Photographer Stian Klo has just come home from his latest photo trip when he sits down to talk about his passion for photography.
“I guess I sacrifice a lot for the perfect shot. The best pictures are rarely taken on days with clear blue skies. The weather during my latest trip got a bit too rough, but it did result in some pretty nice images,” Stian says.
His recent pictures of Lofoten complement an already huge photo archive. The way he captures Arctic landscapes has won over 230,000 (and counting) followers on Instagram and a job at Lonely Planet. His love for nature started a long time ago, some 37 years ago, to be exact, in the Norwegian town of Harstad – where the northbound and southbound Hurtigruten cruises meet each morning, and where Stian grew up.
“I spent my childhood with nature as my playground. We had the ocean on one side of the house and the woods on the other. But it was not until I moved away that I understood how truly amazing my upbringing was. The fact that I had nature right outside my door has been a huge inspiration.”
It All Starts Outside
After spending his 20s living in Oslo, Stian moved back to Harstad, where he bought his first camera – a Canon EOS 600D. A self-taught photographer, he spent countless hours browsing blogs, YouTube tutorials, e-books, and different online forums. But the most important thing he did was to step outside.
“I went outdoors and experimented. I didn’t have my own photo style and just took pictures of everything. It took me a while to realize what really inspired me: nature itself." It all went up hill from there. Literally. Up hills, into fjords, and out to sea – documenting the Arctic’s breathtakingly beautiful nature. Luckily, he is more than happy to share some basic tips on how to use a camera. “Read the light and position yourself according to the sun. Avoid shooting into the sun. Having the sun at your back makes all the difference. It’s really disappointing to come home with pictures ruined by bright, direct light,” he says.
Stian also advises photographers to carefully plan their pictures. “Choose your composition. Use your eyes and make a conscious choice on what you want to capture. What story do you want your pictures to tell?”
Patience is Key
Stian himself is obsessed with planning the perfect photo. If he spots something that inspires him out in nature, he stores it in the back of his mind and waits until all the elements are right. The weather, the light, the composition. Everything must be in place before he starts shooting.
“I have actually planned out a picture that I haven’t taken yet of a place in Lofoten. I have waited six whole years for the perfect moment, and I am still waiting. One day, everything will fall into place, and it will be worth the wait.”
In other words, patience is key. You don’t have years to wait when sailing on a Hurtigruten cruise, but getting good photos is often still the result of being patient.
“Many of my pictures result from being outside for long periods at a time. You never know, suddenly you have the inspiration you have been waiting for – or sometimes something completely unexpected appears. Everyone has the potential to bring home good photos. Patience, creativity, and a curious mind will take you a long way!”
Mountains on Steroids
When Stian is not out shooting independently or working abroad, he hosts photo workshops in Lofoten, where he teaches people from all over the world how to best capture Arctic landscapes. While guiding people through spectacular Norwegian nature, he sees their reactions when experiencing Norway for the first time.
“I had a Swiss man in my workshop once. He was used to mountains and rugged nature but was still blown away by the Norwegian landscape."
He said it looked like someone had dropped the Alps straight down into the ocean.
"A client of mine once said the mountains looked like they were on steroids,” he recalls.
Bold – yet accurate –statements, according to Stian. Asked why he thinks photographers worldwide are drawn to Norway, he replies enthusiastically.
“Tall mountains dropping into Caribbean-hued fjords is something that never ceases to amaze. Add local weather to the equation and you suddenly have photos covering all four different seasons in an amazingly short period of time! There really is no place like Northern Norway.”
Greatest Magic Show on Earth
When sailing on a Hurtigruten cruise along the Norwegian coast during winter, there is a high probability you will have a chance to see the spectacular northern lights. Stian grew up with the phenomena, but still finds them mesmerizing.
“You find yourself with a lack of words. Just looking up, trying to reason how this is actually possible. I call it the greatest magic show on Earth,” he says.
Adding a camera to the experience is, in Stian’s words, “When the adrenalin starts pumping you get so caught up in the moment trying to shoot the lights that it’s easy to forget the technical stuff. That’s why I always recommend some advance planning. Try to get away from big crowds and light pollution, and always bear in mind the composition of the photo. Anyone can take a picture of the sky. The photo becomes much more visually interesting if you include something else in the image. Think about how you would frame a landscape photo, and try to do the same when shooting the northern lights.”
As a professional photographer, Stian knows which camera settings to use when the sky puts on a show and goes into ‘autopilot’ mode. But for less-skilled photographers, there are a few handy tips that can be useful.
“Be sure to use a tripod or monopod, and a fast lens. Because the boat is moving, you also need to set the camera at a high ISO value to keep the shutter speed as fast as possible. Set your lens to infinity focus and start shooting.”
If your pictures are too dark, Stian recommends slowing the shutter speed or raising the ISO value until you are happy with the exposure. To ensure sharpness, make sure the shutter speed is no slower than 1/200th of a second when the boat is moving. If you’re not comfortable with these technicalities , Stian recommends using the automatic settings.
For Smartphone Enthusiasts
According to Stian, it’s actually possible to capture the northern lights with your smartphone.
“Make sure to use a tripod or a clamp. Some smartphone cameras actually have manual settings, and in that case you should use a shutter speed from 2 to 30 seconds. It’s extra challenging when the ship is moving. Keep the shutter speed as low as you possibly can and try to avoid movement.”
Snapchats taken of the northern lights may not be top quality, but because new smartphones have such good cameras – some with manual settings – you can actually bring home some really nice photos.
Prepping is Everything
When it comes to the Arctic, Stian has one simple message for both professional and amateur photographers: “Be prepared for anything!” Because the weather can change in minutes, Stian thoroughly prepares himself.
He always checks the weather forecast and ensures he has a plan B and C when arranging a photo trip. But don’t forget to see the weather for yourself.
“Stick your head out the window! The weather in Norway is super local and can change in the blink of an eye. If you’re not pleased with the conditions, sit tight and wait a while.”
Another important part of preparing is to dress appropriately for the occasion. Standing out on deck for hours requires wearing the right clothes.
“If you’re spending a full day outdoors, it’s important to make sure you stay dry and warm. It’s also a good idea to use waterproof protection on your equipment, especially when the weather is wet and the sea is rough.”
Never Stop Exploring
Traveling with Hurtigruten is all about seeking new adventures. By documenting your trip with photos, you always have something to look back on, something to keep your memories alive and fresh. For Stian it’s all about exploration. He has a hunch why people are so fascinated with nature photos.
“I think it’s the explorer gene in us. People love to dream. Seeing photos of beautiful destinations encourages us to get out into the world. I guess, in a way, everyone wants to feel like Thor Heyerdahl (a Norwegian explorer). People travel so much more these days, including me. I am so fortunate to be able to travel to all these incredible places as a part of my job.”
Stian mostly focuses his lenses on the Arctic, where ice and snow rule the landscape. In other words, we won’t likely see photos of his from warm, sunny surf spots any time soon. He has a pretty long bucket list, but there’s one destination that stands out.
“Antarctica is at the top of my list. It looks so extreme!”
While dreaming of the frozen southern continent, he already has plans for his next photo expedition. Stian is taking two large groups out into Lofoten once the sun returns and the high season is in full swing. Once again, he packs his camera gear and prepares for new adventures – always with one mission in mind.
“I want to eternalize nature, show people how much beauty is really out there. The Earth is changing, there’s no way around that. Hopefully my photos can play a small role in helping people better appreciate nature. Part of the effort to conserve and preserve nature is by documenting the spectacular scenery that is out there.”