Hans Strand has earned a reputation as the most ‘poetic’ of landscape photographers. His images are works of art. And yet the 56-year-old, who has won numerous international awards, came to professional photography rather late in life. In this interview he discusses his career path, visual language, and love of ZEISS lenses.
They say ‘practice makes perfect’, but you didn’t get into photography until your mid-20s. How did it all begin?
It was 1981. I was 25, about to finish my degree at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology and visiting Stanford University in the U.S. as part of a study tour. I bought my first camera while I was there – a Contax with ZEISS lenses – and shot landscape photographs in Yosemite National Park. I will never forget that experience. I lost my photographic ‘virginity’ with Carl Zeiss, you could say (laughs). And the romance has continued to this day.
But it was only years later that you really got started as a professional photographer. How come?
I completed my exams and worked as a mechanical engineer for nine years. But then I got a very bad back problem which forced me to look for alternatives to sitting at a desk all day long. In hindsight, that was a blessing. In 1990, I began to work as a professional photographer and I still enjoy every day of it. I have never regretted the decision to reorient my career.
Your career path shows it’s never too late to do something you’re really passionate about. What do you enjoy most about your job?
Catching nature in its incredible complexity is pure happiness for me. I always felt a strong connection to nature. It’s like an inner glow that is never extinguished. Nature is always true and never trivial.
You’ve just tested the new super wide-angle Distagon T* 2,8/15 from Carl Zeiss. What was it like?
Without wanting to sound over the top, I feel like I’m in heaven with this lens. I’ve been waiting for a 15 mm super wide-angle lens with such excellent technical qualities for a long time. Its image performance, design, technical quality and sharpness are a dream. And the creative possibilities are enormous, thanks to its extreme field angle. I was particularly impressed with how this lens performs all the way out into the farthest corners. As a trained engineer, what I really like about ZEISS lenses is their fantastic workmanship. It’s a great experience every time to hold a ZEISS lens in your hand. As well as the 15 mm, I’ve also come to love the Distagon T* 2,8/21. It allows photo compositions using large foregrounds in combination with great depth of field. The Distagon T* 1,4/35 is also a master lens: super-sharp all over the frame and a fantastic bokeh at f1.4.
Do you work with autofocus or only with manual focusing?
For my typical landscape photographs, I don’t need autofocus. I always work without it. I really like the large rotation angle when I focus the ZEISS lenses. Thanks to the all-metal mount, it’s very comfortable to adjust the lens and there’s no play in the focus mechanism. This allows me to focus very sharply. I haven’t found this kind of comfort with any other manufacturer.
Your career has taken you all over the world, from the Arctic to rainforests and deserts. But you always return to Iceland. Why?
I love Iceland with its raw, untamed nature and the nice people. It has become my second home. Its treeless, empty landscapes let you see 50 kilometers away. With its fascinating volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers and jagged shores, you really feel the power of nature there. This inspires me again and again.
Can we expect a new book from you about Iceland any time soon?
People ask me that a lot. I will definitely come out with a book on Iceland someday. But I keep postponing it because if I have to publish a book, there’s no reason to go there. And I cannot imagine that.
Which place in the world would you still like to photograph?
Top of my wish list is South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean. The island has unique flora and fauna and is surrounded by mountains of up to 2,000 meters that come out of the sea. Though I’m not a wildlife photographer, the penguin colonies, elephant seals and other animal species that live there fascinate me.
What projects are you working on right now?
I just finished a book project about the four seasons in Sweden, which will come out in September. I’m also working on a book about the Arctic, which will probably be finished next year. Also keeping me busy is a book project about what I call modest, intimate landscapes. Here the focus is less on dramatic natural spectacles and more on calm, sensuous photo compositions.
Speaking of composition, as an award-winning master of composition, how do you approach a shot?
The cornerstone of my photography is my personal interpretation of a landscape. I am extremely selective when it comes to choosing the image frame. I believe that the framing is the most important ingredient in photography. Without skillful framing, the photograph will just become a registration of a situation — “I was there and I took the picture” — instead of making it your own interpretation. Photography is not about capturing what you see, but interpreting what you feel. And, of course, I pay a lot of attention to what kind of light I want to use. I love the soft light of an overcast sky. In overcast conditions, I can work with more intellectual images, such as intimate landscapes. Or shoot small-scale wonders on a patch of ground of a square meter or so. There’s no rush and I can take all the time I want to find a good composition. Sometimes I think there is too much emphasis on drama and sensation in photography. My intimate landscapes are about the opposite of that.
Are there any photographers who have had a strong influence on your work?
At the start of my career I was very inspired by well-known American landscape photographers like Ansel Adams and David Muench. But the one photographer I always return to for inspiration is the Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson. The way he perfected the use of geometry and lines in his pictures was ingenious. He was a master of composition. You can learn a lot about the perfect image composition from his work.
What role does digital post-editing play in your work?
It’s absolutely necessary to get the best results, for example when it comes to contrasts, color saturation, color temperature, etc. I do a lot of post-editing with my own pictures, but I never add or remove elements. A natural visual language is extremely important to me.
What advice do you give young photographers?
I tell them to have passion, curiosity and be thorough. To be successful in this business over the long-term, you need to develop your own personal style, and this takes many years. I don’t go to places anymore where countless other photographers have already been. The most important thing is never to stop trying to find something new.
About Hans Strand
Hans Strand (56) was born in Marmaverken, Sweden. He sees himself as a wide-angle photographer. His work has been shown in numerous exhibitions and won many international prizes, including the prestigious Hasselblad Master Award 2008. Hans lives with his wife and daughter in a suburb of Stockholm.