© Ditte Isager
When your year fluctuates between summers of 17-hour days and winters in which darkness stretches on for just as long, it’s easy to understand how light might mean something different to you than to people living in other parts of the world. For Danish-born photographer Ditte Isager, this uncommon relationship to light, which was ingrained in her during her upbringing in Copenhagen, is essential to her style as a photographer.
“My biggest inspiration is probably light, the way daylight works,” says Isager, who shoots assignments for clients like Departures, Harper’s Bazaar and GQ. Whether she’s trying to capture the light as she sees it in a given place, or to recreate how the light looked somewhere she recently visited, Isager relies on both technical and creative abilities to deliver what she describes as her “simple Nordic” style. “I think that’s the fascinating thing about photography,” Isager says. “You can create a moody day on a sunny day or you can make a moody day feel like a spring day.”
In her work, which can range from clean and simple to dark and compositionally complex, Isager is interested in “how to create light and how to make contrast in the light, but also in the objects, in the texture, in everything,” she says.
When she gets a travel assignment, she’ll do her own research and try to get the writer’s story as well. “I think it’s nice when the pictures talk with the story,” she says. “Of course I can go in with my own eyes but sometimes the writer has been [to a place like a restaurant] one day when it was very quiet and he’ll be talking about this quiet little place, and I come in and show something completely different.”
What makes shooting travel both rewarding and challenging, Isager says, is that no matter how you prepare, there will always be surprises, and often what you get is not what you expect. “If you’re going to Tuscany [in Italy] and you need a summer story, it will always rain,” Isager says with a laugh. “You have to make things work with what you have—that’s why I couldn’t do [travel work] everyday, because it’s really exhausting.”
The key is recognizing that “every place has some beauty and you just have to find it,” Isager explains. “Beauty for me doesn’t have to be a fancy French restaurant … beauty can also be a little Mexican place with plastic chairs … The scruffy places are kind of easier to pull some charm out of,” she adds.
While editors probably appreciate her ability to deliver beautiful imagery out of less-than-ideal circumstances, Isager says what her clients really value is the consistency of her vision. “Whatever you’re doing as a photographer, I think you’ll be known for your style and I think it’s important to stick to it,” Isager notes. “Of course your style will develop, but it’s important to do what you like to do … You’re having much more fun if you are doing something you think is beautiful yourself.”
In addition to shooting travel, Isager photographs portraits, food, still lifes and interiors for editorial and advertising clients, and all of these types of photographs find their way into her travel work. Like her relationship with light, her fondness for shooting interiors also comes from her Scandinavian roots. “Home means a lot,” she says. “It’s a different way of living than [in New York City] where you meet your friends out in a restaurant. In Scandinavia you take people home for dinner always … everyone is very interested in the interiors of their homes.”
An attraction to minimalism, another hallmark of Danish design and culture, also helps form the basis of Isager’s style, but she likes to incorporate other ideas or looks into her work, which she says is the result of living in multicultural New York City.
Isager got her start in travel photography from Condé Nast Traveller (UK), a client she was introduced to by a photographer she worked with when she was completing a four-and-a-half-year stint as an assistant at a studio in Copenhagen. Education in Denmark for photography and other disciplines differs from that in the U.S. After 20 weeks of technical school, students work as assistants and are paid a salary subsidized by the government.
The studio facility Isager trained at, which she says unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore, was home to 25 photographers and had a lab, darkroom, post-production facilities and a production company. “It was a dream scenario as a student, because in the evening or on the weekend you could go in and do your own stuff and practice, and you were also expected to practice,” Isager says. The atmosphere was supportive, with photographers recommending one another for jobs they couldn’t take, something Isager says she does today. “I feel very fortunate that I started there,” she adds.
Isager admits she isn’t cut out for shooting too much travel work. “If I was in a new city every week I would get so fed up with it,” she says. “Some people can do that and I think that’s amazing.” But by combining travel photography with all of the other types of work she does, everything stays fresh. “Because I have so many different things that I’m doing but everything is still in a style that I would like to do, pictures I would like to take, then I never get bored with it. It’s always a big interest for me. Every day feels new.”
What’s in Your Bag?
When she’s on a travel assignment, the influence of Danish minimalism also applies to Ditte Isager’s gear bags—she brings “as little as possible,” she says.
Camera: Nikon D3x
Lenses: Carl Zeiss
Other equipment: Tripod; laptop; Scrim Jim with black and white silk; reflector cards