How does a deep-felt fascination with mountains at a young age become the start of a successful career as a professional nature photographer?
To get an answer to that question, I interviewed Dutch nature photographer Bas van Laarhoven. At the NPOTY contest 2022 he was highly commended in the category ‘Nature of “De Lage Landen”‘. Bas is a renowned, multi awarded nature photographer who specializes in landscape and abstract nature photography. From an early age on he has a fascination for mountains, but through the years also he learned to appreciate his rural environment as an important source of inspiration.
An outdoorsman, he traded his office job for one that allowed him to be outside and started to put more energy into his great passion, photography. He rose to prominence after his successes at various photo competitions and received requests for workshops as well as requests for prints. Nowadays, Bas is a professional part-time photographer. Time to get to know this creative landscape photographer better.
Bas is born and raised in a village called Best, in the southern part of The Netherlands. Living in a rural environment made that nature was his playground ever since he was a little boy. This made him a bit of an outsider in the family, love for nature was not instilled in him. When he was about ten years old, the mountain regions began to exert an enormous attraction on him. His desire to go to the mountains grew stronger every year. From the age of fourteen he began to read and collect books about mountain ranges. And now he has a library of approximately 500 books about all mountain areas in the world, which of course have all been read.
Norway fall 02 © Bas van Laarhoven
At the age of 18 he enjoyed his first trip to the Alps in Austria and was immediately captivated by the sight of the mountains. During that first trip he brought a camera to shoot some holiday snaps. Since then photography has become a serious occupation, with which he earns part of his income, selling photos and offering workshops.
“When I’m thinking about what inspired me two things come to mind. First of all I’ve always been an outdoor kid and for some reason mountains have intrigued me from an early age on. Trough the years I’ve traveled into the mountains dozens of times, with photography becoming an increasingly important aspect of my journeys. Together with my wife and some friends, I visited Canada a couple of times to enjoy the overwhelming nature there. And we preferred to do that on foot and with a tent, to enjoy nature as intensely as possible. And every time a lot of equipment went with it. So my friend, who also enthusiastically photographed, and I each carried a backpack of 27 kilos, which made the trips even more intense to us.
Gold blue stream © Bas van Laarhoven
While I was choosing the most beautiful photos at home, I realized that for me photography twice a year during a holiday was not enough. And that led me to go out and about exploring my own immediate environment. Through the years I have learned to enjoy nature close to home and have come to appreciate my own natural environment to a great extend.
Being passionate about nature and photography became life changing at some point. After completing my studies, I ended up working as a food technologist in the office, where I was involved in analysis and reporting. But as an outdoorsman, I became very unhappy at the office and ended up ill with mental problems. I then changed course and threw myself into photography. I successfully completed a course at the photo academy and I started entering competitions. And as I started winning awards and gaining some name recognition I was able to make some of my income through photography. In addition, I have found a job that offers me the opportunity to be outside all day.”
“Secondly there is of course inspiration from fellow photographers. Three of them I like to mention here. Marijn Heuts and Jowan Iven, for me two Dutch photographers from whom I can learn a lot and whose work I enjoy immensely. And of course Theo Bosboom. Theo’s work makes my mouth water. What strikes me most is the atmosphere in their photos, the intimacy of their landscapes, the focus on small parts of a landscape which tends to abstract images.
I myself like images of landscapes that have a certain degree of creativity and a degree of abstraction in them. I see myself as a landscape photographer but lean towards the art side of photography. For a landscape photographer I make relatively little use of a wide-angle lens, 70 to 80 percent of my photos are made with a longer lens. I think you have to discover what makes you happy and then you can explore that further. In recent years I started to lean towards more graphic work, looking for interesting interplay of lines, images that touch on the abstract.”
Zig zag © Bas van Laarhoven
“Sometimes I just go out to explore, to learn. During these searches I am amazed at how many different areas there are, even in areas where I have been visiting for decades. Time and time again, visits to those areas yield new images. Areas that are familiar to me are therefore still a great source of inspiration. And I consider myself lucky that I know how to find many such areas in a radius of 20 kilometers around my house.
But many times I go out very focused and let myself be guided by nature, knowing where to go. Circumstances then dictate which photo I go looking for. I know for instance which areas I want to visit in fog or frost. It is precisely the circumstances that determine whether the photo rises above the average. Being on holiday, for example, you cannot wait for a certain circumstance to arise, due to lack of time. You then have to make the best with what is available.
As a photographer I mainly focus on landscapes and not so much on animals. When I photograph animals, they form part of the landscape. For me, an animal must add something to the image, it is never about the animal alone. I see a lot of photos of animals that I would characterize as registration work, which is of course fine if it makes the photographer happy. But those close-up photos rarely really touch me.”
Foggy view © Bas van Laarhoven
“For me, the passion really comes from within. I am someone who likes to create something, being creative is important to me. I look for new images and for a different way of looking at the world around me. In this I feel the kinship with my dad who, as a carpenter, was also someone who created things and also photographed.
To get the most out of my photography, I took a course at the Dutch Photo Academy in my mid-thirties. It turned out that there was still a lot to be gained in the field of general photography techniques. This course has taught me a lot about composition, lighting and the difference between sharp and really sharp! Attending this course certainly strengthened the technical foundation of my photography. But technique still doesn’t predominate in my photography. And to be honest I think that there is certainly still room for improvement at that aspect.”
Norway fall 01 © Bas van Laarhoven
“In recent years I increasingly hear people say: that is a real Bas van Laarhoven. It’s in the atmosphere, the composition, the way of looking at the world around me. During my workshops I often hear that I seem to look with different eyes. Take for example the photo that earned me the highly commended at NPOTY. I was out with other photographers. Everyone was trying to get a close-up picture of the heron, while I saw the heron as a small object with some interesting light on it. I look at an environment and search and see what is typical about it to me. Images that reinforce the feeling I get when I’m there. I want to share the intimacy I experience when I immerse myself in nature, resulting in what can be referred to as ‘intimate landscape photography’. Over the years, the way I look at the world has changed a lot. And I think it is precisely those developments in the way of looking that allow a photographer to create his own style.”
“With my photos I try to show what can be seen in nature and above all how special and artistically you can capture the ‘ordinary’. For me, nature is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. I can spend hours with a piece of tree bark, playing with the color and the lines.
But the most important thing for me is that I enjoy it. My family requires the necessary attention, and photographing is an outlet for me to express my creative side and to get some fresh air. I’m practicing photography for myself, it helps me to find balance and to clear my head.
That’s why I’m so very grateful to my wife, who, even with our demanding family, always leaves me room to take my camera outside and surrender myself to my pasion. And I’m also grateful to my parents who have always been proud of me and motivated me.”
Heart of Drenthe © Bas van Laarhoven
“Participating in major photo competitions such as Nature Photographer Of The Year is important to me. To start with, there is the feedback from the professional jury, which provides critiques that you can use as a photographer, it helps you to get better. And of course it strokes your ego when your photos win awards, but remember that there are a lot of good photographers out there. The Netherlands is already bursting with talent, let alone what it is like at the major international competitions. Furthermore, it is a good way to generate a bit of awareness, your work is once again in the spotlight, which is of course also good for business. And finally but not least; it’s always nice to meet ‘old acquaintances’ in this relatively small world of nature photographers.
I would definitely recommend serious photographers to join in photo contests. It’s educational, the professional feedback on your photos helps you grow. Don’t get confused by it, but process the disappointment and use the criticism when you go out with your camera again. Study the jury beforehand, look at the winnings photos in previous competitions with the same jury and keep that in mind when you select your submissions. And don’t be discouraged if your photos aren’t selected. If you are convinced of your photo, then submit that photo to a competition with another jury. Keep in mind that jury members are people too and, like photographers they have different preferences.
Grasses in black and white © Bas van Laarhoven
It is important to be critical of yourself, the standard in photo competitions is nowadays very high. And remember that a photo has to be a really a photo and not an edit, the authenticity of the photo matters. There are strict rules about the permitted degree of post-processing, the photo must be ‘real’. When the winning photos have been pre-selected, a number of finalists are always dropped due to editing outside the rules.
There is a difference between a photographer and a photo editor, which of course in the latter case does not detract from the attractiveness of the image. In my case post-processing is a limited activity, for me it has to be done in the field. But I know photographers such as Marijn Heuts and Jowan Iven, who are able to get the most out of an image, without compromising the authentic image. In that area there is still something to gain for me.”
Colorful mosses © Bas van Laarhoven
“I have a complicated relationship with social media platforms like IG and FB, kind of a love/hate relationship. I am very aware that I am not using the platforms enough to support my business. Even my own website is not up to date, I’ rather spent my time taking and processing pictures. Fact it that I don’t like the customs on social media. For me it’s about the picture and not about the likes. I know that a kingfisher is a beautiful bird, but try to picture the bird in an interesting way. I see too many kingfishers on a twig if you know what I mean.
But having said that, I am aware that I need to overcome my resistance to social media platforms, I really need to start working on that. Hopefully I will learn to turn the switch in the near future. Luckily my daughter has offered to help me with using social media and one thing is certain, she is so much more experienced!”
At the end of the interview I asked Bas the question: “if you could ask another nature photographer one question, who would that be and which question would you ask?
It took Bas some time to answer: “Hello Theo, I would very much like to go to Iceland or a rugged coastal area to practice landscapes and abstract photography in particular. What area would you send me to, what time of year and why?”
Last autumn tree © Bas van Laarhoven