This month’s featured photographer is Dag Ole Nordhaug, a expert within landscape photography. Learn about his fascination with medium format cameras and why he beleives it’s important to slow down in the field.
Can you begin by introducing yourself and tell us how you got into photography?
Thanks a lot for featuring me, Christian. I really appreciate it.
I am in my mid-forties, married, two children, and live in Trondheim, Norway. I have been into photography since my early childhood years. I can actually point quite specifically to the exact time when it all started. It was sometimes during Christmas when I was nine years old, and I overheard a discussion between my uncles and my grandfather about photography. The concept of photography seemed very exciting for a young boy! At first, I was mostly intrigued by the technical sides of it. I started to investigate what this really was, and a couple of days later I borrowed my mothers SLR and started out. After a few months, I spent all my savings and purchased my first camera, a Hanimex 35mm point-and-shoot.
Growing up in North Norway, the landscapes and the arctic light became my first subject and has stayed with me ever since. The expenses of photography back in the days of film was substantial, and to cover this I started to do some press work for the local newspapers and also sold quite a bit of stock work. That enabled me to buy a Nikon SLR-system and after a while my own complete darkroom.
I photographed and processed mostly black and white, but from my mid-teens I started do develop my own slide films and ventured into Cibachrome printing. I did mostly landscape work for my own pleasure and had a lot of fun. However, at one time I had to do a career decision. As much as I loved to photograph, I was afraid that a full-time career where people would tell me what to photograph could kill my passion for it. I chose to go into a totally different professional career.
The years at university was a downtime for photography, but after having established a career and a solid daytime job, I took it up again. This period, around the turn of the millennium, coincided with the introduction of digital and when I started out again it was natural to start investigating digital. After a few years, the quality seemed good enough to say good-bye to film and convert to a full digital workflow. Since then, I’ve kept on living out my childhood dream with photographing landscapes, in the widest possible definition of the word, and although not as a full-time professional, it is definitely with all-in passion. I love to wander and photograph the woods and coastline close to home just as much as traveling to iconic locations and photograph foreign and unfamiliar places.
You use a Hasselblad H6D but also have a Nikon D800e and Fujifilm X-Pro2 when a more portable gear is required. Are there any differences when photographing with a medium format camera such as the Hasselblad compared to a D800 or X-Pro2 and does it in any way affect your workflow?
The short answer to that is yes, to me it is different. But that may be just me?
Back in the eighties, I tried out medium- and even large format film. I was intrigued by the slower and more laborious process of photographing in larger formats. For my landscape work it was a definitive advantage as it made me slow down, think more and shoot less and that gave me stronger compositions and all over better results. The better resolution in the larger formats was really secondary to me back then.
After a few years with digital APS-C and full format, I wanted to investigate the larger formats again, this time digital. And again, the main driving force behind this decision was the slower more meditative workflow on location, the more cumbersome work, but of course also a hope for technically better files. I could have gone back to large-format film, but that just seemed too much. I was already spoiled by the speed and ease of digital, enabling me to act fast enough when needed, and all the other advantages of digital. So, medium format digital seemed like a good compromise where I would get the best from both worlds. But this is just me, other people may have a totally different approach. I could, of course, have forced myself to work slower with a regular full format, but I was obviously also hoping for a surge in file quality from medium format.
I started out with a medium format system with the older generations CCD-sensors. The weak low-light performance, the increased noise, the shallow depth of field and in general the lower tolerance for any user-error really made me work harder on location. This also went into post-processing, as I soon learned that these files needed a totally different approach with everything from color-handling to sharpening and noise-reduction. I soon found out that I could snap away happily with my medium format camera and get somewhat decent results, but if I put all my efforts into it, both on location and in post-processing, the medium format files really started to sing and I could see the advantages of a larger sensor, excellent optics and more pixels.
I have since invested into medium format CMOS, and with the more modern sensors, low-light performance and noise levels are much improved while most of the other advantages remain the same.
I now use medium format for all my planned, serious work. Even including longer hikes and work in extreme conditions such as heavy rain, snow and cold temperatures. Always from a tripod, always lowest possible iso and almost exclusively with prime lenses. I do have a zoom, but I find that it just doesn’t fit the mindset and workflow of medium format photography that well. But don’t get me wrong, I love to work with my Nikon and Fuji as well! They are both very capable cameras that can produce technically excellent files. I use them both from time to time, to keep them warm and keep me on top of the workflow I use with them. But I just like the workflow and handling of my medium format camera better, so by now the Fuji and the Nikon mostly serve as back up cameras.
You mention that you shot analog until 2002. Have you ever considered going back?
Yes, almost every day! Film do have a certain charm and quality to it, and to me, there is also an element of nostalgia. As I mentioned, slowing down and working harder at a location and in post-processing is important for me to keep the quality up, both technically and esthetically.
The last couple of years, there has been an increased interest in film in parts of the photographic community. This is all a part of the millennial generation’s retro fascination, I guess. Excellent landscape photographers like California-based Ben Horne have entered the stage through digital channels like Youtube and has contributed to the trend. We now see that some companies, like Fuji, increase focus on film again, and we even have new, trendy businesses, like Intrepid Camera, producing new large-format cameras and gear!
I must admit that a part of me would love to venture into large-format film photography again, but there are still too many obstacles. Access to high-quality labs is still limited and the same goes for e.g. high-end drum scanning. In a few years, these things may be rectified, and who knows, maybe I’ll sell all my digital gear and can be found in the mountains behind a large Arca-Swiss 8×10?
You’ve developed a style that is both recognizable and unique. Can you take us through your thought process when capturing and processing an image?
Thanks! Well, that would be a little bit like dissecting my brain, wouldn’t it?
The whole process of creating an image, from having an idea, through planning, preparations, capturing, post-processing and printing is very personal to me, as it is for most creatives, I guess. Every step of the way is of course influenced by my personal thoughts and feelings, both consciously and subconsciously. Just as it may be hard to define what makes a person that exact person, it may be hard to point at what makes my images the way they are. But in short, I like to plan my work thoroughly. My images are rarely the result of an impulse or coincidences. The things I can plan is always prepared. I often photograph locations I have scouted out, or at least visited before. Maps and guides are extensively used, and I find google maps and street view very helpful. Moon-phases, tide charts and stuff like that are very helpful. And of course weather forecasts. I use a bunch of weather apps and aurora-apps, and I am very much dependent on e.g. TPE, The Photographers Ephemeris.
All this planning often results in a clear idea about an image and I try to go all-in on location to capture that vision. I find it very helpful to have an idea about how the final print should look while I am working on locations. That helps me optimize the technical sides of the file for a specific goal, for instance with exposure bracketing, perspective-blending etc. This idea also goes all the way through post-processing. Sometimes I even end up with a print that looks something close to what I hoped for!
But of course, one cannot plan every detail and always get what you want. Most often, things don’t line up the way I hoped it to, and I end up improvising and capturing what is really there instead of what I hoped for. But I find that the results often are best if I do a real thorough job with the planning.
How important is softwares such as Adobe Photoshop in your workflow?
Well, good software is important for all serious digital photographers and even many that work with film these days. My digital workflow is in no way unique, I guess.
I import my files in Lightroom where they are sorted and cataloged, and I also do the general raw-processing there, like cropping, pre-sharpening, white balance etc. Some images may be done at this time, but I often have to move over to photoshop where I do more advanced blending etc. I often create images from multiple exposures; for panorama stitching, focus stacking or exposure blending. A single image may consist of up to 20-30 exposures to get what I want in the end.
Photoshop is the industrial standard for using layers and mask, and of course, this is very important for me. Some purists regard this as cheating, I am not one of those. I use whatever technique to make and image that as close as possible mimics my vision of the scene in planning and on location. From time to time I also use other plugins like the Nik-collection.
You’re most known for your landscape portfolio but you’ve also got an impressive collection of cityscapes. Are there any differences in your approach to a cityscape and a landscape?
No, not really. I find that many of the compositional elements that make an image attractive are the same for a cityscape and a landscape. It is all about including the right things, simplifying and excluding the things you don’t want in the frame to make a balanced composition that conveys the message you want to give the viewer. Light is, in cityscapes as in landscapes, a main element and just as important in the built world.
The main difference is that when photographing in the «human world» you have to relate to people to a larger degree. And I have mixed emotions with respect to that. As much as I like people, relating to them in the middle of a creative process can be difficult, both for the photographers and the public. Some people really dislike photographers and I try to be as anonymous as I can and avoid being intrusive in any way.
I like to photograph cities during the twilight when artificial and natural light is in a balance, and a photographer lurking around your neighborhood at those hours could be really uncomforting. I understand that and try to make as little fuzz about it as I can. I talk to people and often ask if it is ok for me to photograph in an area. Surprisingly, I have never felt unsafe photographing, even in dodgy areas of large cities.
I remember spending a few hours photographing under Brooklyn bridge at the Manhattan side once. This area is not exactly Manhattans finest and during the twilight hours, there were a few human elements with intentions that maybe wasn’t all honorable. I sat down with a few homeless and warmed myself on their bonfire and we talked and had a great time. Although I gave away some money, I felt I left richer a few hours later.
A good portion of your portfolio consists of images taken pre-sunrise or post-sunset. What is it about this time of day that attracts you?
Most of all, it is the quality of the light. The subtle nuances and vibrant colors of twilight really fascinate me. At certain times during the transition from light to dark or dark to light, there are qualities both in intensity, colors and tones that really enhances the mood and feeling of being present at a location.
I like to have a feeling of peace, quiet and tranquility in my images. But I am also in some way intrigued by the untouched, pure and almost mysterious elements in nature. This is often best captured in the early hours of the day, before the sun rises and when the fog lies over the lakes and between the trees. Furthermore, there is always fewer people around, for obvious reasons, and I get a closer connection with the landscape in total solitude. Getting up early can be hard and wandering out in the snow in the middle of the night may seem totally crazy to some people, but I like it.
And coffee, lots of it, is your best friend!
What’s your opinion on Social Media for promoting your photography?
Much can be said about social media! The everlasting race for followers and likes, the pressure of constantly publishing new material, the follow-for-follow, the bots and the whole circus. I try to have a relaxed and balanced approach. The main drive for me is to capture and make images that I like myself. Not too many of them, that just inflates them, but keep quality up on a level that I am comfortable with. And then I share them on a few selected platform for other to see. If anyone likes them, fine. If not, well, I like them myself and that is the only thing that really matters for me.
That being said, I have met many really nice people through social media, and have made close ties to many fellow photographers through social media, friendships that also have grown into «real life». I think social media really is the most important way for people with certain interests, such as photography, to interact in the modern world. And definitely, the easiest and most important way to get exposure. Twenty years ago, magazine publishing, exhibitions etc. was the only way to be seen for a photographer. All that has changed with social media. Though building a large, relevant public on social media can be challenging, things are definitely easier than it was when I started out in the eighties!
What’s the favorite location that you’ve photographed and what’s a dream location you haven’t been to yet?
My dream location is a place I have never visited and that no other photographer has ever visited before either! It’s a place with fabulous mountains, rivers, forests and waterfalls and wonderful light! I have yet to find such a place, but the search continues! Although I have been fortunate enough to be able to visit and photograph many iconic locations all over the world, I find it most satisfying when I find an «unknown» place and I can plan to return when conditions are perfect. I have mapped a few such places throughout Norway and Scandinavia and been able to photograph a few of them under really nice conditions. And I am always on the lookout for new ones. Norway has so much to offer and I have barely just started! For instance, the next few months I will spend several weeks just roaming the landscapes of northern Norway. Off the beaten path, all by myself, searching for the true spirit of the Norwegian land. Why stand in line and photograph from other photographers tripod-marks when you can wander all alone in peace and quiet and make your own icons?
That being said, some iconic locations are just impossible not to love as a photographer. Among the places I have photographed, it is hard to pick a definitive favorite. Every place has its own charm. I love the Dolomites for the rugged peaks, green meadows and the changing weather. I love Yosemite for the smell in the forests, the granite domes and the dramatic waterfalls. Grand Canyon has fabulous light and the most breathtaking proportions you’ll ever see. The list goes on. If I had to pick one, it just might be Grand Canyon during the monsoon season.
Strangely enough, I have not had the pleasure of visiting the pacific northwest of the US yet. At least not for photography. One of my very favorite subjects is forests and trees and I would love to spend a couple of weeks in Olympic NP and of course Columbia River Gorge. I have no set plans but hope to be able to visit sometime the next few years.
Any plans for the future?
Well, as of now, I just want to continue doing what I love, photographing landscapes. I want to continue to work hard to improve every step of the process, from my personal vision to the planning and capturing part of it and into post processing and printing. I do print a lot, but there is much more to learn about printing and I want to continue to investigate that. For me, few things are more fulfilling than holding a matted large-format print in my hands. I believe printing has been somewhat overshadowed by social media and I actually know quite a few very capable photographers that never has seen a print of their own work! In my opinion, they are really missing out on something. Optimizing a file for printing, selecting the right paper, printing and mounting is really the ultimate fulfillment of photography for me, and I will continue to work hard dot improve my skills on that.
I have been planning and executing photography tours for myself and a few close friends for quite a few years now, and in my humble opinion, I’ve become fairly good at it! I would love to arrange tours for fellow photographers sometime in the future, taking them to some of my «secret» locations and share my vision and experience with a few, selected clients. But as of now, time is too limited and my daytime job too busy. But who knows what the future will bring?
Lastly, what are your top three tips for someone who’s just getting started with photography?
First of all: TRY not to be obsessed with gear from the beginning. Tools are important, but not the only thing that matters. Photography is not about cameras, it is about photographs. Buy a decent camera after your budget. All cameras on the market today are capable of producing excellent images. The most important thing is how the camera suits you, not the number of megapixels. Ergonomics, weather-sealing and how the camera is controlled must meet your requirements. Visit a good, old fashioned camera store and try a few out. Second, buy a wide, a normal and a Tele lens. Learn to use them. I find it easier to understand perspective, depth of field etc on a prime. Zooms can be utterly confusing.
Second: Buy a decent tripod, a good photography backpack and some really good shoes if you are into landscapes! That’s more important than an expensive camera. Make sure your first tripod and backpack are your last. Well, maybe not your last, but too many photographers have fallen into the trap of buying too expensive cameras and lenses, and compromised on other gear, just to find that they need a better tripod three weeks later….
And finally: study others work. On social media, yes, but visit exhibitions, buy photography books and study the masters. Ask yourself: what is it with this image that I like, and how has the artist made me like it the way I do? How can learn to do the same things?