The art of sustainable fashion photography

What does it mean to be a sustainable photographer? Dutch fashion shooter Laura Knipsael explains all.
A close-up shot of a model posing with her hand on her cheek against a yellow background. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 by Laura Knipsael.

For this shot – currently a work in progress for her personal work – fashion photographer Laura Knipsael wanted to play with the lights in her studio. Laura upgraded to the Canon EOS R5 for its autofocus capabilities. "I loved the autofocus speed, Eye AF, the fact that it was lighter, and I really embraced the mirrorless way of shooting," she says. "It was so easy that you could see how the image would look through the viewfinder, and it made me work faster." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 70mm, 1/100 sec, f/8 and ISO 100. © Laura Knipsael

Photographers can influence the fashion world by choosing and mentoring their clients, and be sustainable themselves in how they manage their shoots. But what does it mean to be a sustainable photographer? Being a sustainable photographer means keeping the environment and the well-being of people in mind, and Laura Knipsael knows this all too well.

"Shooting-wise, I'm basically just another fashion photographer, but it's the process of what I do that's different," says Laura, a fashion photographer from the Netherlands who believes individual environmental accountability can help to slow climate change. "What I do is try to inspire people to think about what they're doing, and suggest how we can do things differently," she continues. "It all starts by taking little steps, because all it is is a mindset that needs to be switched."

Modern foe: fast fashion

The well-documented damage created by the trend for 'fast fashion' is one of the driving forces behind Laura's clothing crusade. Critical of companies which produce garments with little regard for the environment, Laura is an advocate for the so-called practice of slow-fashion.

Laura chooses to work with and support businesses that focus on creating longer-lasting, higher-quality and more versatile collections created through sustainable methods that not only better serve the environment, but the consumer as well. "I love working with sustainable companies, and those who aspire to achieve sustainability," she says. "Of course, some people are always going to be price driven, because they don't have a choice or because they prefer to shop that way. But as a photographer, I choose to inspire people to just think about it and say, 'Hey, what can we do differently?'"

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An upside-down portrait of a person's face from the nose down, their neck and their shoulders captured in a soft yellow glow, a flower hanging from a necklace, in a photograph by Laura Knipsael.

Laura captured this shot for an album cover for a female musician in The Netherlands. "All clothes are thrifted and the pieces of jewellery are from a sustainable handmade local brand," says Laura. "Even the flowers were grown in the singer's back garden." Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R (now succeeded by the Canon EOS R5) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM) at 70mm, 1/13 sec, f/8 and ISO 100. © Laura Knipsael

Accountability starts at home

Laura is making sure she covers all bases when it comes to minimising her carbon footprint. She solely relies on green energy to power her recently opened, Roermond-based studio in the Limburg province of the Netherlands, and only works with make-up artists who exclusively use vegan, cruelty-free products and stylists who source garments from sustainable designers. Elsewhere, she either upcycles, recycles or buys props and compositional elements for her set design second-hand, to minimise impact and waste. When she travels, she ensures she travels light. "If possible, I travel by public transport or go by bike to the assignment if it’s locally or I only need to carry one bag," says Laura. "If I have a lot of gear with me, I travel by car and hopefully in the future it will be an electric one. But whenever the team is large, we always try to carpool or discuss public transport options."

But her approach is far from militant, and Laura likes to lead by example. "It's really about education and just trying to do better," she says. "So on a shoot, I'll always suggest we source the food locally, that the team bring their own bottles, rather than buying a bottle from the shop." On a deeper level, Laura says being involved in the creative process from the very beginning gives her the opportunity to push the envelope, ensuring originality doesn't equate to wastefulness. "Being able to inspire the clients I shoot for is where I can make the most impact," urges Laura, who is also an art director. "So I'll say, 'Okay, we can do that, but what if we did this', and it opens their minds to a whole new way of working, which is better for everyone – including the planet."

A person holds their arms up as though to protect themselves, pastel-coloured clouds behind them, in a photograph by Laura Knipsael.

In Laura's collection of images for her Are you Aware? series, the Dutch photographer and art director tackles seven different issues: acid rain, chemical pollution, electronic waste, oil pollution, plastic pollution, smog pollution and soil pollution. Her goal was to inspire the viewer and create a conversation about the problems. True to her ethics, Laura repurposed old mattress stuffing to make the rainbow-tinged clouds shown here. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/5 and ISO 100. © Laura Knipsael

A person's face is seen in focus, with the rest of their head – a red bird perched on top – and shoulders blurred as though in pastel-coloured smog, in a photograph by Laura Knipsael.

Are You Aware? was a conceptual fashion series Laura created to provoke thought about environmental pollution and climate change. This project ultimately helped to put her, and her stance as an environmentally-conscious photographer, on the map. "Pollution remains one of the most underestimated world problems," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/4.5 and ISO 100. © Laura Knipsael

Seeds of change

Laura's deep-rooted respect for the environment began as a child, growing up in the serene Dutch countryside of Meterik. Her love of light and colour – aspects that form her signature style – developed during her educational adventures in the bustling cities of Brussels, Tallinn, and Bangkok, where she sat front row during fashion week, and was hit with an epiphany. "It was in that moment I said, 'Okay, this is what I want. I want to be a fashion photographer'," she says.

With a photography degree from Belgium's LUCA School of Arts under her belt and having shot semi-professionally since 2015, Laura felt buoyed by experience inside and out of the classroom to turn fully pro in 2018. "School teaches you the technical elements and allows you to build a portfolio of conceptual work, and even though they try to prepare you for business in the real world, they can't," she explains. "It's something you have to experience yourself. You need to fall down and get up again and again, to really learn from the mistakes you made."

Getting noticed

Talking the talk can only take you so far, which is why Laura decided to create a collection of conceptual fashion photos. Her Are You Aware? project ultimately put her – and her stance as a sustainable fashion photographer – on the map.

One model in Laura's pioneering portfolio wears a contemplative expression and stylish yet recycled clothes, a slick of dark oil clinging to her upper torso, while in another shot, a model elegantly ignores the stream of yellow ooze cascading down her arm. Oil spills, toxic waste, plastic pollution, acid rain, chemical pollution, electronic waste, smog, and deforestation are all artfully referenced in Laura's career-launching set of shots, with the props all sustainably sought. The rainbow-tinged clouds, representing acid rain, for example, were created from old mattress stuffing, while the sea of plastic waste was entirely made up of recycled donations from Laura's friends. "Shooting fashion sustainably was always in the back of my mind, but to begin with I didn't dare to communicate it to the world, because I was scared that I would lose clients," says Laura. "Then, one day, I thought, 'What am I doing? This is me, why shouldn't I communicate it?'"

A person poses on a balcony, wearing sunglasses and hugging pastel-coloured knitwear around them, in a photograph taken on a Canon EOS R5 by Laura Knipsael.

As well as working with sustainability-focused brands like this handmade knitwear label based in the Netherlands, Laura also works with companies who want to do better but don't know where to start. "I can help them by advising them how to make the photo shoot production as green as possible," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 62mm, 1/500 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 100. © Laura Knipsael

A person holds their arms above their head wearing a blue fur-like coat, their face encircled by the material in the centre, in a photograph taken on a Canon EOS R5 by Laura Knipsael.

"Get out of your comfort zone," Laura advises like-minded creatives wary of putting themselves out there as environmentally-responsible photographers. "Sure, maybe you fail at first, but you'll learn a lot from it. I think that's one of the best ways to learn it." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 35mm, 1/160 sec, f/6.3 and ISO 200. © Laura Knipsael

Fortune favours the green

Today, Laura has many Dutch and international brands and magazines as clients. As for whether she pitches to brands with authentic eco-credentials, or they seek her out because she touts principles that align with their values? "It's both," confirms Laura. "I pitch to clients, 'Hey, I love what you're doing and I think our values match. This is my work, maybe we can do something like this?' But sometimes the client finds me, and has an idea in mind, and I love having that back and forth to get the end result to a place where we are both so happy with it."

Being niche can have its benefits; as an environmentally-accountable photographer, Laura has seen a growth in her business in line with rising concerns over climate change. But she points out it can also have its drawbacks. "Some brands were scared to contact me because they thought, 'I'm not there yet, will she work with me?'" This revelation inspired Laura to rebrand her website at the start of 2023. "Now I tell prospective clients, 'If you're not there yet I'm happy to take your hand and help you transition,' so I can be the starting point of getting them to consider a more sustainable production," she explains. "It's really about getting to know the brands, whether that's fashion or otherwise, and if they're doing, or want to do, something sustainably – I love working with them."

The right kit for the job

Canon has been minimising the impact of its operations by keeping materials in use for longer and minimising waste by transforming the way it uses materials in its products, consumables, packaging and operations. It hopes to become carbon net zero by 2050 by implementing smart product designs to remove waste and eliminate single-use plastic and polystyrene from packaging. This was one of the driving factors behind Laura choosing Canon kit for her work.

Laura shoots her customers' campaigns on her Canon EOS R5, which is capable of capturing 45MP photos at up to 20fps. "The moment I swapped to mirrorless, I was like, 'Oh my'," she says. "The autofocus system is just amazing and every picture is insanely sharp. I actually really love working with this camera, it's just such a great tool." One of Laura's favourite features of the EOS R5 is the Eye AF. "Often I'll have the model moving around, walking towards me for example, and so I'll put it on servo so it's always looking for the right eye," she explains. "This means I can just focus on getting the shot I want."

Laura usually pairs her EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens. "It's just so easy to use, it's reliable and really versatile," she says. "You can shoot wide and include the model in a scene, or get closer to make it more of a portrait. I'm always moving around with the model – zooming in and zooming out, so instead of having to stop and change lenses, I can just shoot through. I really love that dynamic workflow."

Laura switches this out occasionally for the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM, which she uses to get up close and personal. "It's so easy to use; it's great for product shots or cool close-ups," she explains.

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Printing her images in-house allows Laura to eliminate the need for shipping, and any environmental damage that comes with transportation. Her printer of choice is the Canon PIXMA PRO-10S; an A3+professional 10-ink pigment-based printer. She couples this with sustainably sourced hemp paper to produce artwork to decorate her studio walls, as well as selling direct to customers. "I love it. It has so many colour options, so I know that my images will be colour accurate. This means I can trust that as long as I've properly calibrated the monitor, the image on my computer will come out of the printer exactly how it's supposed to," she says. The Canon Inkjet Cartridge Recycling Programme also makes it easy for her and other users to recycle inkjet cartridges.

If you own EF lenses but have upgraded to an EOS R System camera, you can use a lens adapter and continue using those lenses on your new camera. This is a great way of reusing and you don't have to worry about any of your older equipment becoming redundant or going to waste, and that's what Laura does. "I own a Canon Control Ring Mount Adapter EF-EOS R, so I can still use my Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens which I love," she says. "I also still have my Canon EOS 5DS R and Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens as backups."

An employees' market

As passionate as Laura is about the environment, she's even more so about encouraging her peers to follow suit, as she says there's not only a demand for sustainable fashion photographers, but those shooting in all genres. "If I can do it, others can do it too," she says. "I was scared once; scared of losing clients, scared of not having enough work, but every client has said, 'Hey, this is amazing!' There's always a client somewhere, if you just target them right. Stay true to your values, and 'out' yourself as a sustainable photographer!"

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