I first worked with Valtteri on the red dot award winning Transitions 1020 project, an epic journey round New Zealand’s south island shooting video and stills for Nokia on their recently launched device, the Nokia Lumia 1020. It was that experience that made me start thinking about the idea that became ‘From HEL and Back’, as we travelled from one breathtaking scene to another in two mobile homes, interviewing various individuals who lived for their board sports and capturing stunning imagery along the way.
It was also in New Zealand that I came across Valtteri’s nickname of ‘Wall-e’, because you never knew where he was and some of the English speakers struggled to remember his name. You’d usually find him somewhere in the distance, patiently waiting for you to notice that he’d found the best line in the snow or the best spot for the breaking wave. He’s not there to order you about but, if you’re aware enough to notice that he knows a lot about shooting action sports in the great outdoors, then your life as a fellow photographer will become a lot easier! We both exist as commercial photographers, represented by the Helsinki agency, Kuvaamo, but Valtteri enters his true zen-like self when you release him outside and let him do his stuff.
I was lucky to meet up with him back in Helsinki after the end of the summer break. I asked him what he’d been up to and to share with us what gear he uses to help him achieve the photos he makes. As always, he was happy to help.
FHaB: I’ve been seeing a lot of beautiful images on your Instagram, @valtterihirvonen, lately. What’ve you been doing?
Valtteri: I spent a few weeks up north in Norway with my VW camper van. The first week was with a friend and we did a lot of mountain biking. The second week my girlfriend came up and we hung out together in Lapland. Not everyone’s idea of a romantic getaway but we love it up there. A good place to feel connected.
FHaB: How do you manage your material when you’re away for such a long time?
Valtteri: When it’s not a work trip, I like to post as regularly as I can. I import daily to my Lightroom Catalogue (a new catalogue for each trip), backup to a second drive and then make selections. I don’t really need to do any Photoshopping for these images and can get away with doing most of the adjustments within Lightroom, export to Dropbox, upload to my phone’s photo stream via the Dropbox app, then post to Instagram. Fun and easy. For work stuff, or any images that’ll help my work, the workflow is the same for storing on location but, when I get back to the office, I’ll backup to my network drives and Photoshop at my desk. Another recent change in my workflow, with the Nikon D810, is that I now shoot to SD cards, so I can download straight to my laptop without needing a card reader. It’s a small thing but it’s always good working practice to streamline as much as you can (to avoid system failures). I’ve also just set up an Unlimited Everything account with Amazon Cloud Drive (60 € / year). I don’t use it as a backup so much but I do have an archive of all my earlier work stuff in the cloud. You’d be surprised how many times clients get back to me to request one of my images. Now I can access that stuff wherever I am and don’t have to get my girlfriend to search through all my files as I explain it to her over the phone!
FHaB: I noticed a shot through a windscreen. Was that your camper van?
Valtteri: Yeah, I’ve had it for about a year, customised a few things… It’s 25 yrs old and I’m looking for it to last another 30 yrs. Something breaks, you can usually see what it is and fix it. I drove it up to Norway and back this summer, over 3000 km, max speed 90km/hr. You can stop wherever you want, whenever you want. It gives me a lot of freedom.
FHaB: Freedom… and the great outdoors. Is that your perfect mix?
Valtteri: Maybe. I’m not so good at selling myself… I see this (pointing at the photography gear) more as a lifestyle kind of thing. I just want to have experiences, adventures, and take pictures. When a trip comes up, I usually don’t ask about the money, the money is just a bonus. Whatever I do make, I just spend it on all this stuff anyway. Like when I went to Florida on another Nokia gig, to shoot a video of Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of Jacques Cousteau. He was spending 31 days in an underwater base on a project called Mission 31. They were mainly doing research, but it was also for publicity about the cutting of marine research funding. They told me that what NASA spends in one day would keep their research going for 15 years. We know more about the moon than about what goes on in our waters. Seems strange, to me. Nokia was a partner of Mission 31 and we went there to film them underwater on Nokia devices. I was not a certified diver but I said yes straight away and then took a diving course. It was one of those once in a lifetime experiences, very special. My photography allows me to have those experiences.
FHaB: You pointed at your gear earlier. Maybe now’s a good time to go through what you have in your bag.
Evoc CP 26L Camera Bag (from Varuste.net)
Valtteri: I’ve been through about 5 different camera bags and none of the regular bags were working for me. I need to be able to carry a snowboard, my camera gear, a laptop, safety equipment, clothes, snacks. Most camera bags have too much space just for the camera gear. When I go up on the mountains, I often just have a body and a couple of lenses. This bag has a dedicated day pack section for all the rest of my stuff. The main access is from the back, so I don’t need to remove my board. There’s a side zip so I can slide the Nikon out easily without taking the bag completely off. And there’s even an internal hydration system (bladder), great for backcountry. For the work I do, it’s the best bag yet.
Nikon D810 (from Rajala Pro Shop)
Valtteri: This is my professional DSLR body. I’ve only had it for a couple of months. Before that, I’d always been a Canon guy but I sold all my Canon gear and bought all this (pointing at his Nikon kit).
FHaB: That’s a big decision, the money invested in lenses…
Valtteri: I just couldn’t ignore what Nikon was getting from their sensor, the latitude, being able to push the shadows. Shooting action outside and having that dynamic range really helps. Canon’s new body (the 50 MP 5Ds or 5DS R) sounds like a great studio or landscape camera, when you have more time to control your environment, but not for what I do. A pity, because I love their glass.
Nikkor AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR (from Rajala Pro Shop)
Valtteri: This is my go-to lens, the one that’s always attached to the camera, unless I have time to change it. There’s plenty of light outdoors and I’m usually not shooting wide open, so the optics are not being stressed. If I have time to compose the shot, then I may swap lenses but this is a great all-rounder, with a good stabiliser.
Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED (from Rajala Pro Shop)
Valtteri: A great lens, this is the lens that I use for my more controlled environments. It’s been around a long time. They’ve just announced a new version, this time with a stabiliser. I’ll definitely be getting that when it comes out.
Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4G (from Rajala Pro Shop)
Valtteri: An excellent standard lens. There are some new third party lenses that may be sharper but I think this lens hits the sweet spot when measuring all the things that go into making the perfect lens – edge to edge sharpness, bokeh, weight – for what I do, this one’s right.
Leica M240 (special order from Verkkokauppa)
Valtteri: If I had no need for money and no need for my professional gear, then this is the camera I would travel the world with, with maybe 2-3 primes. At the moment, I have a Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 and a Leica 50mm, both old second-hand lenses I picked up on the road. I’ll upgrade them as and when money allows. For now, they do just fine. The satisfaction I get from shooting with the Leica system is hard to explain. When you love what you do, and the tool you use adds to that feeling…, it doesn’t get much better.
Nikon 1 AW1 camera (from Verkkokauppa, no longer available)
Valtteri: This is a waterproof, shockproof, freeze proof camera with interchangeable lenses, a kit zoom and a wide prime, that shoots raw 14 MP files. I don’t care about the resolution of the LCD screen because I can never see anything in the water anyway… Sometimes you just need a camera that you can treat badly. And, often enough, it gives me images that the other cameras can’t get to. That’s enough reason for it to make it into the bag.
Tripod, Benro Carbon fiber (from Rajala Pro Shop)
Valtteri: I have mixed feelings about using a tripod on location and try to avoid it as much as possible. If I can leave it behind, then I will. In summertime in Finland and Norway, I usually won’t be needing one. For action sports, it’s the same. I did bring it with me in my camper van but hardly used it. Pin sharpness is not a priority for me – if there’s movement, then I prefer it to be part of the mood of the shot. I chose the Benro because it’s not stupidly expensive, is medium-sized rather than super-compact, it fits in my hold luggage when I travel, it does the job if I need it to.
Laptop, 15″ Apple Macbook Pro (from Verkkokauppa)
Valtteri: I used to have a laptop and an iMac but I upgraded my laptop and sold on the iMac because it was sitting around doing nothing so much of the time. Shooting outdoors and travelling so much, I need a fast laptop. This one has a 500GB SSD drive. The Burton cover I bought in Sydney, when we stopped over on the way back from New Zealand.
Hard drives (from Verkkokauppa)
Valtteri: I’ve been using Lacie Rugged hard drives for a long time now; the newer one is an SSD so should be very stable and fast. So far, so good. A colleague just showed me his new hard drive, a Samsung SSD T1. It’s so small, about the size of a credit card, a little thicker but not much. You should check it out for your trip.
FHaB: Definitely. Finding a way to back up all that material when I’m on the road for two months is going to be interesting.
Avalanche transceiver by Mammut (from Varuste.net)
Valtteri: All transceivers work the same across all brands. On the mountain, everyone has one and they need to know how to use it. Every morning there’s a group check. It’s on all day. And I never use rechargeable batteries, you may forget to charge them.
FHaB: I remember you talking about one of your trips to Japan and the insane amounts of snow there. Safety is important.
Valtteri: You have to minimise the risks. In Hokkaido, you can have maybe 20-30 metres of snow a season. Several mornings we were shovelling almost a metre of snow just to get out the door! If everybody knows what they’re doing, there shouldn’t be a problem… I’ve been there maybe four times now, I just love it. The first time was for two weeks, I’d always wanted to go and had heard so many stories about the snow conditions, the people there are super-friendly, everything works…
FHaB: Sounds a lot like Finland.
Valtteri: (laughs) In a way, it is, just a lot more exotic. And more crowded! You forget what a big country Finland is sometimes and how empty it is.
Suunto watch (prototype direct from Suunto)
Valtteri: This is something I always have with me, usually on my wrist. It’s a part of my safety routine; I can check my altitude, use the barometer (for low and high pressure)… all useful information. Suunto’s a company I contacted directly, letting them know what kind of work I do; they liked what they saw and now, when I go away, I take some of their gear with me and do some shots for them. It helps pay for the trip and allows me to use their gear, which I really like. I actually own two of their watches. They’re a Finnish company that make extremely high quality gear. I’m proud to be associated with them.
Mizu Bottle (direct from Mizu factory in the USA)
Valtteri:This is a stainless steel product developed by an ex-professional Finnish snowboarder, Jussi Oksanen, to deal with the issue of single use plastic bottles, a real environmental problem. Mizu means water in Japanese and the company is based out of the USA. They were one of the first companies to deal with this issue and I always have one of their bottles with me.
Burton Down jacket (from Burton, bought in a Tokyo store)
Valtteri: Summer or winter, I always have a down jacket in my bag with me. It’s very light, packs down very small… It’s a safety thing too, the temperature can drop really fast. This one’s from Burton, my fancy one, but I have a couple of others; depends on the location and how smart I need to look in the evenings!
Noise cancellation headphones (from Sony, bought at Heathrow airport)
Valtteri: These are more for comfort when travelling, especially on long distance flights, but they’re good enough to check sound when shooting video. Most of my stuff doesn’t involve sound, but you never know.
Waterproof bag – good for hard drives, in case the heavens open, the tide comes in, you fall in the river…
Personal photos – I have a couple of photos that have special meaning for me and they have been carried in every bag that I’ve had. I don’t look at them often but I like to know that they’re there.
Spare cards, batteries, lens wipes – several of each
Tips & Tricks:
Camera straps – this may sound like a small thing but you wouldn’t believe how much time I’ve spent getting the right straps. When working, I take the straps off. But, when I’m needing to be mobile, I like to use straps and they have to be smooth, with none of that rubberised grip on the inside. Getting tangled up each time you try to get the camera up to your eye is no good.
Personal Media Library – I used to spend too much time loading up my iPad with stacks of films and books and never get round to using them. The music, yes, but not much else. I also don’t like reading a lot from a screen as I spend so much time in front of one retouching. Now I take a good book, usually a biography.
Base Layers – Merino wool against your skin, summer or winter, it just works. I’ve never tried synthetics and I don’t think I want to. My secret is, never wash the wool!
Prism (from Heureka) – I carry a small prism in my bag. I don’t use it much but it can help to liven up shots on a grey flat day, to mirror the sky above, to add some rainbow acid tones, to add some flare… Just hold it up against a part of the lens and play around with it.
Profoto B2 Flash – (from Fimeko) When I bought this new portable kit from Profoto, I thought I’d also be using it in my personal work but, so far, I’ve only used it on my professional gigs. It works as well as you would expect all Profoto products to work. I took it to Norway in the camper but it seems I just have a thing for natural light right now.
Ear plugs and eye mask – I never have issues getting to sleep. I can sleep anywhere and can function after 4 or 14 hrs sleep, it makes no difference. But, if you’re working in a group, if you’re somewhere where the sun never sets…, having a set of plugs and an eye mask helps. On long flights, I try to stay awake so as to get into the proper rhythm when I arrive.
FHaB: Valtteri, I’d just like to say a huge thanks for letting us into your bag and sharing your photography experiences with us. If anyone would like to find out more about Valtteri, you can check out a lot more of his work on his own website. For his commissioned work, check out the work at his agency, Kuvaamo. And for his more instant expressions, there’s his Instagram, @valtterihirvonen.
Happy shootings, everyone!