Some of our most beautiful photos have been captured through the lens of Thomas Senf. The Leipzig-born photographer has lived in Switzerland since 2002 and likes to go a step further than many others to create a good shot.
For the outdoor photographer Thomas Senf, the fun starts at the point where it stops for others. As a passionate alpinist and mountain guide, he is one of the few photographers to cover such a wide spectrum with his striking images, from scenes with athletes in extreme terrain to relaxed hikes. For many years, he has been one of our favorites here at Mammut. A number of the photos for our current summer collection have been captured through his lens. As Mammut athlete Caro North explains: “He simply climbs with you, and that’s what makes the photos so authentic. I don’t need to do extra climbing ahead and then back down for him.” We asked Thomas about all the things a good outdoor photographer needs and the vital aspects to consider in the creation of a striking mountain photo.
Thomas, what do you say when people ask what you do for a living?
That’s a good question. I usually say I’m a photographer and mountain guide. Depending on how much genuine interest is behind the question, people then probe a bit more, and this leads to varying lengths of explanations.
How did you get into photography?
I actually started taking photographs when I was climbing. I had to find some way of showing my mother where I was hanging out at weekends. After my first big expedition, when a few magazines and Mammut expressed interest in my photos, I realized that you can even make money from photography. However, it took a few more years until I was actually able to make a living from it.
"A good photo should always tell a story or at the very least arouse emotions."
What do you most enjoy photographing?
Whenever I’m sitting in a cold, uncomfortable bivouac between smelly, bearded men, I always dream of photographing beautiful female surfers on a warm beach. But, to tell the truth, what I like best is being with good friends on a big demanding wall in difficult conditions and documenting the whole adventure.
What equipment is absolutely essential when you’re setting off for a photo shoot in the mountains?
I am always a little nervous that I might forget to take a memory card. It’s something we always joke about, but there is always the risk that it could actually happen. Otherwise, I’m never without my Eigerjoch Hybrid Jacket. It offers the perfect mixture of insulation and breathability for me.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
I don’t actually have a typical working day. Behind each day outdoors with the camera, I also need to factor in at least one day sitting at my desk. From working out the concept to editing and sending the photos, there is a lot of work involved. It’s not that different from other office jobs. The days with the camera are generally pretty long. I need to set off long before the sun has even started to rise to make sure I’m in the right place in the best light. The next really beautiful time is at sunset. So this means it’s usually pitch dark again by the time we’re back in the valley.
Your photos always look as if you’re at the heart of the action. What challenges are involved in working with athletes behind the camera?
My photographic niche is actually the fact that I can get to places that are out reach for most people. So I need to make sure that I maintain a level of climbing that allows me to even halfway keep up with the athletes.
What are your tips for a really successful mountain photo?
1. A good photo should always tell a story or at the very least arouse emotions in the viewer. So photography is about much more than simply pressing the button. You always need to ask yourself what exactly it is you want to express with a photo.
2. Most striking photos actually come about when all desire to get the camera out has gone. When it’s cold and stormy, and everyone is tired. These are the times when you often capture exceptional shots.
3. You can only take good photos if you are in the right place at the right time. People often bring far too much equipment with them and can hardly carry it. By the time they get to the location and dig everything out of their backpack, the perfect moment has usually already passed.
"Most striking photos actually come about when all desire to get the camera out has gone."
You are not present on Instagram. Many of your professional colleagues are very active on this platform. How important do you think this will be for the next generation of photographers?
Instagram, of course, offers unbelievable reach, but at the same time it is incredibly difficult to stand out in the flood of images. Personally, I feel the time you need to invest in social media platforms is too great. I think it’s important to have a specialization. You either become a photographer on Instagram and earn your money as an influencer or you use your time for other forms of work. Doing a little bit here and a little bit there doesn’t make sense for me.
Anyone with a cellphone and a few filters can now call themselves an outdoor photographer on Instagram and quickly reach thousands of people. What do you think of this development?
In general, I think it’s positive that you no longer need to invest crazy sums of money in camera technology to take photographs. This, of course also puts pressure on established photographers and that’s a good thing. On the other hand, in my experience, it’s one thing to take beautiful pictures here and there. But it’s a very different story capturing 50 good shots on day X for a client, whether the light happens to be favorable or not.
One last question, is there a shot you always dream about, but haven’t yet had a chance to capture?
I still have a few ideas that I haven’t yet managed to bring to life. But, as creativity and ideas are possibly a photographer’s most valuable assets, I won’t give away any more for now.
Thomas, thank you very much for the interesting interview.