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Q&A with the photographer… Slawek Kozdras

We talk to the photographer of our Switzerland feature about his experience capturing the Alps from the Glacier Express

Q&A with the photographer… Slawek Kozdras
Photographer Slawek Kozdras

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Tell us a little bit about your experience shooting Switzerland. How did you approach the shoot, and how long did it take you?

The whole shoot took about six days. It included travelling through the Alps on a train with panoramic views, cycling from Switzerland to Liechtenstein and back, paragliding in the shadow of the Matterhorn, experiencing the high-life of a vintage car festival in St Moritz, hiking to the source of the Rhine near Andermatt, and numerous feasts of raclette (melted cheese) and roesti (potato pancakes). The wide range of experiences required a flexible approach and an open mind.

Were there any difficult challenges that you had to overcome?

The main challenge on this particular task was the paradox of travelling on ‘the world’s slowest express train’ with a very intense schedule — we only had about a day in each location and eight to nine hours on the train. It meant that I didn’t have the luxury of choosing the most favourable times and light for each location, which is particularly important for landscape photography. The only possible solution to this problem was to take it easy and focus on providing a true account of the experience without over-engineering the shots. The end result presents a true experience accessible to anyone who would like to retrace our steps — with no need for night-time climbs or camping somewhere for days. In this sense, the tight schedule made the final material very real and, hopefully, might inspire the readers to embark on a similar journey.

You were on assignment with travel writer Ben Lerwill — tell us a bit about your experience shooting with a writer.

Shooting while travelling with a writer comes with the excitement of developing a story on the go. In this instance, we both knew that the train journey would form the backbone of the story, but the rest was a discovery. It helped that we got along really well (it’s hard to imagine not getting along with Ben) — as we travelled we talked a lot about what we were experiencing and our plans for the next few days, which helped crystallise ideas about what to focus on. Having said that, serendipity was key, as is very often the case in travel photography.

What was your focus for the photography?

My main focus was the experience of a train journey. At the risk of repeating a cliché, there is something magical about travelling on a train. It’s not as abstract as flying, but also not as rooted in the day-to-day as roads full of cars. The train journey provides time to breathe in the whole experience, the vistas, the passing time. Capturing this feeling was my aim. Moreover, any account of a trip through Switzerland would not be complete without the stunning views. Capturing the scale and the monumentality of the Alps was my second focus. With these two aims in mind, I’m pleased with the editor’s choice of the opening shot because to me this photo captures a combination of the two — an amazing train journey amid a spectacular landscape.

Did you need any particular camera equipment for the trip?

I like travelling light and carrying as little equipment as possible. For this trip, I knew that I would need a standard wide-angle lens to shoot a range of subjects — from the tight space of the train to the expansive mountain vistas. For that purpose, I used my standard 24-70mm lens. I also expected to photograph the train from high above, for which I brought my 75-300mm lens. I didn’t use it much, but it struck gold with the opening shot. I also brought a 50mm prime lens and a tripod, which for the most part just enjoyed the warmth of my hotel room.

Were there any funny moments?

There was one YouTube-worthy moment of a paraglider landing within a few metres of a large German Shepherd and scaring the living daylights out of the poor dog. To be fair, if I was having a nice stroll along a meadow path and two people with a giant piece of material fell from the sky next to me, I would be scared too.

Is there anything you weren’t happy with, and what would you do differently next time?

I regret not having had more time to hike in Andermatt and around the incredibly elegant Matterhorn. Having said that, if I had to choose between hiking and paragliding again, I would no doubt repeat the latter!

Tell us about your shots of the Alps. How did you go about getting the right framing of the landscape for this?

A good example of a mountain shot in which I used framing to capture the subject is the image of the Matterhorn, the paraglider and my shoes. The photo includes two frames: firstly, the canopy of the paraglider (that’s Ben, by the way), which sits gently above the peak, focusing attention on the mountain. Secondly, my shoes provide a point of reference, creating depth and leading into the shot. In order to capture this image, I communicated with my pilot, Steve, who steered us into the right position, and manipulated the canopy so that our feet would be thrown higher up, allowing me to include my shoes in the frame. The opening shot in the magazine is another example of how I was able to frame the landscape — the tiny train in the distance is almost swallowed up by the shadows of heavy clouds from the top and side, and jagged rocks from the bottom. There was also a shot of the Matterhorn framed by a nine-piece window — sadly, it didn’t make it into the print version of the magazine.

What would be your top three tips for our readers on telling the story of a journey and its destinations?

We all experience a journey and a destination in a unique way and so we all write our own stories — whether in words, pictures or memories. As a travel photographer, I would only say, travel with an open mind and keep your eyes open for those brief moments when the world unfolds its magic in front of you. Reality is always more surprising and fascinating than fiction.

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Published in issue 7 of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine