Landscapes of rock and ice: Nico Schaerer on photographing the elemental drama of Switzerland

Swiss photographer Nico Schaerer has travelled all over the world, making him appreciate the beauty of his home country all the more. He talks about the rewards and challenges of shooting Swiss nature in winter, and his favourite wild spot to destress.

Published 6 Dec 2020, 11:05 GMT
Nico reached Cauma Lake in Flims during the first snowfall of the year. A few days ...

Nico reached Cauma Lake in Flims during the first snowfall of the year. A few days later, the water froze over for the rest of winter. 

Photograph by Nico Schaerer

Zurich-based professional photographer Nico Schaerer can often be found hanging from a helicopter or cross-country skiing through his native Switzerland to capture the perfect shot. Having graduated from the St Joost School of Art & Design in Breda, Netherlands, in 2002, he globetrotted for years, travelling across South America by motorbike, all the while developing his acclaimed portfolio and bagging commercial deals with high-profile clients such as Red Bull, Coca-Cola and Credit Suisse. Here, he tells us what he loves about photographing the elemental drama of Switzerland.

What do you love about shooting Swiss nature in winter?
It’s so beautiful in the mountains during winter. When the snow comes, everything slows down — it’s incredibly quiet. I guess the snow absorbs the noise. If I’m shooting personal projects in nature, I’ll usually hike up on skis. Capturing the changing weather can be really spectacular. I just take my camera and go with an open mind. For me, when it comes to shoots in nature, I love finding those big empty spaces. And the thing about Switzerland is there’s so much emptiness to be found if you’re willing to travel just a couple of hours from the city. You can live in Valais, for example, head off to ski in Zermatt in the morning, and still make it home in time for dinner. What do I love about my job? That’s easy. There’s so much diversity. One night I could be sleeping in a tent in a field, the other, in a luxury hotel in the Seychelles.

The majestic ibex always make for an exciting encounter and Nico loves to meet them in the wild. Here, they are roaming the Nufenen Pass in the south of the country.

Photograph by Nico Schaerer

Where do you want to photograph next?
I always try to avoid the hotspots and go for the remote and untouched areas, like Graubünden. It’s close to Zurich and there’s plenty of freeriding around the area. When I head out on a shoot of my own, I’m generally looking to get away from the obvious. Sometimes I have ideas about what I’m seeking to capture, but I’m always open for the unexpected. That’s what always results in the best shots for me — to move around with open eyes.

The Weisshorn in Zermatt is over 14,000ft high, looming over the Swiss landscape. Nico hung precariously out of a helicopter to capture the peak at its most impressive.

Photograph by Nico Schaerer

What’s your favourite shot?
The aim of this image (above) was to show the mountains of Switzerland at their most iconic. I captured it while hanging out of a helicopter, attached to a rope with the door wide open. A lot of planning goes into a shot like this, and the altitude and weather had to be just right. I was trying to photograph the peak of the mountain as it came over the horizon.

Ski touring is one of Nico's favourite activities, although a high level of fitness is needed to carry camera gear. This ski party was ascending Pazolastock in the Oberalp Pass.

Photograph by Nico Schaerer

And the most difficult?
This action shot (above) was the most difficult. When you shoot in the mountains, you have to keep up the same pace as the rest of the team as everyone cross-country skis towards a location. It’s really important not to interrupt the rhythm and, at times, this can be really stressful. I have to know my equipment like the back of my hand and be super quick, so I always carry what I can manage. This might be several lenses as well as a drone. This was something I was trying to portray here. 

Switzerland's many waterfalls — including this one near the village of Vals — freeze over in winter, creating a magical scene of sparkling icicles. 

Photograph by Nico Schaerer

What photography advice would you give to anyone coming to shoot in Switzerland?
One thing to keep in check is personal fitness. At times you’re carrying equipment and hiking long distances on difficult ground. You need to know your limits. Once I was on a commercial shoot in the mountains, the weather had looked perfect, but no one had thought to check it at the peak. By the time we got up there it was far too windy to shoot, so you should always consider the weather — it can change so quickly, particularly in the mountains. It’s important to be ready for the unexpected. Chat to local guides and tourist offices, too — local people know the regions so well and their advice could be invaluable.

The hike to Fuorcla Surlej from St. Moritz is fairly easy, and walkers can reach this dazzling lake in less than two hours.

Photograph by Nico Schaerer

When you’re not on an assignment, what do you do to relax?
We have a mountain cottage in Davos, and I head there with my kids and family. There’s room for 12 people and we buy everything we need beforehand. I spend a lot of time skiing and freeriding in the fresh powder, and in the summer, there’s great mountain biking and kitesurfing. I might head over to nearby Laax, too, to watch freestyle events.

Nico loves nothing better than fresh powder, and this mountain forest near Films had just had fresh snow when he arrived.

Photograph by Nico Schaerer

What do you love most about Switzerland?
The diversity. There’s fun urban life with real culture, and just beyond it, beautiful nature with lakes, mountains and wildlife. When I was younger, I was desperate to get away and travel. I was always curious about the world, but now I have so much knowledge from travelling, it helps me see my own country in a new light. I’m very thankful I live here.

Sum up Switzerland in three words.
My. Little. Paradise. I have this special place up in Vals, where there’s a thermal bath made from volcanic rock and it’s become my spot to decompress.

Essentials

SWISS is among the many airlines serving Zurich and Geneva Airport. Or, more sustainably, take the Eurostar to Paris, then connect with TGVs that race to Geneva in just over three hours, as well as Zurich and Basel. Once there, the money-saving Swiss Travel Pass lets you explore with a single ticket.

Switzerland has excellent infrastructure, designed with its snowy winters in mind, so even travelling to the country’s highest peaks, or into its remote, wild interior is straightforward to organise. While the mountains are beautiful to hike in the summer, there’s something magical about walking through a white and silent landscape.

Consider basing yourself in Graubünden, a beautiful region bursting with nature and incorporating several of Nico's favourite places including LaaxDavos and Vals.

For more information on how best to experience Switzerland, click here and to see more of Nico's wonderful photography, head to his website.

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