artistic directions."
"Before I go out and photograph, I always spend hours researching specific places," Kevin says. "I like to know what's been done before, where the sun rises, where it sets, which paths or roads there are. I spend lots of time on Google Street View and Google Earth. I think about whether the shot would be best during the golden hours, and if I need a cloudy day or a sunny day. Sometimes I even want it to rain. The more you know beforehand, the easier you'll get the shot."
That said, some of Kevin's favourite shots have been unplanned. He didn't have a tripod with him when he shot a group of kids playing football in the small village of Nes in the Faroes, because he was just scouting for locations at the time. Shooting handheld in the low-light conditions, he had to rely on his equipment to meet the challenge. "Some cameras can become almost useless in low light, but the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is still able to focus well in these situations," he says. "I can select different AF points almost instantly and they're all very precise. This is important to me, as I don't always shoot under the best conditions. With the EOS 5D Mark IV, I can shoot handheld at 1/16 of a second [in low light] and still get shots that are sharp."
Another time, his plan to visit a village in the fjords in the early morning was scuppered when his car got stuck in the snow. "I was panicking that I was going to miss the shot, but when I stood on the mountain two hours later than the sunrise shot I had in mind, the white of the clouds and the white of the mountains melted together in a way that I really like and couldn't have predicted."
"Forget about the rule of thirds, the perfectly exposed image, the idea that 'everything has to be sharp' or that landscapes are horizontal and portraits vertical," says Kevin. "The internet is full of these rules and I think it's the worst you can do to your photography. When I frame a landscape, I don't calculate where the horizon needs to be or where the subject has to be positioned, I just follow my feeling."
Some of Kevin's most successful images defy expectations. For example, his shot of flamingoes in Bolivia was taken in the middle of the day, around 1pm, "when other landscape photographers might go for a nap because they wouldn't think they could get anything worthwhile," he laughs. Thanks to the pervasive glare and absence of shadows, the photograph achieves the soft, dreamy, pastel-hued look that Kevin favours. Often he shoots against the light, which many landscape photographers avoid in order to keep the scene distinct and prevent lens flare, unless that's specifically what they're after.
Of course, Kevin's readiness to break the conventions of style and technique is a reflection of his general outlook. He's drawn to subcultures, outsiders who live on the edges of mainstream society – wrestlers or islanders, hippies in the off-grid eco-village of Matavenero in Spain, anti-airport activists in the ZAD protest camp in France. "I've always loved the exotic close to home," he explains. "There's so much to be discovered beneath the surface."
Driving used to be Kevin's standard way of scouting for landscape locations until he had an accident on a trip to Switzerland four years ago. "I was amazed by a beautiful snowy peak on one side, looked away from the road for a moment and bumped into a big rock," he recalls. "I wasn't injured but it made me realise how dangerous it is to go scouting for photos while driving through a mountainous area."
Since then, Kevin's preferred mode of transport has been a bicycle. "My bike keeps me fit and it enables me to find places I'd overlook when driving," he says. "I also hike a lot, which lets me take in landscapes slowly and focus on details.
"And if I really need to drive around," he adds, "I try to find and pay someone to drive me around so I can hang out of the window all day and look for photos!"