Behind the Image: Gamla stan & Södermalm, Stockholm

"Behind the Image" is a new series of blog posts that I will use to tell the stories behind some of my favorite images. I'll write about the process and technique that was required to make each photograph, as well as the experience and a little about gear as well. To read the full article on my experiences in Stockholm click here. Thanks for reading!

View of Mariaberget from Gamla stan in early morning light. (155mm, f8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400)

View of Mariaberget from Gamla stan in early morning light. (155mm, f8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400)

I must confess something: I could have made much better images of Stockholm. It's normal, as an artist, to be hard on yourself and even put down your own work. It's normal to doubt whether you'll be able to do justice to a scene or even express your vision for an image at all. It's normal, even for the pros, to get a few sucky photos. It's also easy to make excuses and say, "I tried and I'll do better next time." Next time may not come. Try now. Don't be lazy. Laziness was not exactly my reason for coming home from Sweden with quiet images. I had a stroke of rough luck when two foot conditions that I have flared up at once, beginning the day we arrived and ending the day we flew home. I hadn't had flare ups of either of these separate conditions in months. It was the pain with each step that made me lazy about photography in Sweden last June. In a very walkable city like Stockholm, it flat out sucks to have two bad feet when the pressure's on to make stunning images. I'm a lucky guy as far as health goes. I'm a lucky guy as far as everything goes, actually. So I'll complain no more.

Usually, I can bet on having lots of "keepers" and a few strong images that really stand out from each shoot. I've found that over the years I actually make fewer exposures and my ratio of "keepers" to "messups" is about nine to one. In Stockholm I shot hundreds of images each day. They're not bad images- just not my best work. I'd like to say that every time I travel I get better at representing the destination in a creative and dynamic way. Though my images of Stockholm are decent for the travel industry (I've sold two images from the trip as of this writing including the one above), they do not represent me at my best. In my opinion, I came home with a lot of good, but not great, photographs of an amazing and vibrant city. Each time I browse the archive I think of what images I would retake or try to get if I could do it over. Maybe someday I will. I have many other places on my list, but Stockholm may require a second go to get it right.

My favorite area of Stockholm was Gamla stan (Old Town). No history buff can deny its charm. No tourist can leave Stockholm without wandering its narrow cobblestone streets. My wife and I rented an apartment in Södermalm, a more modern and trendy part of town, but made the trip up to Old Town three times. The first was a mess. We arrived at mid-day to swathes of tourists crammed into the tiny streets like herring in a can, all knocking elbows to get the same shot of Hell's Alley. I'd eventually get mine too. What caught my eye even more was the view of Söder Mälarstrand, Mariaberget from Gamla stan. On the first day in Old Town the light was terrible for this particular scene and getting into the right position to frame it nicely while others grazed my arms and back was impossible. Sore feet added much to the difficulties. I had to have one foot on the narrow sidewalk and the other in the street to get the best composition. Slow passing cars provided a slightly dangerous obstacle. It became clear that we would need to try again later.

I would get this shot on the second trip over to Old Town. We were on the metro as soon as it started running and were on the quiet streets of Gamla stan seemingly before anyone else. It was perfect. We had the place to ourselves for about an hour before the crowds and commuters showed up. I used my D600 and my ol' trusty 70-300 VR (I have since replaced it with the 70-200 f2.8 VR II). With one achy and blistered foot on the sidewalk and the other achy and blistered foot in the street, I made this image. The long focal length of 155mm allowed the scene to be compressed and simplified. I couldn't be happier with the light that morning. It took several attempts to have the shot framed exactly the way I wanted, but eventually I got there. A tripod would have helped for sure.

I loved the architecture in Stockholm. There's something for everybody's taste, from modern minimalist, to baroque, to art decco, to Victorian. It is impossible to tell from this image, but Mariaberget (the cluster of buildings in the center) and rows of buildings along the side are actually in different parts of the city separated by the Riddarfjärden waterway. Mariaberget is across the water in Södermalm and the rows of older buildings on either side of the frame are in Gamla stan. Within this shot are actually two major parts of the city, separated by water.

Despite feeling that my shots from Stockholm are overall pretty quiet, this one stands out a little for me. A couple do actually, but none really jump out at me and scream successful photography. My feet kept me from visiting a few parts of Sweden that I really wanted to go to and definitely limited my ability to "chase the light" so to speak. I could make excuses all day. I've received a lot of positive feedback from others on my Stockholm portfolio, but an artist can be his/her own harshest critic. That's a good thing I guess. I'm even more pushed than before to get strong images in Iceland this Fall. Stay tuned.

"My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport."

- Steve McCurry