How often do you spend time in the forest? For Danish photographer Morten Hilmer, it’s like a second home. On his YouTube Channel, he invites us on his journey and shares what he knows about bushcraft and wildlife photography, inspiring us to do the same. “There’s a piece in our DNA that just relaxes in the presence of nature. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need.”
Morten grew up on a farm surrounded by forest and nature. “I knew, even as a little guy, that I wanted to live in the countryside,” he says. “At age 14, I picked up the camera and explored the forests, photographing everything around me.”
Nature photography was always his passion, but it wasn’t an obvious career choice. “I was told at school that nature photography was not a viable career because there was no such education in Denmark. In my final year, I did an apprenticeship in Ecuador for three months, photographing the rainforest and nature restoration efforts. I visited the Faroe Islands and other places, but wasn’t selling any images. It seemed like there was no chance I would ever make a living out of this. But it was the only thing I wanted.”
In 2002, he decided to join the military. He worked with the Sirius Dogsled Patrol for two years, an elite naval patrolling unit that enforces Danish sovereignty in the Arctic wilderness of Greenland. “I had so much time to think, standing next to the dogs. I wanted to make a living out of nature photography, no matter what, and I didn’t want to combine it with another job because that would mean sitting behind a desk. So, I decided to live 100% minimalist. There was a little hunter cabin from my great grandad I could live in, no electricity, heat, or water, just 12 m2. If I could live with the dogsled patrol in Greenland, I could live in a primitive cabin in Denmark with the money I earned from the military. That’s how I initially survived as a nature photographer. Happily, it all worked out.”
One of Morten’s trademarks is combining bushcraft with wildlife photography. “My work is very different when I camp out. You know, our brain always wants to be entertained. It’s almost torture for our brain to go from a situation where a lot is happening, like a weekend with friends, to a place where nothing is happening. We instantly crave more entertainment.
So, when I go to a photo blind spontaneously for a day, my mind is everywhere. I’ll check my phone and look for distractions; I’m more impatient and less focused. I can make good images, but if the animals don’t show up in my limited timeframe, I might think it’s a bad day or get frustrated when it gets dark.
When I camp out, I’ll be restless and less concentrated the first day, but the longer I stay, the more my brain adapts to the silence of the woods. I become more focused on everything around me. From the second day on, I’m just different. I leave my phone in the tent; it annoys me more than attracts me. I spend hours making a fire, walking around to explore, or waiting for a fox. Time doesn’t matter anymore, and there’s no distraction. That timelessness is reflected in the images.”
Surrounded by the forest
What is it that makes the forest so exceptional for Morten? “It’s quite an enigma what the woodlands can do to us … When you are with people, your brain automatically adapts to socially acceptable behavior. We are social creatures; we survive when we adapt and don’t get rejected. So, we are constantly aware of ourselves.
In the forest, you’re just surrounded by trees and animals. They don’t care about your mood. You can laugh or cry; they don’t observe you. The natural world surrounds you, and no one comments on how you look or asks questions about your life. You’re free with your thoughts. There’s a piece in our DNA that just relaxes in the presence of nature. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need, especially in today’s overstimulated world, where we are trained to have a low attention span and to always look for entertainment.
These pictures are made in the Danish forests. I usually sleep in my hammock when I stay out there. The forest surrounds me, almost caressing me, and I try to capture this mood in my photos. It’s a protective, secluded atmosphere, like a fairy-tale landscape. I don’t manipulate my photos – like adding or removing things and my editing is very limited. I just crop a bit, correct the white balance and exposure, do some contrast work and that’s it. I want my photographs to feel as close to real life as possible.
Wolves and bears of Finland
This was on my first trip to Finland, before the beginning of photoshopping – when people started shopping for locations worldwide to make wildlife pictures,” Morten recalls making the images of the Finland bear and wolves. “You stay in the hide from 5 pm to 9 am, then are picked up to rest. You do this for several days.
Even though I love these pictures, I haven’t returned because I’ve lost interest in this kind of photography. It’s great that people can have these experiences, it’s a sustainable business, but I need more authenticity. Sitting in my Mr Jan hide, I am surrounded by birds and foxes that I know, and I discover new things about them daily. These are stories that everyone can experience. Places like Ellesmere Island are stunning, but not realistic for most people. Today, I want to share adventures everyone can replicate.”
We are happy and proud that our outdoor gear helps Morten to achieve this. “I’m a fan of Jan’s gear for three reasons. First, I love that it’s made in Europe. Second, he doesn’t compromise on quality to make his products cheaper. And third, Jan uses the products and strives for perfection, constantly asking for photographers’ feedback to improve them. He’s very passionate about his brand.”
Into the Norwegian woods
Last year, Morten visited the photo blinds of Jostein Hellevik. He knew Jostein from a show on Danish TV called Fotobonden. “Most people were there for the eagles, but I asked for a blind where I could sit alone, even if there were no eagles. That is where I took these pictures; it was perfect for me.
My request made him curious, so he showed me his game cameras and some beautiful locations on the snowmobile. After this 5-day trip, we decided we should spend more time together. I returned for two weeks, and we went on a great hike – you can see the result on my YouTube Channel.
I love stories; I think storytelling is in our genes. At first, it took a lot of effort to share my experiences, but now it just feels like I’m bringing a friend to the woods. And ultimately, that’s what I want to do: make people feel like they are joining me and inspire them to go out and experience their own adventure in nature.”
Copyright: all images by Morten Hilmer.