Erlend Haarberg: From Amateur to Professional
In our interview series “From Amateur to Professional” we will be asking established nature photographers to share their photos and see how their practices have developed, changed, and improved over time.
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Award winning photographer Erlend Haarberg, a Norwegian native with a profound passion for the natural world, embarked on a remarkable journey that led him from biology to the captivating realm of nature photography.
Since the early 1990s, he has dedicated his career to capturing the beauty of Nordic wildlife through his lens. Haarberg’s work serves as a testament to his remarkable ability to translate his deep connection with nature into awe-inspiring photography.
When and why did you first catch the nature photography bug?
Even before I started school, I was determined to become a nature photographer.
My parents took me out into nature at an early age, and my fascination with nature and all living beings became all-consuming for me. I got my first bird book when I was six years old and it didn’t take long before I could memorize the book.
Since then, I joined the Norwegian Ornithological Association and got to know others with the same interest in the local environment.
At that time, a Norwegian nature filmmaker had a regular nature program on Saturday evenings which I followed with great interest. These programs were a great source of inspiration.
For me, the title of nature photographer was one of honour; it took many years before I dared to call myself a nature photographer.
My first camera was a simple Instamatic camera that I got at the age of nine or ten, and of course, it was mostly pictures of bird’s nests, flowers, and everything that could be photographed in nature at a distance of half a meter or less that I came home with.
I bought my first SLR camera with my own money, which I had saved up by doing newspaper rounds before I went to school at thirteen years old.
With a Soligor 400 mm f/5.6 lens, the world really opened up. I spent countless hours out in nature looking for new subjects, and at the time the lens was every nature photographer’s dream. Now, however I realise that the quality was, to put it mildly, miserable (luckily I didn’t know any better at the time).
Back then, I was happy every time I got a new species in the viewfinder.
Show us one of the first images you ever took. What did you think of it at the time compared to now?
The first photo I took with a camera was with my father’s SLR. Of course, the subject was a bird – it was a seagull sitting on a pole.
After the picture came back from the laboratory, I was very disappointed; the picture only showed the pole – I had managed to crop out the seagull!
Unfortunately, I no longer have this photo, so I chose to show a photo taken in 1985 which was a great inspiration for my future career.
With this photo, I won Norway’s biggest nature photography competition the following year. The image is a scan of a slide, so the technical quality is not the best, but the situation itself still stands the test of time, I think.
Show us 2 of your favourite photos – one from your early/amateur days, and one from your professional career. Why do you like them, what made you so proud of them, and how do you feel about the older image now?
The photo of the mountain hare fight was taken in the early 90s, while I was still studying biology at university.
Mountain hares were one of the reasons why I chose to drop out of university right before I finished my education.
In the last years of my studies, it became impossible for me to sit and read for exams in the spring when nature came to life, so I moved to the mountains instead.
This picture gave me a rare ‘wow’ feeling that comes few and far between. The challenge this time was the equipment. For this image, I used a telephoto lens with manual focus and film with low ISO.
It is always difficult to single out an image as a clear favourite for me. The story and moment behind the photo can mean a lot with regard to how I look at a picture afterwards, which of course the viewer knows nothing about.
So, picking out a favourite image will always be very subjectively shaped by my experiences at the moment of shooting, and of course by my interest.
A special experience for me during the Laponia project in northern Sweden was the meeting with the trusting Siberian jay in Stora Sjøfallet National Park.
In this landscape, the Siberian jays blend in as a natural part of the environment where, with their cheerful chatter, they sail on their silent wings and look for food. My wish was to try to convey these beautiful birds in their proper environment.
After many days and hundreds of photos, I finally got the image I had in mind – a Siberian jay with backlit wings in the right position, with the pine forest and the mountains as backdrops.
When did you decide you wanted to become a professional photographer? How did you transition into this and how long did it take?
As I said before, I wanted to become a nature photographer from early in my childhood. But it wasn’t until after several years of university studies that I decided to try to make a living out of it.
One of my great nature photographer role models warned me early on about making this a way of life. He saw a modest youngster with big dreams to enter a profession where you must be good at marketing yourself and be assertive.
But I chose to turn a deaf ear and have not regretted it since.
For the first ten years of my professional career, I had to drive a taxi occasionally on weekends to make ends meet.
Slowly but surely, I received requests to supply photos for books and other publications, and at the same time, I wrote several articles for various magazines, enough for me to manage financially.
Are there any species, places, or subjects that you have re-visited over time? Could you compare images from your first and last shoot of this? Explain what’s changed in your approach and technique.
After reading the book Sarek – Hiking in Our Last Wilderness by Edwin Nilsson more than 30 years ago, my curiosity about this area was awakened. After my first visit in the 90s, I was sold.
In total, I have spent a year and a half in a tent inside Sarek National Park. Here, you get a real sense of the wilderness; the area is known for its large elk bulls, and as there is no hunting here, some individuals are not so shy of people.
During three spring seasons, I followed a pair of willow grouse through their courtship for a total of five months.
The longest trip I spent in the park was two months, in which I didn’t see other people and had no phone coverage. I found a unique calmness and close connection with nature on this trip, which I constantly long to return to in everyday life.
Another big project I have worked on for over thirty years is photographing mountain hares, shooting from a cabin in the mountains.
In the beginning, I only photographed in natural light in the morning and evening, but for the last six or seven years, I have used flash and lamps so that I could follow them through the night when they are most active.
Whilst I prefer to photograph in natural light, the use of artificial light sources gave new opportunities to develop this project further.
Although I have spent a lot of time on this project, no spring is ever the same.
There are always new situations and behaviours that I get to observe, so the list of unphotographed actions and new ideas only gets longer every year.
The biggest difference from when I started this project thirty years ago must be the technical development of photographic equipment. Now I can use up to 6400 ISO, which was unthinkable in the 90s.
Another difference is how I plan compositions. At the start of my photography career, I didn’t plan my photographs much. Back then, I went out with my camera around my neck ready to shoot as soon as I saw an interesting subject.
Today, though, there is a lot of time and planning behind each shot. Many of my pictures are taken with the help of feeding, as most birds and animals in Norway are very shy of people and therefore difficult to approach.
It takes a long time before I actually start phtographing my subject.
First, a suitable place must be found in terms of environment and light, then I have to set up camouflage and put food out over a longer period of time to get the animal/bird to visit regularly.
During the project, new ideas and situations constantly appear, which I try to capture.
Then there is patience, not giving up until the composition comes together.
Has anything changed in regard to how you process and edit your images?
The transition from negatives to digital was difficult for me. With negatives, my work was done after the images were returned from the lab.
I have never liked sitting in front of the computer and working on my pictures. So I certainly have a lot to gain from getting the best out of my photos in-camera.
I have little patience to spend a lot of time on post-processing. It took many years before I thought it was okay to crop pictures, for example. This is why I always try to capture the image in-camera – the light, the colours, the scene as I see it when I hit the shutter, etc.
In this way, I don’t need to overdo the post-processing adjustments.
Unfortunately, I see far too many examples of photos that are over-edited which might get a lot of likes on social media, but sadly that is giving a false impression of what nature is like.
What was the biggest challenge you faced starting out, and what’s your biggest challenge now?
To survive financially.
I have been privileged to have been able to make a living from my photography for more than thirty years. In the 90s there was not the same competition as there is today.
After the digital revolution gained momentum in the early 2000s, photography has become the property of everyone, and the market is more or less destroyed.
Today, there are few photographers who manage to survive on pure photo sales; they have to rent out hides or hold workshops to survive.
For my part, I moved on from being a professional nature photographer a few years ago, and now I work in nature management and as a guide in Svalbard.
Photography is just a hobby for me today, but I enjoy taking pictures just as much, or even more so than before.
What’s the one piece of advice that you would give yourself if you could go back in time?
I wouldn’t change a thing; the only thing I perhaps would tweak is not being so stubborn in not accepting help from others.
By using tips and advice from others, I could of course have been far more productive, but on the other hand, this was also perhaps the recipe for my success as a nature photographer.