Hakan Ludwigson on the Influence of Sweden’s Unique Light

August 10, 2012

By Conor Risch

© Hakan Ludwigson/Snyder/Redux

The quality of light in Sweden is “soft but crisp,” says photographer Håkan Ludwigson, who is based in Gothenburg and grew up in a small town on Sweden’s west coast. A travel, fine-art, architecture and automotive photographer, Ludwigson says Sweden’s light is among his primary influences, both because of its unique beauty and also its virtual disappearance during wintertime. “We appreciate the light maybe more than other people, because we lack it all winter,” Ludwigson explains. Though light-starved for part of the year, photographers in Sweden are blessed with a nearly endless day during the summer, with extended golden hours before sunrise and after sunset. “It really never gets dark,” Ludwigson says, “which is fantastic because it gives you so many opportunities, which is unusual.”

Ludwigson knows photographers who have tried to create Swedish light in other locales, using tents to soften the hard sun in places like South Africa, where he has also worked on advertising jobs when Sweden’s long winter forces photographers abroad. But attempts to mimic Swedish light don’t work, he observes. “To me it just looks like tent light. You don’t get the ‘crisp’ in it … it’s only the actual daylight [in Sweden] that I have found that has that sharp edge, even if it’s soft.”

Thus, Swedish light has played a secondary role in many of Ludwigson’s images, inspiring his overall appreciation of light and his practice of “learning the light” of each particular location. “I’m not looking for the same light [as in Sweden], but I’m aware of the light and I enjoy it so much,” Ludwigson says.

In his compositions light interacts with his subject to create contrast between bright and dark areas that yield a readable image. When Ludwigson was a young photographer, a newspaper photo editor gave him a lesson in composition that stuck with him. “I was told that if you can still understand the picture when you squint, then it will work,” he recalls. “It will also work in any bad printing because you build up the shapes very clearly. That is how I think I use the light—to build up these dark and bright areas—and it can be used in different ways depending on what kind of light it is.”

When a viewer “can grasp the pictures easily, then they can go much deeper into the details,” Ludwigson notes, and he composes and edits his images with this in mind. In his advertising work Ludwigson prefers to build his images using available light, even when he is shooting cars. Natural light conveys authenticity, he says. “It makes the picture more believable.” But, he adds, “I’m not a fundamentalist. I light photographs as well, but I don’t start out thinking, ‘What kind of light should I bring out?’ It’s not the beginning of the solution, it’s the end if nothing else works.”

Ludwigson has “always” traveled with sun path charts that allow him to calculate the location and angle of the sun. He uses an old system, he says, but notes that there are many apps and other tools for calculating the sun path. (See our article “5 Apps for Tracking the Sun.”) Scouting and planning are essential, as is patience. On documentary and travel stories he might return repeatedly to a location to look for the right light. “I’ve been waiting on an architecture shot for days,” Ludwigson says.

When he shot a glass building in Calais, France, for his “The New Wonders of the World” feature for Conde Nast Traveler, it wasn’t until the third day, hours before he had to leave to catch a flight, that the clouds parted and he was able to get the shot he wanted. “I knew we had the angle and we went back and stood there from an hour before sunrise to an hour after sunrise on the same spot just waiting to see what would happen with the light. On the last day the sun came out between the clouds and the picture was made. It was amazing. My assistant [who is also Ludwigson’s daughter] wondered seriously if I was totally out of my mind, but it worked. And when she saw the result she changed her mind.”

Ludwigson says he has “never gone away without the shot,” but has at times politely refused to go and shoot something because he knew the conditions would make it nearly impossible. Once, he recalls, he had to push an editor to scrap an architecture shoot in northern Norway during the late fall. He showed the editor data on the daylight (not much) and weather conditions (80 percent chance of rain). “Finally I said, ‘I can’t go there and I won’t do it, because I’ll get the blame if it doesn’t work,’” Ludwigson recalls. “They chose another building and said we’ll do it another time.”

When the late music and fashion photographer Art Kane traveled to Sweden many years ago, Ludwigson had an opportunity to meet and spend some time with him. “He had never been here before and thought [the light] was absolutely fantastic,” Ludwigson recalls. They talked about light for a long time, Ludwigson says, and Kane noted how large all of the windows were in Swedish buildings. “In other countries, where you have hard light or it’s warm, people try to shade windows,” Ludwigson notes. “We take care of every minute of sunlight that comes in, because half of the year it’s very rare. That should explain where my love of light comes from.”

Related: Amanda Marsalis on Recreating Southern California’s Natural Light
5 Apps for Tracking the Sun (and Moon)