A ski trip to the Bernese Oberland opens up opportunities to shoot the place and the people

For most photographers, the word ‘snap’ or ‘snapshot’ is patiently tolerated when directed towards our work. After all,we spend years learning and practising our technical skills and understanding the aesthetic of our craft.We then apply this knowledge (known in business terms as intellectual property) to our work, which then defines us within our given markets. There are, however, at least a couple of weeks a year when our friends and family can direct the words ‘snap’, ‘snapshot’, or even worse, ‘snapper’, to us and our work with a small degree of accuracy. It’s mid morning 16 January and we are sitting on a train heading up the steep mountainside from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen in the Bernese Oberland, central Switzerland. We are surrounded by Swiss ski fans making full use of their huge cowbells. The atmosphere is filled with fun and anticipation, and with good reason. The Lauberhorn World Cup mens’ downhill is arguably the most famous ski event in the winter sports calendar and boasts the longest descent at nearly three miles and speeds of up to 100mph, and each January, attracts 40,000 people to the little village of Wengen. We are spending a week here relaxing, skiing and sightseeing. I’ve been visiting this area off and on for nearly 20 years and love the landscapes, peace, tranquillity and uniqueness, which is at its best early in the season. The peace, which is broken for the frenetic weekend of the World Cup, reemerges with typical Swiss clockwork efficiency the following Monday.


I become a train, cable car and chairlift spotter and fall in love with the clean, precise lines and utilitarian functionality of all the different mechanised masterpieces and the people who command them.


Twenty years ago I worked on a TV project here and shot stills and video on and around the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains. This place made a huge impression on me. From my balcony at the Belvedere Hotel, the Lauterbrunnen valley spreads out like a carpet with villages, roads and railway lines, looking more like a model than the 64 square miles of rivers, glaciers and mountains that make up one of the most beautiful areas in mainland Europe.


So what has this got to do with photography? Everything! I can’t come here and not shoot pictures. For me, the best form of relaxation is shooting landscapes. I use the term ‘landscape’, but it’s probably more accurate to say I shoot what I like and it fits loosely into that category. I have a minimalist approach to personal work and like to experiment with just how little I can have in the frame before it becomes an abstract. I would love to be able to carry a small compact camera rather than my usual gear, but compacts cannot yet deliver the kind of pictures that fast primes and big bodies can. I compromise and take my Canon 5D MkII and three primes, 85mm 1.2L, 50mm 1.2L and 24mm 1.4L, along with the 5D MkII’s battery grip, which I can add and remove depending on how compact I want it to be. All this equipment sits beautifully in what I consider to be the best camera rucksack on the market: the Lowepro Primus Minimus. This tiny bag is so comfortable that you can happily wear it all day whether you are walking, running, climbing or skiing. I can reach down with my right hand, unzip a compartment and pluck out the camera (less battery grip) with relative ease, even with the biggest of the three lenses. The bag also has an excellent tripod-carrying system to which I add a Manfrotto 190CX PRO 04 Carbon Fibre with lightweight fluid head. (With the 5D MkII, you never know when you may want to shoot video.) One person’s everyday scene can be another’s beautiful landscape. I love putting my camera between me and what I see and there is nearly always something to photograph.


The weather is good and we take to cable car, chairlift and train, climbing up the mountains and skiing down. The pistes are empty and a little icy, but that feeling of freedom and exhilaration fills us as we power down to Wengen. At first, I look at the scenery and marvel at the Eiger north face, lit in the late afternoon sunshine, but don’t reach for the camera as I’m enjoying the skiing too much. I try not to put myself under pressure to shoot pictures, but feel the urge to capture the atmosphere of this place, and I know that as the week progresses there will be plenty of opportunities.


We head across the valley to Mürren and up to the summit of the Shilthorn. The Swiss built a revolving restaurant, Piz Gloria, on top of this mountain, which found fame in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969. The views are spectacular, and after lunch we ski off the top and down the ‘Bond Run’ – a black run that takes us down the valley. My camera stays in my bag as I don’t see pictures that interest me enough, and I’m not interested in shooting the predictable. The next day is different. We head up from Kleine Scheidegg into the Eiger (quite literally) on the Jungfraujoch railway. The tunnel is about four miles long, with gradients of up to 25%. En route, we leave the train and peer through 8m windows at the Eigerwand station. (Remember the scene in The Eiger Sanction where Clint Eastwood is hanging on the rope and realises George Kennedy ‘his friend’ is really a double agent?) As I photograph a group of tourists, an avalanche falls past the window. At the top are several restaurants and an observatory. We walk out onto the snow at 11,333ft and the light is blinding. I carry wide lenses but prefer to use my portrait lenses and capture moments and scenes within landscapes at wide apertures using selective focus to isolate near, middle or far ground. This presents a particular challenge in very bright light as the lens requires ND filters, and even with the strongest, I struggle to achieve the results I’d like. As the week draws to a close I start to ski with the camera around my neck and stop to shoot more and more. I become a train, cable car and chairlift spotter and fall in love with the clean, precise lines and utilitarian functionality of all the different mechanised masterpieces and the people who command them. I love the clean line of electricity cables and pylons as we make our last run down the mountain. I desperately want to capture this feeling and record the atmosphere so I can share it and experience it again and again later. I’d like to think that my pictures have to some extent captured the atmosphere, and yet when I look at them they bear no comparison to how I remember our time there. It’s hard to explain why, but after post production I’ve given my work a look that is different to what I saw, and yet close to how it felt. On reflection, the post-produced pictures are more emotive. Photography is a wonderful medium for creative expression and, of course, we think and feel differently every day, hour, minute and second. How we see and feel today will differ from how we see and feel tomorrow, and in the future it’s going to be interesting to see this ‘snapshot’ of how I saw and felt about the world back in January 2010.