A Photographer's Guide to Stockholm

When I imagined Stockholm before last week’s trip, I envisioned a mid-sized port city with rolling fog, rainy weather, and chilly nights. Whenever the Swedish capital is shown on TV it is depicted as a somber, almost ominous crime stricken place, where residents are antisocial and everyone is a spy. The impression that I now have of Stockholm after several long summer days there is the complete opposite. The Swedes I met were warm and friendly people, and Stockholm had a very safe, family-friendly feel. While the rest of Europe was doused in torrential rain, Stockholm enjoyed blue skies for the entire week I was there. Temperatures were unusually warm with highs in the low 80s. There was no fog or chill in the air and the sun seemed to never set. In fact, I never once saw the night. I’m an early to bed early to rise type. This sleep pattern is essential to successful outdoor photography. The fact that the sun doesn’t set this time of year until around 11pm and then doesn’t rise until around 3am really threw me for a loop. I would wake up at 4am most mornings to bright, harsh sunlight. So, the first challenge to photography in Stockholm was getting enough sleep while getting to bed late and waking up super early to get the good light. Most days required a mid-morning and afternoon nap.

Gamla Stan

Gamla Stan

The second challenge for me was personal injury. I have plantar fasciitis, a foot condition I developed while working on the uneven cobblestone streets of DC as a photojournalist several years ago. I haven’t had a serious flare up in years despite the miles of trekking that I do in the Appalachian wilderness. This condition decided to give me a good amount of woe beginning on the first day I arrived in Stockholm. Not to mention, I also developed several mean blisters on both feet. After band-aids didn’t work, I tried coconut oil between my sore and bloody toes to relieve friction and I gradually became well. So there’s a couple travel tips for you. Break in your travel shoes well and always have coconut oil!

The only thing that my feet kept me from doing was visiting Tyresta National Park just south of Stockholm. I was really hoping to get out of the city for a day and experience Swedish nature, but simply couldn’t hike for miles through the woods in my condition. That’s okay. Stockholm is a huge city and there is plenty to do and even lots of parks and natural areas along the fringes of town. To satisfy my need for nature, my wife and I visited Djurgarden twice. The first time we went to Skansen, an outdoor museum of Swedish history with a very nice zoo. The second time we had a simple picnic on plush moss under tall evergreens.

Nytorget

Nytorget

Photography in Stockholm

If you like shooting architecture this is your place! I couldn’t get enough of the narrow streets of Gamla Stan (Old Town). My wife and I ended up visiting that part of town three times. We were staying in super-trendy Södermalm south of Old Town, which is only three metro stops away. The first time we visited Old Town, it was jam-packed with tourists. The crowds were so dense that evening that it was difficult to walk freely, much less make decent pictures. We went back the next morning as soon as the metro started running and it was a completely different experience. Around 7am the streets in Gamla Stan were quiet, the light was just beginning to reach into the alleys. We had most of these narrow cobblestone streets to ourselves. We photographed freely, wondering from one ancient artery to the next soaking in the history of the oldest part of Stockholm. For at least an hour only a few local pedestrians and cyclists crossed our paths, providing a human element in the otherwise empty streets. Prästgatan, or “Hell’s alley” as it is known on the Internet, is a very popular street with photographers. It’s a good spot for sure, but I found that a few other inspiring alleys had even more potential for interesting shots. I would recommend bringing a telephoto zoom to old town. For the most of the trip I was using my 50mm 1.8 lens and occasionally the 18-35mm, but my favorite shots in Old Town were made using my 70-300 VR in the 100-200mm range, which allowed me to isolate subjects, simplify, and compress the scenes.

Gamla Stan

Gamla Stan

Gamla Stan

Gamla Stan

Stortorget, Gamla Stan

Stortorget, Gamla Stan

Stortorget is another popular spot. It’s essentially a large historic public square where those famous colorful buildings are located. The first time we were there the light was terrible for photographing those buildings, not to mention tour groups blanketed the square. In the evening, the buildings are backlit, but in the early morning hours the light is much more conducive to image making. There are several restaurants in the square with outdoor seating, but if you’re on a budget you’ll want to avoid those like the plague. Spend a few minutes shooting the architecture and go at least a few blocks away to find a good breakfast spot.

On our last day in Stockholm, we decided to venture south of trendy Södermalm to an area that was not on our travel map. Skogskyrkogården is a large cemetery and UNESCO World Heritage Site designed around nature. There are huge 200-year-old pines with gravestones scattered among them. There are also several architectural and landscape features that are fun to photograph. Deer wander freely through the cemetery and we spotted several interesting bird species. It’s a peaceful, meditative place. Swedes go there on weekends to decorate the graves of loved ones. I would highly recommend visiting this place, but do so in a quiet and respectful manner.

Twisted Birch, Skogskyrkogården

Twisted Birch, Skogskyrkogården

Cross and Meditation Grove, Skogskyrkogården

Cross and Meditation Grove, Skogskyrkogården

Photographer or not, you need to visit Fotografiska. It is one of the best photography galleries I’ve been to anywhere. One of my favorite photographers, Nick Brandt, has an exhibition there right now. The prints are huge and amazing. No matter what’s showing there, Fotografiska is a must when in Stockholm.

Dining in Stockholm (A photographer’s got to eat)

 Stockholm has a famous food scene and every blog I read insisted that eating out was very expensive. I disagree. I enjoy a relatively low cost of living here in the rural Blue Ridge Mountains, and I didn’t find food prices in Stockholm much higher, if at all, than at home. If you’re staying in a hotel and have to eat out for three meals a day, then yes, you’ll spend a lot of money. When my wife and I travel, we stay in apartments equipped with at least basic kitchens. That way we can grab some goods at the grocery (in Stockholm we shopped at the Nytorget Coop and a produce stand next door) and have breakfast and even dinner in the comfort of our apartment. This not only saves a lot of funds, but it allows us to live a bit more like locals. We bought Swedish-made goods instead of the things we might have in the states. We ate a lot of smoked salmon, which costs about 50% less in Stockholm than at home. We also bought delicious bread and cinnamon buns at a nearby bakery called Bröd & Salt.

Lunch is the meal to eat out for in Stockholm. Generally, you can get the same dish for lunch that is available for dinner for about half the cost. Many restaurants do kind of this “early bird” lunch special from 11am to noon. I’d recommend Meatballs for the People for traditional Swedish meatballs with lingonberry and potatoes (similar to Ikea’s, but much better). We walked into MFTP for their lunch happy hour and ended up being on camera for this Hong Kong based reality show hosted by (an apparently famous actress) Priscilla Wong. Never heard of her, but it seems she’s a big deal over in China. She was our waitress, and we ordered and ate our lunch with cameras periodically in our faces. The meatballs were so good that it became easy to forget the cameras and film crew, and we enjoyed our lunch anyway. I can’t promise you’ll be on Hong Kong TV if you eat at Meatballs for the People, but I can assure you a good meatball experience.

Cinnamon Buns from Bröd & Salt

Cinnamon Buns from Bröd & Salt

The Internet-world also insisted that wine, beer, and spirits would cost an arm and two legs in Stockholm. This is also only partially true. Beer for lunch at a restaurant costs less than the same beer for dinner and you can expect to shell out between $5-$8 for it. Stores that sell alcohol, however, have surprisingly low prices compared to U.S. liquor stores. For example, we got a bottle of wine and two locally made pear ciders for a total of $11 at a Systembolaget (the government owned spirit shop). That same bottle of wine is one of our favorites and we buy it in the states when it’s on sale for $8. That’s not a bad deal. A six-pack of one of my favorite Euro-brews, Carlsberg, was also much cheaper than in the U.S. at only $6. Try getting that for less than $10 in the states.

Gamla Stan

Gamla Stan

Travel Tips for Stockholm

Buy a 7-day SL Card

Stockholm is a modern city with excellent infrastructure (yet it also celebrates and preserves its history). It is very walkable and bikable, but public transport is very efficient. To take advantage of public transport, purchase an SL card for the duration of your trip. It includes the metro, buses, and ferries to places like Djurgarden. It is much cheaper than loading a metro card and paying per trip. They are available at any metro hub.

Leave the Tripod at Home During Summer

It felt weird not having a tripod with me. Restrictions on carryon weight for our airline didn’t allow me to take one without having to pay a hefty fee for extra pounds. Because the sun was up and it was seemingly always bright, I had no problems getting sharp hand-held shots.

Take Time to People Watch

I wish I did more waiting for the shot instead of walking (or in my case hobbling) around looking for it. Stockholm has dozens of parks and people spend a lot of their day in them. Stake out an area and wait for the perfect candid photo opportunity.

Get Out Early

As you always should if you want to have more control over your city photography, get up early and beat the crowds to the desired locations. The light is always best early as well.

Gamla Stan

Gamla Stan