After a few seasons working in the Alps, a young Swedish photographer decided to change scenery and travel with a group of friends to Spain to try to enjoy skiing and make a living from photography in the Pyrenees. It was the late 80’s, and what he didn’t know then was that he would stay and live in Spain, and that several decades later he would continue to enjoy skiing in its mountains, as well as making us enjoy his inspiring images of sport and nature. Enter, Mikael Helsing.
Hi Mikael, how does a Swede end up living in Spain?
My two great hobbies, photography and skiing, brought me to Spain. I was living in Sweden and wanted to take up photography. A series of conditioning factors such as the cold, the short days and the lack of light in winter, encouraged me to travel, and I started skiing in the Alps. I was in very touristy places, and to work with photography I needed to find a quieter place. Back in Sweden after the second ski season in the Alps I visited the Spanish embassy in Stockholm to get information about the ski resorts on the Iberian Peninsula. Sierra Nevada was recommended to me because of the hours of sunshine, but it was a considerable distance: about 4,500 km from my village in Sweden. But the second option suited me better because it was “closer”, only 3,500 km away: Baqueira-Beret. The following winter season I prepared it thoroughly, stuffed my car with skiing and photography equipment and went with some colleagues to Spain to work as a ski photographer.
When and how did you start taking pictures?
I was competing in downhill skiing in Sweden, but the sporting results were not what I expected… and I started taking pictures of my friends when they were skiing. Little by little I felt at ease and also began to get the money shots. I saw the possibility of not only recovering the money of the investment, but make profit as well as having a great hobby.
At what point did you realize you were a professional?
After a few seasons of skiing I realized that the result was good enough to sell and compete with the established photographers in the ski world. That encouraged me a lot and I made investments in material to achieve a higher level of quality than what I had until then.
I have gone through almost all possible variants of photography, and that somehow have formed my vision as a photographer
Which themes do you like the most?
All topics related to sport and nature where I can contribute something ‘of my own’ as a Photographer. If they can be jobs or moments with some difficulty of light or weather, it motivates me even more. I really like to use my flash outdoors and in the last few years lighting equipment has improved a lot, so that I have a compact lighting set for outdoor work.
I consider myself an outdoor photographer, a field in which most subjects are obviously taken outdoors and often involve a significant amount of lighting. My work has been very varied: portraits, studio photography, sporting events, travel, advertising, product testing, bikes, motorcycles, cars, etc… My career is one big photography course. I have gone through almost all possible variants of photography, and that somehow have formed my vision as a photographer.
What’s the hardest thing about taking good photos in winter?
It is not more difficult to take photos in winter and with snow, but the circumstances that condition the work such as the cold, the humidity, the agility to move in the snow… In the mountains in winter there are many days with bad weather, which slows down the production. That’s why it’s very important to have knowledge of the activity you’re photographing and take advantage of the few good moments to get the job done. In the days of analogue cameras there was often talk of the difficulty of exposing in snow with reflections from the sun but, considering that it is a white surface where the sun’s rays bounce off and illuminate more of the scene, I think there are more positives than negatives to lighting in snow and sun conditions. It is true that the dynamic range of your camera (what the camera’s sensor captures between the brightest and darkest areas of the image) may be less than the scene you want to capture, but this is something that happens to all cameras, to a greater or lesser degree.
Another factor to take into account, when talking about the challenge of properly exposing images on a sunny day, is that a long time ago amateur photographers took very few photos in snowy conditions, because as with everything, you have to practice. Nowadays nobody complains about this because it doesn’t cost money to shoot with digital cameras. If you don’t get it right you shoot again at no extra cost.
In short, the most complicated thing about taking pictures in winter is to be in the right place, have all the photographic material ready and also, very important, to have serious people around you, both skiers and people from your production team. In the end, ski photography is a matter of a well-oiled team working together.
You have traveled a lot… What is your favourite winter destination?
I don’t have a preferred destination. I have been to many wonderful places and have enjoyed many different beautiful experiences in many different places. What I have seen is that there are some places where light is more important than in other places, for example in the north of Norway. In many places in the Alps you have exceptional snow quality. In the Pyrenees there is a mixture of incredible places and fantastic light, especially in the months of December and January. We could say that I have a favorite place for each type of work without mentioning the places because I have to keep something secret…
Photographically speaking, what does Spain offer you as a country?
Spain is a country that offers a great variety of landscapes. You have everything from high mountains with snow, through forests of all kinds, beaches and coastline of infinite variety. Islands in the Mediterranean and in the Atlantic, deserts, rivers, incredible rock formations, different villages in many parts of the country… I can’t stop talking about the varied microclimates in different areas of Spain. I think it is one of the countries with the greatest variety of landscapes and climatology, at least in Europe.
What are your weaknesses?
Weaknesses as a photographer… Unnecessary haste, no doubt. I’ve been working for many years in different types of races and events and I feel that my nerves make me suffer more than I should, and there are moments that I don’t bring out everything I have inside me. Other areas where I feel I don’t contribute much are weddings and social issues. Maybe it’s not because I don’t like it, but because they are subjects that require other qualities as a photographer, that I don’t have.
And you, do you still have things to learn about the art of photography?
Photography is a mixture of the use of various tools such as the camera, lenses, light sources, editing programs on the one hand; and on the other hand your interpretation as a photographer with your critical and trained eye, something very subjective. Both the tools and your eye take time to develop. Digital cameras have an incredible ‘rhythm’ in technological development, and your eyes (and mind) are ‘training’ with each photographic session. The imagination, experience and knowledge of each photographer is obviously very subjective. Some photographers have a lot of imagination while others have an extraordinary technical knowledge.
When I started in the world of photography the cameras were analogue and now we have more than 20 years in the digital era where each model of camera that comes on the market has improvements over the previous one, the lenses are faster and with higher quality, and the lighting equipment we need to do the job also improved.
Other factors to take into account are the trends where the images we produce have to have a fresh air in order to make an impact, and that means a constant search for improvement in our work. In my opinion, photography is in a constant development where you, as a photographer, have to adapt to the tools that the market offers and that also implies changes in the way you apply that technology/improvement in the way you work. You have to be open to learning new tools, photography is a non-stop journey.
Mikael Helsing teaches courses and workshops in different locations in Spain with different themes related to landscape photography, outdoor sports, portrait… Whether for learning and perfecting photographic technique, improving lighting, motion capture or editing.