Francois-Xavier De Ruydts relishes his unusual name. It helps set him apart from other photographers in the field, he says. That’s a modest statement for a photographer whose specialty in adventure photography puts his images in an exceptional league. Since moving to Vancouver and launching his photography career in 2010, De Ruydts has shot scenes in caves, atop mountains and down canyons. He began documenting his adventures on a biking tour around the world in 2006, when he and a friend freelanced articles and photos to a newspaper in his native Belgium. Today, De Ruydts trains his lens on fellow adventurers in extraordinary geographical settings.
Francois-Xavier De Ruydts studied geography at the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Louvain-La-Neuve near Brussels. After three years of working as a geographer—“Geography in Belgium is not very interesting,” he says—De Ruydts decided to pursue photography as a career, and has found his specialty in adventure photography. He lives in Vancouver with his wife. Visit his website at www.deruydtsphotography.com
Q. How did adventure photography become your specialty?
A. The first time I picked up a camera and took photos seriously was in 2006, when I went on a trip around the world by bike. I wrote three big articles on sustainability in Asia in collaboration with a newspaper in Belgium. I took a lot of photos [during that trip]. When I look back at them now, I realize I was a very bad photographer at the time! I got my passion for photography and travel from that trip.
I’ve always been an adventurer at heart. The one thing I remember was that when I was 16, I read a book about two French guys cycling around the world, and I wanted to do that. I’m the kind of guy who tries to realize his dreams. This dream stayed in my mind all the time until I had the ability to do it.
I’ve always been concerned about environmental issues. For this trip, I wanted to do more than just travel; I wanted it to be useful. I picked the subject of sustainability because there’s so much to say about it. I wrote the three articles in collaboration with my university, the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL), as well. I researched the subjects before going and determined three main topics: deforestation in Southeast Asia, economic development in Tibet and water issues in Central Asia.
I was still very much into film at the time; I used a Nikon F100. It’s a really nice piece of gear, but it’s kind of outdated now. I also used a Nikon D70 for the photos we put online.
I think I just didn't have the technical skills to take good photos, get good exposure and manage the colour balance. I already had this photojournalistic mindset, and I would say that the composition was already there. My style was already there, but not the technical skills.
Q. How would you describe your style?
A. It’s been evolving lately. I myself am trying to understand my style. I use super wide angles most of the time to allow me to stay close to the action. I sometimes get as close as a few centimetres from what's happening. It’s kind of my artistic sense that tells me to do so, but I’m also definitely an adventurer before being a photographer. The reason I do this job is because I like to live the adventures and connect with whatever I’m experiencing. I like to be in the action.
Q. What was it like for you to shoot the caving story in the July/August 2012 issue of Canadian Geographic?
A. I started caving on Vancouver Island about a year ago. I picked that particular sport because I didn’t want to shoot skiers, mountain bikers or climbers, because everyone else does this stuff. I decided to focus on more underground sports, ones that people don’t tend to know.
I’m not really scared of dark or tight places. The one thing that scared me a little bit when shooting the CG caving story was this big pit. There’s a photo taken with multiple exposure that shows a guy rappelling down (see the cover of the July/August 2012 issue of CG). This was a very deep cave; we had to use hundreds of metres of ropes that had been left there from a previous caving expedition. There’s a lot of moisture in caves, and there are rats that eat the ropes.
I usually went first, because I wanted to get photos from the bottom of the guys rappelling down. They told me to be careful, because the rats could have eaten the rope. When you rappel down, it’s quite fast, but then you have to ascend the rope to get back up. That takes a lot of time, and it’s much harder on the ropes because you’re pulling up your whole body weight and you’re shaking all the time.
It’s a bit scary when you wonder, is the gear going to hold? I’m a climber; I know where it’s supposed to hold. But when you’re in an environment you don’t know well, it’s more scary.
Q. You must have gotten to know your subjects well during the caving shoot. What was that like?
A. It was like going on an adventure with a friend; you talk about food and stuff you miss. But it’s a weird community. There are only about 50 cavers in B.C. They’re in this place that nobody cares about. They know a lot about geology and the physical and chemical processes that occur in caves. They’re very scientific. It’s not the case with climbers. I don’t think a lot of them know what type of rock they’re climbing or how the cliff they’re scaling is formed.
Cavers are also very committed to mapping their caves. When I’m discovering new places, I want to squeeze through every new passage to see what’s on the other side. Cavers map the passage first and explore it later. Once a cave has been fully explored, they don’t like to go back, except to the really awesome caves. What they really like is to discover new passages, which sometimes involves digging dirt for months. They don’t care; they have an affinity for new, undiscovered passages. If you go back to a cave that’s already been explored, it’s considered touristic caving.
Q. How does your background in geography inform your photography?
A. I definitely understand what I see and what I'm taking photos of. The cavers know a lot about caves. I can communicate with them based on my background. It’s helpful for more than just caves. I tend to work on subjects that are more geography-related, so having that science background really helps.
Everything is related. The reason I picked geography is that I’m passionate about nature and exploration and so on. It’s the same reason I picked photography, and the reason I love adventure is because I’m passionate about nature.
Q. How does that scientific knowledge affect the kinds of photos you take?
A. On the journalistic side of it, it gives me the ability to know what’s interesting and what’s not; where to go for stories and how to communicate with the people you’re talking about. Once I’m in the field taking photos, I’m not sure my background influences the images.
What does influence how I take my photos is my adventure background. I’ve spent my life climbing, hiking, canoeing, caving and traveling. This is a key factor in the way I pick my photos, simply because I can go there. Obviously, not everybody can go into a cave, because you need some knowledge and practice. It’s the same for canyoneering, climbing and anything adventure-related. It makes it much easier when you know what you’re doing.
Q. How do you set up lighting when you’re shooting in a cave?
A. The reason I started taking photos in caves was because it’s a challenge to take photos underground. It’s actually really hard to get a photo and one reason is that there’s no light. Lighting is a key part in caving photography. It’s actually easy to use a flash. When cavers take photos, they don’t turn out well because the flash is straight in their faces. The challenge is to make the light look real. The other extreme of this flash thing is to have perfectly lit photos that don’t look real either. So you have to have a good balance that gives a natural feeling.
Lots of photos you see in the CG shoot are the silhouette of the caver with light behind him or her. So I attach a flash to the back of the caver, or ask another caver to shine the flash at him towards me. You can detach your subject from the background that way. For lighting faces and people, I have a flash in my hand most of the time and I shine the flash at the rock and not at the face of the subject. This way, the light is diffused and feels much softer.
Q. How do you protect your gear when you’re shooting in caves?
A. I put my gear in two different watertight bags and surround them with foam. There’s a lot of water in caves, and you obviously don’t want to get your stuff wet. It’s also really rough. The bag I used for the CG assignment is destined for the trash bin now, because the rock is so sharp, and you often have to throw it down, drag it behind you or push it in front of you, so you definitely want to surround your gear by foam and stuff like that and avoid sharp rocks.
Then there’s the dirt. Any time I take out my camera, it gets super dirty. You have the mud and then the dirt that flies in the air; both are terrible for cameras. There’s not much you can do about it other than putting your camera back in its protective case as soon as you can.
As for the flashes, I don’t care too much about them. I broke one flash, because I attached it to the belly of one guy who was climbing up a rope and scratched it against the cave wall. On another assignment, I dropped a flash in the water. The gear suffers a lot. I don’t have a lot of gear, so I use my flashes for all my assignments, including weddings. The other day, I shot a wedding with super dirty flashes.
Q. How do you clean your gear?
A. For the surface stuff, use a wet cloth to get rid of the mud and dirt and so on. Other than that, you clean your camera as you would normally—I have no special techniques.
Q. How do you transition from an office job into professional photography?
A. I didn’t make any money in the first few months, or even the first year. I had a bit of money set aside, but not much. What really made it work financially, in the beginning at least, is my wife. She’s an engineer and she makes good money. She knew from the very beginning that I wasn’t happy sitting at a desk.
Moving to Vancouver was the perfect moment and place to start a career. She said to go ahead and just do it, and we survived thanks to her job. It would have taken much longer to break through without her.
Q. So if anyone out there is stuck at a desk job and considering launching a whole new career in photography, what would you say to them?
A. I say go for it. Work as hard as you can and shoot what you love. Manage it as a business. There are marketing costs, accounting and many other sides to photography. Photographers are usually artists, and artists tend not to know the business side of things. But you can’t go without the business aspect, especially in the beginning when you have to do everything at the same time — get clients, get photos and manage your portfolio.
Shooting what you love is paramount. This is why I picked adventure photography. At first, I didn’t know what I wanted to shoot. Then I thought: what am I best at? Definitely adventure. So let me take photos of what I do on an everyday basis.
Interview by Samia Madwar