Zurich photographer and Instagram policeman Patric Helbling

Their photos of Zurich fly around the world on social media. But who are these photographers, and what spurs them on? Our new series turns the camera around. Today, our focus is on Patric Helbling, who had put his camera to one side for a long time and is now keen to become a professional photographer.

Patric Helbling most likes to seek out his best subjects at night. His favourites include moving trains, which he photographs with long exposure times, and motifs from nature. We talk to him about how he got started as a photographer, the Zurich photography scene and the irritating theft of images on Instagram.


How did you get into photography?

My parents used to have a big drawer full of photos. Even when I was little, I had enormous fun rummaging through all those pictures. However, I didn’t start taking pictures properly until the early 1990s, with a Minolta 8000i. That was still an analogue camera, but then all the hype surrounding mobile phones came along, and for years I used the camera only very rarely.

‘People often forget how expensive photographic equipment is.’


Did you stop taking photos altogether?

I mainly took pictures on my phone, but then, about five years ago, I caught the bug once more and I started wandering through the city again with a digital camera.

Is photography a hobby or a profession for you?

It’s a hobby that I would like to make my profession. However, I am still just starting out, and that means I am not yet earning enough money from it.


Is it hard to secure assignments?

Yes, Zurich is definitely a very hard place to find work. I have been fortunate enough to get several small jobs already, but there is an awful lot of competition, and clients are not always willing to pay for professional pictures. People often forget to factor in the expensive equipment, the outlay and the time spent on editing after a shoot.

Would you describe yourself as a professional photographer?

Not yet. I still need to learn a lot more and gain more experience. However, it’s my top priority for the future. I now go out four times a week on average and try to capture cool motifs in the city.


When is your favourite time for taking photos?

I especially like being out and about in the evening and at night. At that time, you can do great things playing with the evening light, or you can work with light trails and starbursts.

Are you a fan of long exposure times, then?

Very much so. I find it very exciting to combine that technique with a moving overground train or other fast-moving objects. I also like very much the depth of field that results from that.

‘I carry my camera with me almost everywhere.’


Does this mean you don’t take your camera with you during the day?

No, I now almost always carry my camera with me wherever I go. It has happened all too often already that a cool motif has suddenly popped up when I have been out without my camera. That is extremely annoying.

Are you on your own when you go out to take photos?

Not all the time. Taking photos with others is always very instructive and good fun. You get to know new spots, or you can discuss techniques. We now also have several chat groups where we talk to each other about photography and similar topics.

Does this mean there’s no competition among Zurich photographers?

Not in my case. We help each other as much as we can, and we support one another on Instagram, for example, by liking and commenting on colleagues’ photos. This helps all of us. It also gives us a lot of inspiration for our own work.


‘The theft of pictures on Instagram is extremely annoying.’

Are there no rotten apples?

Not among photographers, at least. However, there are more and more thieves on Instagram who pass our pictures off as their own and claim credit for other people’s work. That is extremely annoying.

What action do you take when somebody steals one of your pictures?

It’s a pretty complex issue. You don’t always notice another profile stealing your pictures. Reporting that profile to Instagram doesn’t help much, either. That person can simply open a new account a little later and post the same pictures there.

Does that mean you have to just accept it?

No, certainly not. I now manage this by writing personally to the account in question. If they don’t respond, I use my Instagram story to inform my followers that this profile is stealing pictures. If I notice that one of my followers is actually following that profile, I write directly to that person. My fellow photographers do the same. This seems to be working relatively well so far.


What do you think of platforms like Instagram?

The issue of photo theft is an irritating one, of course. Nevertheless, I think Instagram is a great thing for us photographers. I have been on the platform for about a year, and I now have more than 1,000 followers. This also generates very helpful contacts with other photographers, who inspire me.


What are your favourite motifs in the city?

For me, this is something that constantly changes. However, I think there are many exciting motifs for snaps in district 5 at night, in particular. I like the illuminated Prime Tower, the Hardbrücke bridge or the clean lines of the more modern buildings.

But you also regularly include motifs from nature on your Instagram profile, don’t you?

That’s true. I try to offer my followers a bit of variety – and just because you live in Zurich, that certainly doesn’t mean you don’t have any nature on your doorstep. I have already photographed cows, herons, dogs, honeybees or bumblebees, for example.

‘I’m no fan of picture-postcard motifs.’


What do you think of hot spots?

I’m not a great fan of places that are overrun or images that look like something on a picture postcard. We have all seen a thousand of those kitschy pictures of the Grossmünster. When I do display subjects such as that, I try at least to incorporate an unusual perspective or a specific technique.

How do you do that?

In that case, for example, I would use a wide-angle lens and a specific perspective, such as a worm’s-eye view. Alternatively, I would photograph only particular sections of the subject.


How heavily do you edit your photos?

That depends on the picture, of course. As a rule, though, I try to edit as little as possible. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like edited photos. I don’t even mind them occasionally being kitschy, if the motif and the imagery are right for that. What I do reject, however, is royal blue skies. I currently use Adobe Lightroom for my editing, and I am very happy with it.

What projects do you have coming up?

The next step will certainly be my own website, where I plan to show not just pictures of Zurich but also portraits and images of nature and big events. I would also like to organise another pop-up gallery at Klusplatz and show and sell my pictures there.


Name: Patric Helbling
Born: 1969
From: Hurden/Pfäffikon SZ
Lives in: Zurich
Photographer since: 1991
Cameras and lenses:
Sony Alpha 7R ll FE 1.4; 85mm G-Master
Canon 77D EF 11-24 mm; 1:4 L USM

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