Adventure Photography Tips for Better Visual Storytelling
Travel came to a screeching halt last spring. Around the world, globetrotters were grounded in favor of public health. Photography became a transport portal for many over the last 15 months. Images from far-off locales became an opportunity to pine and aspire. Stunning photographs hopefully will soon fuel inspiration for future experiences.
Mattias Fredriksson is one photographer whose arresting art became a hallmark of my work-from-home social media respite. The Swedish-born adventure photographer is prolific. His skiing, biking, and adventure travel images are ubiquitous with more than 450 cover shots published worldwide. Fredriksson is a storyteller. We recently caught up with him to hear a backstory about one of his favorite images from his storied career. While sharing the tale of this one lasting and memorable image, Fredriksson also unearthed a few invaluable nuggets and tips for aspiring photographers and visual storytellers to create their own.
Fredriksson selected one image (pictured above) immediately when asked to pick a single frame from his career with as vibrant of a backstory to match. Snapped years ago, the photograph was captured in late April in the Swedish Lapland near Kebnekaise, Sweden’s tallest mountain.
“This ski photo says a lot about my style of photography,” says Fredriksson. “There’s a big landscape and nice Scandinavian light. It is a combination of the location, the light and the fact that the athlete is skiing a full run. Also, it’s not super extreme. It’s a beautiful setting that a lot of people can enjoy. The unique perspective adds a bit to it, too. The depth in this shot is pretty significant. It’s a moment.”
Spring in Sweden’s Lapland is special. Every year, at this time, soft Scandinavian light pops from the sky. It illuminates the Abisko Alps hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle. As if a switch were flicked, the sky goes pink at nine o’clock on clear evenings.
Fredriksson had his camera pointed at Hanna Ovin—the skier in the frame—on this particular evening when she sliced a 2,600-vertical-foot, top-to-bottom line in front of Fredriksson’s lens. The moment stuck with the photographer for many reasons.
“I chose to go with this shot because it’s from the Swedish Lapland—very close to the location where I kicked off my career—and the typical pink light from up there is dreamy,” says Fredriksson. “It’s not skied too often. It’s definitely the province in Sweden that is the most spectacular and impressive. The mountains, landscape and remoteness; it’s pretty wild. There’s so much to explore. It’s special for me to share these stories with the rest of the world.”
Steeped in darkness during the doldrums of winter, the Swedish Lapland lights up with spring’s thaw. Long days of sunlight make for marathon days of exploring, ski touring and photography.
“Getting to work with this amazing light is great, but Midnight Sun is also exhausting,” says Fredriksson. “The Midnight Sun can almost ruin a trip. You learn to manage because you could be out there all the time with so much light. You have to be smart, but at the same time it’s incredible to have that special light. A lot of photographers live for that soft, epic light and those colors you get up north.”
In addition to world-renowned light and vast terrain, Sweden offers an infrastructure of Mountain Stations, affordable huts perched precariously in dream destinations, that make traveling and exploring the Arctic fairly doable. The Mountain Station is a staple in Swedish alpine culture. During the summer, trekkers frequent the modest digs during a multi-day hike through pristine nature. In the winter, however, the huts are less busy.
“The Mountain Stations are a simple hotel in the middle of the mountains,” says Fredriksson. “It’s a cozy place with good food. It’s not very expensive. It’s for anyone. It’s very democratic. It’s remote. It’s for everybody. It’s very Swedish. Waking up every day with that view of the whole Kebnekaise Range is special.”
The mountains are big, and the skiing is great up there. The wilderness is massive, and it sits relatively empty during the winter. The best part about Sweden’s network of Mountain Stations, though: the waffles.
“It’s classic Swedish food, they care about the traditions like the waffles. Who doesn’t love a våffla?”
How does Fredriksson look at the craft of photography? Check out these tips about travel, storytelling and photography that can help any adventure photographer.
Nine tips from Mattias Fredriksson about visual storytelling:
1. Celebrate Different People and Places
“It’s one thing to go after banger ski shots but I’ve been doing this for more than 25 years now. What gets me going is the stories, the people, the ski cultures where you go. When you travel, photography is a way to see the world through skiing or biking. The people and places are what make photography special. How people are attached to these different mountain cultures in different places. It’s the people that make skiing different because we’re all just people sliding on snow in the end. Right? The different approaches in different places are what I celebrate.”
2. Character-driven Photos are Compelling
“The mountains can definitely be a character. You should be able to take the athletes and the action out of the shot and still have a beautiful photo. That’s what I go for. Obviously, shooting skiing, you sometimes have to capture tight action and sometimes it’s the expression of the skier that’s most important. But, for the most part, the shots that I tend to like myself or feel like is my best work, is where the nature is the main character. It’s important that the skier, snowboarder or biker is performing at a high level. I love when you have small, but high, action. I wouldn’t just have any style of action in a beautiful shot. It’s important that you combine the two.”
3. Share Stories
“I was a journalist first and then became a photographer. I still write a lot. I would call myself a photojournalist more than a photographer. Storytelling with a set of photos has always been a very important thing for me. It’s not just one standalone shot. If I were to send you a set of 30 shots from this trip you could probably follow the whole trip and feel like you’re almost there. That’s my goal. And that’s why I really enjoy shooting feature stories.”
4. Shoot with a Purpose
“I don’t go out and shoot randomly anymore. I want to have a purpose with my photography. I want to use my time in a purposeful way.”
5. Equipment for this Shot
“That image from the Swedish Lapland was shot with my 24-70 mm lens. It can shoot pretty wide. I was able to move with the skier which helps you get more lens flaring. I even flipped it and shot vertical and horizontal on this one. I have so many shots from this one run.”
6. Horizontal or Vertical Orientation?
“It’s dependent on the situation. I tend to shoot more horizontal. But some of my clients actually prefer vertical images. So, I try to balance it out. I feel like horizontal shots give a better sense for the landscape, but vertical images make things look steeper.”
7. Does Medium Dictate Approach?
“Some clients prefer vertical for social because you can use vertical shots on that medium. If you go horizontal, they need to be cropped. It’s really hard to make a vertical shot horizontal and it’s a lot easier the other way around. I would say I still shoot horizontal. Spread images pay better, too. And those aren’t vertical.”
8. Editing and Organizing Images
“I have a pretty strict way of going through everything. My catalogs are quite organized. That’s a really important part of the work. You usually do this once. You don’t usually go back to the raw folders a second time. It’s important to put a lot of effort into that process after shooting the images.”
9. Making New with Old
“Sometimes I make new edits of old images that I think have potential. Maybe they’re photos that haven’t been used much or published at all. I’m not shy of using old images. It’s all about a feeling, not a fresh product. I don’t see why a photo taken a couple of years ago wouldn’t be interesting now. I never understood when people say, ‘That’s an old image.’ Who cares? The way I shoot is a fairly timeless style. I’m actually reusing a lot of images, especially these days when you’re not traveling much. It’s still about inspiring people to go ski and bike and experience different things.”