Over the past few years I have seen many images of the jagged peaks, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes of the Dolomites and a visit to that area in the north of Italy has been high on my wish list... at the end of August I finally got my act together and organised a short trip to the area.
I took an evening flight to Venice and stayed overnight in a guest house at Ponte Nelle Alpi... in a violently horrendous thunderstorm. The guesthouse was on the top of a hill and very exposed to the elements. The rain hammering off the window, the howling wind and the thunderclaps directly overhead meant that I did not get much sleep. The coffee at breakfast was most helpful in my recovery and I continued my drive north.
As I got to higher ground I found that the storm had completely disregarded all thoughts of it still being summer and had dumped 10-15cm of snow on all ground above about 1600m altitude.
I drove to Misurina lake but did not find that to be too photogenic, so I continued along the road to Lago D'Antorno which was more to my liking. I find that in order to get good reflections it is best to use lakes that are rather small (ponds and puddles are also acceptable) in order to keep your subjects more immediate and prominent in the frame.
Both of these lakes are on the road which leads to Tre Cime di Lavaredo and my idea was to drive up the steep toll road and maybe do the circle hike around those iconic peaks. The car parks at the top of the road, holding at least a thousand cars, were already full (about 11am, on a slightly unpleasant day) and as a result they were operating a "one in one out" policy on the toll road with a sizeable queue. Instead of joining the queue I returned to Lago D'Antorno and decided to follow the toll road on foot. I had read an account from another photographer of doing the same thing in deep snow in winter and he described it as an easy hike taking about 40 minutes so I was quite confident. I am not sure what kind of physical specimen wrote that other blog but I can say that apart from the smooth road surface there was nothing whatsoever which was easy about that hike - an unremittingly steep slog which took me at least an hour and three quarters and left me extremely tired, despite the beautiful views.
After spending so much effort on the climb I decided not to do the 4-5 hour circle hike around Tre Cime, the clouds were looking rather dark and moody and I did not want to get stuck in a storm, so I decided to retreat back down the road and check in to my accomodation.
I chose a hotel close to Cortina D'Ampezzo as my base for the trip on an "it looks like it is roughly in the middle of the places I want to visit" basis and I was happy to find that it was in quite a beautiful spot.
As a location it also turned out to be quite good as it was quite close to what turned out to be one of my absolute favourite spots, the top of the Giau Pass. As the day ended to skies cleared and sunlight bathed the snowy ground.
Although I usually do at least some research on specific locations before embarking on my trips I find that there is no substitute for actually viewing a location in person. With mountain locations especially it is hard to reliably translate "kilometres on the map" into "time taken to travel" and plans made without knowledge of the terrain can easily turn out to be unrealistic. I decided to treat this trip as a scouting mission, meaning that I would try to visit as many sites as possible in my 3.5 days in order to understand where to focus in a future "proper" photography trip.
The next morning I was out of my room at 0430, ready to try and do some astro photography at the Giau Pass and then wait for the sunrise, but I faced an unusual difficulty - I could not get out of the hotel! The door was locked and bolted, the reception was empty, there was no bell, there was nobody around and there were no other exits. I made some noise (enough too attract the attention of anyone who would be there, but not enough to wake the hotel residents) and waited around for 15 mins to see if anyone came along... but no. Trapped. I went back to bed.
Three hours later the day began properly and I drove up to the top of the Falzarego Pass.
From here it was possible to travel by cable car to Lagazuoi, a 2835m peak. Although this was the second highest altitude I have reached (without the aid of a plane that is, the Zugspitze summit being my highest point) it was still possible to look up from Lagazuoi to even taller peaks in the surroundings.
From Lagazuoi it is also possible to look down on a much more famous neighbour, the small cluster of peaks which make up Cinque Torri, a kind of natural monument in the middle of nowhere and a popular destination for climbers.
Near the summit of Lagazuoi you can get a closer look at some fortifications dating from the Great War over a century ago. The front line in the battles between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire went right through this area and all over the Dolomites it is possible to see evidence of the desperate struggle which took place between the opposing forces in the harshest of environments.
There is a lodge at the top of the cable car route where you can eat something, get some coffee or even stay overnight. These Rifugios are a feature of almost all easily accessible peaks and mountain areas in the Dolomites and make it a lot easier and more comfortable to spend time in what would otherwise be the wilderness. On this occasion there was some construction work ongoing at Rifugio Lagazuoi and while I was there a helicopter was constantly shuttling materials up and down the mountain without ever landing. It was impressive to watch.
It was time to continue my journey, starting by entrusting my life to a few rather insubstantial looking wires as the cable car made its descent.
I made my way to the Gardena Pass, another spectacular tour through mountain peaks by way of hundreds of hairpins.
My objective was the Seiser Alm, a vast mountain meadow surrounded by peaks. There are many different ways to reach the Seiser Alm, but during the day it is forbidden to drive there, you have to approach by cable car. I had partial directions to get to the spot I was aiming for - I took the cable car to Compatsch and then a bus to Saltria... but then I was not quite sure where to go next. I wondered around for an hour or two but I don't think I found the best views.
When visiting this area again, and especially in order to get to the best places at the best times for photography (sunrise, sunset, night) I think that a totally different approach would be needed. Normally I like to have a single base and then travel to different locations, but in the Dolomites there would be huge advantages to staying in a different Rifugio every night in order to be as close as possible to your subjects.
This was a very long day... some 4-5 hours of driving as well as multiple cable car journeys and about 20km of walking... so I was happy to get back to my hotel and get some rest before the morning.
The next day I also planned a long journey, heading this time a bit further north before circling round to an area near to where I had been the day before and returning via the Gardena and Falzarego passes. My first stop, before 6am, was at Lago di Landro.
From there I continued to Lago di Dobbiaco having first satisfied the demand from my rental car which instructed me to add at least one litre of oil "immediately".
The final part of my morning lake trilogy was the famous Lago di Braies, a very beautiful place but also a horrendous tourist trap. My advice to anyone wanting to enjoy this place is to arrive very early in the morning or very late at night, it was slightly uncomfortable already when I arrived at 0830 and by the time I had completed the easy hike around the lake it was absolutely swarming with what seemed like many millions of people.
Having gladly removed myself from the multitudes at Lago di Braies I made my way to the next famous destination, the church at Santa Maddalena. This was a location I had been looking forward to perhaps more than any other, but it was a place where the experience did not quite measure up to the expectation. It seemed to me that the place had not quite made peace with its status as a tourist attraction. It has managed to embrace some aspects of that, such as charging a few euros for a parking place, but the overall feeling is one of being a bit unwelcome. The church is in the middle of a field, but according to the signs it is prohibited to walk around in that field which rather limits your chances for photography. There is a tiny platform that you are allowed to stand on in the corner of the field, which means that everyone who obeys the local rules will end up with almost exactly the same picture as each other. Drone photography is also prohibited there, which is another limitation. I think that if they would accept that the place is and will be a tourist attraction and make a little bit more effort to be accommodating, while also charging a bit more money for parking if necessary to make it a sensible business, then everyone might end up being more happy.
The whirlwind tour continued and it was time for the next destination. It had been nearly 20 hours since I took a cable car journey so I decided to fix that by ascending to the spectacular peak of Seceda (2519m).
This mountain provides some other-worldly views as it looks like the ground has just been ripped apart at the seams, on the one side pleasant green meadows slope steeply upwards and on the other side there is a vertical drop of hundreds of metres.
After another rather exhausting day it was very easy to fall asleep... and a bit of a struggle to avoid doing just that while driving back to the hotel.
My final morning in the Dolomites was reserved for completing my mission to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, having had a false start in that adventure on the first day. The toll road does not open until 0600 which makes it a bit of a challenge to be in position for the sunrise in the summer, but I was the first one through the gate on this day and determined to make the best of it. I parked in the massive car parks near Rifugio Auronzo and started the circle hike around Tre Cime by around 0615.
The hike, which took me about 5 hours, could be thought of as a tour of different Rifugios. The trail starts at Rifugio Auronzo and then (in the direction I travelled) leads you to Rifugio Lavaredo, Rifugio Locatelli (Drei Zinnen Hutte) and Malga Langalm before completing the circle at Rifugio Auronzo. Each leg of the journey takes about an hour.
The temperature was something of a challenge during this hike, it was 3 or 4 degrees when I started before the sunrise and 31 degrees when I finished about midday... luckily I had pretty much expected this and had dressed on a "I will warm up eventually" basis, accepting to be a bit cold to start with in order to have the benefit of not having to carry extra clothing in the second half of the hike.
The trail is easy to follow and well maintained, but there are some noticeable changes in elevation at various points, requiring quite a lot of ascending and descending even though it is roughly level overall.
By the time I was approaching the Drei Zinnen Hutte, about half way round the hike, a coffee was definitely needed. I stopped for 20 minutes to recharge my batteries. This mountain lodge is in an amazing location on the mountain plateau.
This was the most spectacular place on the circle hike in my opinion, but the views in general in all directions were quite amazing and I highly recommend the route to anyone who has the opportunity and capability to experience it.
With that, it was time to make my way back to Venice Marco Polo airport. This was my first visit to the Dolomites, but I truly hope it will not be my last. Whenever I get a chance to return I think that these hectic few days have provided me with some good lessons for how to make a successful second trip. The key for that would be to stay in a number of well selected Rifugios rather than one central hotel and accept the slight inconvenience of regular check in - check out as a price worth paying for being in the right place at the right time.
Until next time!
"I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered."
Welcome to part two of my Switzerland blog. In the first installment there were a lot of mountains and waterfalls, this time I am going to show you some of the other things that Switzerland has to offer... but before that, its time for a short visit to Liechtenstein.
Liechtenstein is one of the smallest countries in Europe, having a land area of only 160 square kilometres, bordered on the east by Austria and otherwise surrounded by Switzerland.
On the third morning of my trip we made a short detour (from Switzerland to Liechtenstein) in order to photograph a bridge which crosses the Rhine near to the village of Ruggell.
Its always nice to visit a new country. The border between the two countries is defined as being the middle of the river, so I was at least 50 metres inside the country for at least 10 minutes... of course it counts!
I was not the only visitor to Liectenstein on that day, I noticed that a Common Stonechat had also come for a look - a nice looking bird that I have seen in Scotland before but never in Finland.
From Ruggell we returned to Switzerland and made our way to Walensee, a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. The light there was not much use for landscape photography but it was a very pleasant place to spend some time and looked like it could be a good destination for some sunrise or sunset photography another time.
From Walensee we continued to the town of Rapperswil where you may find an old castle and a marina as well as a lake area which is popular with wildlife.
From the marina area you can follow a path which takes you under the main road and into the lake area where you can find many water birds tending to their families, including coots, great crested grebes, grey herons and mallards.
Here again the coots were initially the most eye catching bird species. There were many coot families with young chicks and while the adults are dark and plain the youngsters are a riot of colour and rather ugly-beautiful, they don't look like they could belong to the same species.
For those of you who need a break from too many bird pictures, here is a picture of a bike resting against a hedge.
There is a raised walkway which allows you to walk across the lake for many hundreds of metres and offers a good view of any birds that might be in the area.
As we were returning towards the car I spotted something a bit more unusual, a little grebe ("little grebe" is the name of the species... it wasn't just a normal grebe that didn't look very big). I have not seen this species before so it was a bonus to add an image of it to my collection... even though the photograph is no masterpeice.
Rapperswil was a very nice place to visit, and especially good for bird photography.
We made our way back towards the Juvet family home in Waldstatt, stopping on the way for a "coffee break" which turned out to be an ice cream break. As far as I am concerned it is always time for ice cream, no matter how recently you had ice cream, what time of day it might be or how cold the weather might be. On a hot summer afternoon such as this, even the most unenlightened person might start to see the wisdom of my thinking.
As we enjoyed the ice cream the storm clouds started to gather over the mountains and the threat of bad weather grew - there would be no glorious sunset photography... but maybe there was a chance for some more bird photography as I saw a white stork (another new species for me) searching for reptiles or rodents in the nearby field.
Although I have never photographed a white stork before that is not because of a lack of opportunity. Last year in Germany I saw two unrealistic looking plastic storks about 30m away in a field and wondered why anyone would put such things in the middle of their crops... perhaps they are acting like scarecrows I theorised. If I had spent those moments getting my camera out of my bag instead of coming up with plastic stork theories I might have been in a better position to capture the moment when the "unrealistic plastic storks" flew away. I had to wait over a year for a chance to put this right.
The next day we were up bright and early and heading for the truly amazing Autobau car museum in the town of Romanshorn. I have been to a few different car museums before but this one was just outstanding, the collection was absolutely remarkable and all the cars were in first class condition. Each car was displayed in appropriate surroundings and spaced out in such a way that you could really appreciate each vehicle individually.
So... what cars could you see there? Well... for a start there were the Ferraris... many Ferraris... including a beautiful yellow Ferrari F12 TDF (click to view the pictures in a larger size).
The red "La Ferrari" is a rather funny looking vehicle to my eyes, but it seems that it must get the job done with a capability of accelerating from 0-300kmh in less than 15 seconds.
These new Ferraris were joined by some of their ancestors with a classic Ferrari 330 GTO from 1964 and a Ferrari F40 supercar from the late 1980s or early 1990s... and also a Ferrari 488 GTB 70 year anniversary edition, a 2017 model commemorating the 70th anniversary of the company. I slightly regret not recording all the models that were on show, but if I remember correctly there were at least 7 or 8 different pristine Ferraris in the "Supersport" hall which is the first part of the museum that you are directed to from the reception.
The collection was not only about Ferraris... it contained many of the other things you might have been hoping to get in your hand when playing Sports Car Top Trumps - a Lamborghini Diablo, a Detomaso Pantera, an E-Type Jaguar, a Porsche 918 Spyder and a Mercedes 300SL Gullwing... and some exotic additions such as the Saleen S7, Bugatti EB 110 and the Vector W8.
Maybe its a small detail, but almost every car had a rather striking colour and that really helped them to make an impression... this yellow Honda S800 might not have looked so impressive in medium grey.
This museum has given me so much I feel I should mention... and I am still only in the first section of it... so I should hurry up.... but first I need to at least include a picture of the very beautiful Mercedes 300SL gullwing.
The next section of the museum turned to the serious business of car racing, in all its different forms. There was a dragster (drive 400 metres as fast as possible), an Indy car (drive 500 miles as fast as possible) and some cars that had competed in races such as the Daytona 24 hour (drive about 2500 miles over 24 hours... as fast as possible).
The museum owes it's existence to racing... to the racing of one man in fact, Fredy Lienhard has been a successful Swiss racing driver over many decades and the museum was founded with his personal car collection, many of the racing cars in the museum bear the name of his Lista racing team.
What about Formula 1 I hear you ask? Good question. There were almost enough Formula 1 cars to have a Formula 1 race... although they were all from different years so ensuring a fair race might be a challenge. Alain Prost's 1983 Renault was one of the earlier ones.
The distinctive red of the Ferrari F1 team always makes an instant impression.
If the race between all the Autobau Formula 1 cars was a team event then I think that Sauber might end up as the dominant constructor, one of the halls at Autobau housed one of each Sauber F1 carfrom 1994 to 2005 inclusive. An amazing collection.
We eventually dragged ourselves away from Autobau and continued our tour, after a walk around the old town of St Gallen we visited the botanical gardens. Botanical gardens are often very interesting places to shoot, the rich colours and interesting shapes of any flowers that might be on display are one attraction and any insects or other wildlife that they attract is another.
I did not have a macro lens with me on this trip so my all purpose 24-105mm f4 lens was taken into action. One of the things that I often try in this kind of situation is to make images where a pattern or a colour or a texture can fill the entire frame.
Inevitably, the bees buzzing around the flowers in the external gardens became the most interesting subject and many frames were spent trying to capture their important activities.
When I look back on this trip, I find that I am not all that excited about my pictures - the light was never quite right, sometimes that's just how it goes - but I can say that this was anyway one of my favourite trips since I started writing the blog.
The great hospitality and friendship shown to me by my hosts, the Juvet family, was something that I will not forget and they also did a great job of showing me the attractions in their area.
Thanks once again to Robert, Krisztina and Isi for all their kindness!
Normally my photography travelling is done solo, but a couple of weeks ago I spent 5 days in the Appenzell Canton of Switzerland as a guest of Robert Juvet and his family.
Robert and I have competed against each other in some photography competitions on GuruShots and we have become friends through some photography related facebook groups - meeting in person for the first time earlier this year in Budapest. When he invited me to come and shoot with him in his home country of Switzerland for a few days I was very happy to accept.
The Finnair link from Helsinki to Zurich is another perfectly planned route, you can leave early in the morning and return late in the evening, allowing you to make the best of both travel days as well as enjoing the days inbetween, and I met up with Rob and his family by lunchtime.
Our first location was the Thur waterfall, a 10 minute walk from the village of Unterwasser.
The waterfall is at the end of a winding path which follows the downstream progress of the water, ending up in a cave like area in front of the waterfall itself. You can also follow a path up above the waterfall and view the spectacle from different angles. This was an excellent place, kind of hidden away near to a small village in the middle of nowhere, perfect.
One feature of this trip was the prominence of interesting bird life. On the relatively short drive from Zurich I had seen red kites circling over the motorway on at least a dozen occasions and here at the waterfall I watched a pair of common buzzards wheeling around overhead.
From Thur we continued the waterfall tour, following a steep, overgrown and vaguely unsafe path from a roadside car park down to Ober Glessenfall.
Our third waterfall of the day was Glessenfall II, but that scene did not really get my attention and I found myself a lot more interested in identifying the small birds that were flitting around the area, one of which was a grey wagtail - a species I had not photographed before. It is always nice to photograph a new species, even if - like this time - it is too far away and in too dark a place to get a good shot.
It always seems a bit unfair that the Grey Wagtail, a striking bird which is about 40% yellow, is called the Grey Wagtail... but it is a victim of the existence of the even brighter Yellow Wagtail and the stunningly yellow Citrine Wagtail.
The following morning it was time to head for the mountains. We took the cable car up to Ebenalp. I have been on a number of cable cars... and I guess I will be on a number more in future... but it never feels like a particularly safe way to travel.
We survived the cable car journey and were rewarded with fantastic panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and valleys, including the summit of Säntis (the highest point in the Alpstein massif) and the beautiful alpine lake of Seealpsee.
The area at the top of the Ebenalp cable car ride is a starting point for a number of different hiking trails and the route was a very popular one, people were crammed into the cable car in scenes reminiscent of the Tokyo subway.
Hiking, and photography were not the only activities taking place on Ebenalp, the area near the cable car station is a very popular launching point for paragliding. The considerable updrafts made for superb conditions for that activity and it seemed that the skilful paragliders were able to gain a couple of hundred metres of additional altidute and spend many hours swooping around.
The paragliding was hugely impressive to watch, but the fascination was not universal... the cows that were summering on the high pastures seemed completely uninterested.
After purchasing ice cream to combat the considerable heat we followed a hiking trail which led down and round the mountain side with the first notable stop being at Wildkirchli, a series of three interconnected caves with a small chapel inside the lowest cave.
The trail continued to wind its way around the mountain face to the remarkable Gasthaus Aesher, a tavern situated under a huge overhanging cliff. There were too many people there for me to take a decent picture but the place was certainly an interesting one.
Although we had already descended a few hundred metres from the cable car station, the views were still fantastic to many directions. While my kind host continued to capture landscapes, I was distracted by the presence, once again, of a black redstart, the bird species that has been following me around Europe, presumably to make up for always eluding me in Finland.
After hiking back up to the cable car station, and descending once more to the car park, we found an impossibly cute (and very tiny) kitten nervously exploring it's surroundings.
After sensibly restricting ourselves to less than 1500 kitten pictures each, we were able to break away and head for the next location, the Leuenfall waterfall. As we made our way towards the trail which led down to the waterfall, I got interested in how the light was filtering through the trees in the area of a small steam, and I ended up preferring that picture to any that I took at the waterfall itself.
The following day we visited the same area once again, but instead of heading up the mountain by cable car, we set off on foot on the steep climb to the beautiful Seealpsee lake. The trek to Seealpsee takes about one hour and, although the road has a good surface (it acts as a service road to the guesthouses and restaurants at Seealpsee), it is significantly uphill all the way. When the temperature is in the 30's and you are carrying 10-15kg of camera stuff (as well as any extra kilos that you might keep inside your body) then it is a hard slog. The effort however, is certainly worth it - Seealpsee is very beautiful.
After the strenuous climb, the walk around the lake is a very pleasant one. There are beautiful views to all directions and there is always the possiblity to use the lake for reflections. The alpine cows are ever present, happily chewing their way through their day surrounded by the beautiful scenery.
The lake itself features a number of different territories that are patrolled and defended vigorously by Eurasian Coots. These birds are a lot of fun to watch, especially if it is anywhere near the breeding season when they are likely to feel territorial.
When a "rival" (i.e. any unsuspecting bird of any species that just happens to be within 40m) happens to catch their attention then they launch their attack from a very long way away, running quickly and comically across the surface of the water to chase them away or start a vicious fight. When the rival is also a coot then there is the prospect of them both running after each other which looks even funnier.
Anyway... on this occasion the coots were comparatively calm.
Before long we were making our way back down the steep service road and heading to our next destination, the cable car journey to the summit of Hoher Kasten.
This cable car journey was much like any other - looking forward to the view at the destination while slightly concerned about the possibility of falling to your death during the journey. This one had one unexpected difference, it stopped for a while, without explanation, a bit more than half way up... while you dangled about 100m above the ground. I guess it was intended to help you admire the amazing panoramic view... but without knowing that it was going to happen the first thought was that something had gone wrong.
When you arrive at the top of the mountain you are rewarded with views over 4 countries (Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein and back into Switzerland).
At the right time of the right day this place would be an unbelievable photography destination, but on this day the light was very strong and direct and there was a considerable haze over the mountains, so no amount of post-processing could really rescue the pictures.
Another welcome feature at the summit is the large refreshment area with great viewing windows, perfect to get yourself together after the cable car journey.
The mountain section of this trip was now over and for the remaining days we would concentrate on other things, so I suppose this is a good place to call an end to this post... we certainly packed a lot into these couple of days.
As a final offering I will leave you with this picture of the moon at its First Quarter phase, halfway between a new moon and a full moon.
My report will continue with a new installment in a few days time. Huge thanks to Robert Juvet and his family for their amazing hospitality on this trip!
So.... where were we... ah yes, I signed off last time on my way from the Grmecica waterfall back to my car in Nomenj.
I always enjoy it when i feel like the first shooting destination of the day has been a success. On a trip like this I usually end up with a handful of pictures that I am satisfied with and if I am lucky then maybe one that I really like... so when I feel like the day has started well then it means that anything good from the rest of the day feels like a bonus. Of course the opposite is also true... an uninspiring beginning increases the pressure on the rest of the day. Just a little something for any psychologists out there.
I decided to head for the mountains to continue my day. I drove to Lake Jasna in Kranjska Gora. Lake Jasna is actually made up of two artificial interconnected lakes and is usually a lovely place to catch your breath before continuing into the mountains. On this occasion however dark clouds were gathering overhead and rain was starting to fall.
It did not seem very promising weather for landscapes so I turned my attention to wildlife where the well diffused light was an advantage and the dark skies were not a disadvantage. The first bird I spotted was a black redstart... a really beautiful bird and a relatively difficult one to find in Finland, but I have been lucky enough to see one in Germany, Austria and now Slovenia as well as Finland this year.
As you proceed from Lake Jasna the road takes you up into the mountains through the Vršič Pass, a wonderful road which connects Kranjska Gora to Trenta via the 1611m high mountain pass. This is quite an experience to drive with 24 hairpin bends on the way up and 26 hairpins on the descent towards Trenta. The present day road was built on the route of an earlier track during the first world war by approximately 10,000 Russian prisoners of war, their work and their losses (in a major avalanche which swept aside the avalanche fences) are commemorated by the wooden Russian Chapel which stands about half way up the mountain on the Kranjska Gora side.
As you approach the highest point of the pass you can find the starting points of a number of hiking or climbing routes and marvel at spectacular views of the nearby mountain peaks. The huge face of the Prisank mountain provides two points of interest which can be clearly seen from one of the roadside parking areas - the Prisank Window and the Pagan Girl.
The Prisank Window is a 80m high, 40m wide hole which goes right through the mountain, one of the largest and best known mountain windows in the Julian Alps. The Pagan Girl is a pretty good attempt at a human face looking back at you from the rock wall, formed by erosion and rock falls, I remember reading at the site that the face was 120m high, but I cannot find confirmation of that from any other source so it may not be correct.
In order to appreciate the sheer scale of these cliffs I think that the following picture which I took in 2017 might help - the three tiny ants you can see on the top of the ridge are mountaineers.
At the highest point of the pass there are a number of restaurants, a good amount of parking space and the possibility to follow many hiking trails. On this occasion I just looked at the view and headed back to base.
The following afternoon England were playing Sweden in the World Cup quarter final and I wanted to watch the match... but I also wanted to take pictures... so I decided upon an early start and an ambitious road trip.
I left the hotel at 0400 and was in position at Lake Jasna shortly after 0500. The water level was remarkably higher than the previous day and the sunrise was a total non-event... I moved on shortly after 0600.
By 0700 I had negotiated the 24 ascending and 26 descending hairpins of the Vršič Pass and was following the path of the very beautiful Soca river through the valleys.
I stopped to stretch my legs at the Great Soca River Gorge before 0800, this is a section of river which has carved out a steep sided canyon for itself, it is a beautiful and dangerous place with an unguarded drop to the raging water and rocks below. The section of river downstream from the gorge is a bit more open and gentle and a popular spot for sun worshippers and people in need of the refreshing experience of leaping into pools of cool water from the less high and less dangerous rocky banks. Although I enjoyed being there I did not find good ideas for photographs.
By 0900 I was having a latte in the hotel near to the Boka waterfall. After a steep uphilll climb it was possible to observe this mighty waterfall, with an initial vertical drop of 106m and a secondary drop of 30m before feeding into Boka creek. The creek is one of the shortest in Slovenia, joining the Soca river after only a few hundred metres. The waterfall has the highest flow of any in Slovenia, reaching upwards of 100 cubic metres per second in the wettest season. On this occasion the flow was significantly less.
The scale of the waterfall is difficult to communicate in a photograph due to the scale of the surroundings... a 106m waterfall does not look so impressive when it is set in a 400m high rock face. You need such a wide angle lens to communicate the whole scene that the waterfall itself is reduced to a miniature size in the frame.
I had understood that there was an even higher viewpoint from where the view could be further improved but after ascending for another 15 minutes or so I began to feel that the downward journey would be a bit too hazardous if I continued upwards, there was quite a lot of loose rock and stones underfoot and it was a bit slippery. With no other people around I thought that the possibilities of having an unnoticed accident were higher than I would like.
Anyway, this was a great place to visit and I recommend it for anyone who is in the area. It was possible to see the high water mark from the rocks at the base of the waterfall, I believe that it would be absolutely spectacular when viewed in peak flow.
Onwards... my next stop was supposed to be Kozjak waterfall... but a difficulty with navigation brought me instead to a lovely hillside in the middle of nowhere... after ascending a large hill by a series of hairpins on a road which was not very wide.
Here, on this beautiful hillside, battalions of insects were going about their most important business - pollinating left, right and centre.
I once again negotiated the hairpins on the way down the hill and found the spot I was aiming for in the first place, eventually managing to park in a "not big enough for all the cars" car park - a task which was complicated by some "its too hot and I already had enough of this and the kids are getting on my nerves" driving from some other visitors. Onwards... to Kozjak waterfall.
The waterfall is easy to find by following the signs, and the crowds, as the path winds its way up the hill and along a wide canyon. The final 40m or so is on a narrow, wet, raised wooden ledge on one of the canyon walls into a cave like area where the waterfall is situated. This area requires attention and care - the wooden boards are generously sized for proceeding in single file but they have to carry two way traffic and passing is already a bit hazardous. The drop to the rocks and water below is only 4-5 metres, but a fall from that height to the rocks would already be a serious matter. I imagine that in the times of heaviest traffic there could be some unsafe situations there.
In order to get a great photo at this waterfall I think it would be best to time your visit to avoid the crowds (including the crowds of cavers arriving on ropes from above the waterfall) and also to consider wading along the bed of the stream instead of following the raised platform, that would have been a practical alternative on the day I visited but may become less practical if the water flow or water level was significantly higher.
I had planned to visit the Tolmin Gorge next, but time was ticking and after being sent in another wrong direction by the navigation system I decided that I continue my circuit towards the hotel and get there in plenty time, maybe having a swim before the game. This proved to be a good decision, as the navigation system in the rental car took me on an extreme cross country route winding up and down hills, finally getting to a place where the road I needed to take was closed for maintenance. The detour was extensive and added nearly an hour to my journey. I arrived 3 minutes before kick-off. Still, a good day.
The following morning I headed for Jamnik once again, hoping to get an interesting sunrise. The period before the dawn was perfectly pleasant, but not that interesting. No nice colours to be seen, no interesting clouds, no mist... just plain. I decided to wait around for the moment when the sun first cleared the mountains in the background.
After leaving Jamnik, an impractically located church in the middle of nowhere on the top of a steep hill in front of the mountains, I decided to scout a new location. I drove towards St. Tomaz - a totally different impractically located church in the middle of nowhere on the top of a steep hill in front of the mountains. Variety is the spice of life.
While proceeding towards St. Tomaz I had a number of navigation related mishaps. In Slovenia it seems that you have perfect motorways and the roads to major towns are very good, but outside that the road quality degenerates very quickly. The navigation data is very noticeably worse than in other European countries, no matter which mapping data you rely on (I saw no difference between Here maps and Google maps). It seems that context data is totally absent. Yes there is technically a road, yes the limit might be 90km/h on that road... but in practice a normal car should not attempt it at all and if you do have an offroad vehicle then it would still not be sensible to try and drive faster than 30km/h. This means that the "what is the best route" decision making is very, very poor.
Eventually, after more than an hour of detours and circles, I arrived at St Tomaz, and it was a fantastic place.
Having found the church itself I tried to make my way to a good viewpoint, this church is better viewed in context, from a distance (in my opinion). Here the navigation outdid itself once again. From my parking space it sent me down the hill again, a couple of kilometres of steep, winding, single lane road... and then had me turn right, right and right again before proceeding back up the hill via the same road to where I had started... in order to continue along a dirt track located 30m from where I had been parked in the first place. The ruts were so deep that the vegetation in the middle of the overgrown track was scraping the bottom of the car... there is no way I was going to commit my rental car to 11km of this before the next turn... so it was back down the same damn hill again to find a different route.
Eventually I got the the place I was looking for, on a nearby hill close to Rantovse.
This was a good scouting mission, finding the best angles to shoot the sunrise the following morning. Now there was the simple matter of just driving back to the hotel. Once again the navigation system sent me on a tour of the worst possible roads. After 40 minutes I saw a church and stopped to allow my frustration level to settle down... maybe a prayer would have been helpful also. I saw St Tomaz from the church... it should have been 40 minutes behind me but I could see it sitting there a few kilometres away. Great. The butterflies fluttering around the church garden cheered me up.
Taking personal responsibility for all navigation decisions, I made my way back towards the hotel using the "largest road is quickest even though it says it is not" principle.
After a short rest another failed attempt was made to find interesting sunset light at Lake Jasna... once again nothing much happened.
A somewhat trying day... but no matter. The following morning I was up at 0315 to make my way back to St Tomaz for the sunrise... and it was almost a success but not quite. There were some nice colours in the sky but the clouds were too big and too dark only starting to thin out when the sun was already well above the mountains.
In the right conditions this could be a truly magical place for a photograph, but all you can do is make the best of whatever conditions you happen to get. Sometimes you are lucky, but 95% of the time you just have to make do with something which is not quite what you hoped. In such situations you can anyway enjoy just being in such beautiful places, safe in the knowledge that all the people who are sleeping instead of standing on a remote hill before 0500 are missing the whole thing completely.
For my final hours on this trip I returned to Bled and had a last walk around that beautiful lake, pausing to visit St. Martins church before heading back to the car.
Overall this was a really enjoyable trip to a magical country. I hope to return to Slovenia sometime in the future.
Thanks for reading!
In my last post, I signed off from the 1600m high summit of Rossfeld... so that is from where I will continue. As I mentioned the border between Germany and Austria runs through the middle of Rossfeld, the border line is indicated by a number of small white square stones that have a D for Deutschland on one side and an Ö for Österreich on the other.
This allowed me, for my own amusement (and probably nobody else's...), to set my tripod up with one leg on the border and one leg in each country in order to take the following photograph. My thought was that the top part of weather station looked a bit like a droid...
It may be that a lack of food and lack of sleep were affecting my thinking at this point :)
Breakfast helped restore some of my capabilities and I decided to head back across the border and make a visit to the village of Gosau and the lakes at Gosausee which was about an hour's drive into Austria, near to the mighty peaks of Dachstein.
In this part of the Northern Limestone Alps the geology is just right to produce spectacular jagged peaks similar to the Dolomites in Italy, making it very attractive to look at and of course to photograph.
From Gosausee you can journey to higher ground by cable car but on this occasion I decided to stay closer to the ground and hike along the path to the the upper Gosau lake. I did not study the signs very carefully but it was possible to see that the route was "suitable for families" and should take about an hour and a half.
As it turned out this route would require quite a bit of effort as it included a number of sustained climbs along the way, it was quite hard going in the early summer sun. Certainly it was suitable for families, as evidenced by the number of frustrated and tearful children I passed by the side of the road on my way. The hour and a half estimate was probably accurate enough for the downhill journey back to Gosausee but for the uphill outward journey I think that it was over-optimistic.
After reaching the upper lake I continued round the lake to the most welcome sight of the day, the Hohe Holzmeisteralm restaurant, where I could refuel with some cold drinks and a plate of bratwurst. The views around the Gosau lakes were spectacular but the light was too harsh to make for successful photography. I made my way back down the hilly path and drove back to the attractive Gosau village.
It seems to me that the Germans and Austrians have a huge appreciation for the beautiful scenery of their home lands, they seem to be at their best when out in nature and quite at peace with their surroundings. You almost always get a friendly greeting from the "locals" whenever you meet them whereas other tourists tend to be a little more suspicious.
After wandering around the village for a while I had a look at the map to see what I might do next and realised that I was rather close to Hallstatt, an idyllic village which is also a UNESCO world heritage site. I have tried on a number of occasions to organise a short trip to Hallstatt but the hotels there seem to be permanently full (or at least the ones that mere mortals can hope to afford are permanently full), so I decided to go there and check it out rather than returning directly to Berchtesgaden.
Hallstatt, as it turns out, is quite the tourist trap. As you approach by car you are carefully funnelled towards a sequence of car parks (costing about €3 per hour for the first few hours) from where you continue your visit on foot. The village itself is very nice, but also very touristy, and packed with people. When it comes to photography there, it is of course possible to find different views with varying levels of interest, but the main view is only easily photographable from one single public place - a 10m long gap beside the road from where you can get a view of the church against it's mountain backdrop. This space was packed with photographers.
I realised that I did not like the place enough to visit it again, so I decided to get some food and wait for dusk so that I could try and get a decent picture from the one viewing place. I believe that the best time to be there would have been sunrise, the village being in shadow well before sunset due to the mountains, but an early evening shot would have to do. As I got back to the car I could see that I had exceeded 40 thousand steps for the day, and it felt like it. The journey back to my accommodation in the dark was a careful one.
A new day dawned and it was time to change locations - the final two days of my trip would be in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, revisiting some locations from my earlier trip where the weather was mostly un-cooperative.
On that occasion my main target was the hillside above Geroldsee, where some alpine cabins decorate the sloping field with the lake and the mountains in the background. I didn't get what I wanted then, so I continued the search for the right conditions on this trip.
The mountains leave the scene largely in shadow at sunset (at least at this time of the year) and also partly at sunrise, so the ideal combination for Geroldsee is probably to have mist which endures for an hour or so after sunrise, allowing some diffused light to illuminate the scene.
When my alarm went at 0430 the following morning the conditions looked quite promising, clear-ish but not quite totally clear. As I drove towards the small village of Gerold the conditions changed dramatically... there was a very thick, very local, rather wet mist hanging over the area - visibility of about 50m.
Things did not quite look so promising at this point, but I still thought it might work so I climbed the hill to get to a good shooting position, my feet truly soaked by the long wet grass of the meadow. The time of sunrise came and went without any major changes in visibility, this may have been a boring passage of time if I had not been joined by a fellow photographer (and optimist) - Patrick Weinhold had arrived and set his tripod up near to mine.
As the sun rose and the mist burned away, we were rewarded for our patience.
It was good to meet Patrick and discuss various photography locations in the area, you can often meet interesting people when setting up your tripod in different locations.
On this occasion the mist made a couple of small comebacks before finally being defeated, offering good variations in the scene, and we tried to make the best of our chances.
This was a good morning after all and I was quite satisfied with events as I walked back towards my car and said goodbye to Patrick and his dog.
I returned to the Werdenfelserei hotel (where I was staying), a completely new hotel which just opened recently, and restored my energy with a truly excellent breakfast. It was a good choice to stay at this family owned hotel, there were still some finishing touches being put to the premises by the builders (it really was that new) but this did not interfere with the experience and it was possible to see immediately from the moment you walked into the reception that they are going to try and do things in the right way there. If they can continue that approach after a month, a year and a decade then it will be a big success.
After breakfast, it was time to get high. Almost 3000m high in fact as I headed to the top of the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany at 2962m. The weather remained variable, cloudy with clear patches, which meant that there was a real risk of not being able to see much at the summit, but this was my only chance to be there so I went anyway.
There are two easy ways to get to the summit of the Zugspitze - you can take the cog wheel train through the mountain to the skiing station and then a short cable car ride to the summit, or you can take the Eibsee cable car directly from the valley floor (beside the beautiful Eibsee lake) up to the summit.
At the ground level cable car station I was able to read that the cable car broke three world records - the longest unsupported span of wire, the biggest difference in altitude from bottom to top and the tallest support tower - for a cable car. This is all very impressive... but if you are slightly nervous about cable cars you really dont want to hear that - you want to know that it has world records for being the safest, smoothest and least frightening.
Despite some reservations, the journey into the clouds was a smooth one. The cable car ascends quickly (the entire journey takes less than ten minutes, the gondola travelling at nearly 40km/h), the first section is a short one, connecting the ground station to the lone support tower (a 127m tall pylon - meaning that you are over 120m off the ground when the car passes). From there the rest of the journey is without support along the the 3213m wire which stretches between the support tower and the summit. The ride as a whole takes you from an altitude of 973m to one of 2950m.
Upon reaching the summit the visibility was about 100m... there was nothing much to see apart from the activities of the Alpine Choughs which were very actively circling above the bratwurst eating visitors on the sun terrace, looking for scraps.
I spent a couple of hours at the summit, hoping for some breaks in the weather, but was not lucky. That is my second time to stand at the very top of Germany, and on both occasions there was nothing much to see... maybe one day I will be third time lucky.
After descending from the mountain I decided to make the short trip to the village of Wamberg... following a narrow single-track road as it wound it's way up a steep slope. I am not 100% sure that it was allowed to drive that road, I could not understand the German signs... so I was prepared to explain that I was an ignorant and apologetic tourist if anyone objected to my presence. At the top of the winding hill there was a beautiful scene... some mountain cabins with the village church in the background. The weather was cloudy, blocking the mountains, and it was the wrong time of day... but this could be an excellent location in the right light. Another time...
In the evening it was time to return to Eibsee, at the foot of the Zugspitze, where I hoped for interesting evening light so that I could take pictures of Frillensee, a very small but very beautiful lake. The light let me down on this occasion, so I tried to find some alternative shots that did not require a beautiful sky.
The next day was sadly my last one for this trip, I always feel so at home when spending time in southern Germany. On my way back to Munich airport I made a slight detour to check in on another favourite destination, the spectacular Neuschwanstein castle. This castle is an amazing subject for photography but it is undergoing renovations at the moment and the main gate is covered in scaffolding, spoiling the views that I like the most at this location. Another hazard is the huge swarm of tourists that gathers every day to visit the castle, so I confined myself to having a look from far away... I mean to revisit this location in a few months after the renovations are completed.
Thanks a lot for reading this post!
Until the next time,
It seems it has been nearly 4 weeks since my last confession... apologies for the delay... the temperature rose suddenly here in Finland and all the plants released their pollen at once, during a period which has been completely without rain. The allergen onslaught has reduced me to a sneezy, snotty, snivelling state which did not help my productivity as I tried to edit my photographs from a trip to Vienna at the start of May.
Vienna, the beautiful capital of Austria, is truly a remarkable city. As with many of Europe's historical capitals, the richness and variety of the architecture and the extravagance of some of the buildings is quite breathtaking. Even amongst it's European rivals I think that Vienna stands out as one of the most impressive cities.
A fine example of this is the majestic building that houses the Natural History Museum (NHM). This imposing palatial structure dates from the end of the 19th century and opens out to an attractive area of gardens, statues and fountains. In many cities there would be no equal for this magnificent building, but this is Vienna - there is an externally identical building at the opposite side of the gardens, this time housing the Art History museum.
The interior of the NHM is perhaps even richer than its exterior due to the period decoration and furniture as well as the fascinating exhibits.
There are so many highlights in Vienna that it is necessary to be selective, I could have been there for many months without running out of subjects, so on this occasion I mostly focused on the lavishly ornate interiors of some of Vienna's beautiful buildings.
Although the NHM and the Art History Museum have identical exteriors the interior space is slightly different, the Art History Museum allows a view down onto the cafe area which you cannot currently get in the Natural History equivalent.
Although the attractions of the old city are concentrated into a reasonably small area, it is still necessary to cover considerable distances in order to visit many of them. In this situation the Vienna U-Bahn is a most valuable resource, by far the easiest and quickest way to move around the city.
My next stop was the Albertina museum, where the period decoration of the opulent staterooms was the main attraction. Perhaps my readers live in a different style of surroundings, but at least to me these rooms were like something from a far off dream.
Wandering around these rooms makes you think that an Austrian version of Downton Abbey might have a rather different colour palette to the original.
As well as the extragavant state rooms the Albertina museum also hosts major art collections (their website proclaims - "from Monet to Picasso, from Chagall to Richter: The ALBERTINA Museum holds works by all of modern and contemporary art history’s great artists") and other exhibitions of artworks and photographs.
Having surrounded myself with these wonderful period interiors for a few hours I decided on a change of tempo and travelled on the U-Bahn to the Donau City area of the city where the the buildings are hundreds of years newer. A particular attraction from my point of view is the DC Tower 1 designed by Dominique Perrault. This building is quite remarkable in that it manages to simultaneously feel geometric and organic. It might be that some of the window offices on the most slanting parts of the building would feel somewhat exposed, and some others might be somewhat in the shadows... but for the outside observer these issues are irrelevant.
A second DC Tower is beginning its construction phase and promises to be an interesting addition to the area. In fact there are a number of interesting buildings Donau City and it was most refreshing to walk around there.
As I have visited different cities over the past few months I have learned to seek out interesting staircases in each destination as their spiral design often makes an excellent subject for photography.
While researching the staircases of Vienna I came across someone who has taken the interest in staircase photography to a whole new level. Christian Öser is a press photographer and author based in Vienna who has taken pictures of hundreds of staircases from all over Europe.
I reached out to Christian to discuss our shared interest and he was kind enough to help me find some great staircases in Vienna.
It is always interesting to see the different "faces" of each staircase (depending on whether you are shooting up, down or at an angle) and also to see the huge variations in appearance that each staircase brings.
Thanks a lot to Christian for his assistance in adding to my staircase collection... now I am only about 200 staircases behind :)
My journey continued with a visit to the State Opera House where I joined a guided tour (as far as I could tell this is the only legal way to get into the theatre with a camera).
I can admit that I paid more attention to my camera than I did to what the tour guide was saying, but I anyway got a good sense of the logistical challenges of enabling multiple performances and rehearsals of different operas on the same stage every single day.
The tour took us through a succession of beautiful rooms, once you get past the magnificent main hall you can see that the rest of the building maintains that high standard.
One big problem with Vienna... I am running out of adjectives to describe these interiors... but I still have more places to mention.
Otto Wagner is perhaps the most famous Viennese architect, responsible for many of the capital's beautiful buildings, and credited with influencing future generations of architects in Vienna and beyond. I decided to travel to one of his buildings, the Post Office savings bank.
Thankful for having had a short break from the buffet of rich colours I was able to head back into the centre to tackle my next destinations, once again making good use the U-Bahn.
One place which is easy to overlook, but definitely worth a visit, is the Austrian National Library where it is possible to visit the splendid staterooms on a "look but don't touch" basis.
Another somewhat hidden gem is the Palace of Justice. This building is still in active daily use and you need to go through "airport style" security in order to enter but nonetheless it is open to the public and you can even visit the rooftop cafe. The interesting part for me was the main hall and staircase, a large space with a central statue which reminds me slightly of the main hall in Natural History Museum in London with its statue of Darwin.
With that, it is time for me to sign off... Vienna is an amazing city and it has wonders around every corner, I hope that it is not my last visit there.
Thanks for reading this far, this post was longer that I expected!
P.S. - I will leave you with one more U-Bahn picture...
The second part of my West Iceland trip was focused on photographing the iconic Kirkjufell mountain and my base for three nights was the town of Grundarfjörður, only a 5 minute drive from Kirkjufell. I had also booked a whale watching boat trip with Laki tours which I hoped would allow me to photograph killer whales.
I allowed myself multiple days to ensure that I had a chance for different weather conditions and hopefully some auroras or starscapes at the iconic location, but I also had thoughts of driving north to see the cool rock formations at Hvítserkur if I had time to spare.
As I write this it still sounds like it was a good plan.
Upon arriving at Kirkjufell for the first time I felt... nothing much. I have visited many places where the experience of being there is amazing, but it is difficult to find a photographic composition that captures the feeling. For me Kirkjufell is the opposite. The Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall and the Kirkjufell mountain provide possibilities for a great looking photograph, but in real life the place just did not speak to me.
The waterfalls, with the mountain peak in the background make for a compact and well balanced frame with around 25mm focal length. With a wider lens and a slight change of angle it is possible to make room for stars or auroras.
When approaching the place from the west you can see that the mountain which looks so symmetrically shaped from a certain angle, is nothing of the sort from most other angles. I had been looking for many kilometres to try and get the first glimpse of the mountain... turns out I had seen it all along and disregarded it as one of the "normal" mountains.
The waterfalls are in two groups, one slightly higher up the hillside and one slightly lower. From the famous pictures you get the impression that they are large and close to the mountain. In reality the scene is not so compact... the waterfalls are small and far away from the foot of the mountain - there is maybe 400-500m in-between. This is quite possible to solve from a photography point of view with the right choice of focal length, angle and perspective... but it left me a bit disappointed visiting in real life.
At Kirkjufell I was ready for photographing the scene in clear conditions, and I was ready for photographing the scene in icy and snowy conditions... but what greeted me was an ugly mixture. The waterfalls were iced over to a grotesque level... the water still flows despite the ice so it was just adding layer after layer of ice on top of each other. It sounds cool... but it looked stupid. The mountain was clear of snow but there were old patches of dirty snow here and there through the scene. The magic of post processing can deal with those to some extent but still the scene was quite messy. The weather was also unpleasant. Hmmm.
I retreated to my accommodation and checked out where I would have to be for my whale watching trip the following day, that now took on the role of the thing I was looking forward to most.
The weather was closing in and a storm was coming... that is sometimes very good news from photography point of view, depending on whether the conditions provide visible drama or just provide darkness and reduced visibility. On this occasion the storm provided nothing positive. The sunset time was obliterated, and so was the sunrise as very heavy winds and constant snow took control of the area. Visibility was about 75 metres and there were thigh-deep snow drifts here and there with other patches totally clear.
My car was blocked in by a snow drift so I left on foot and fought my way to Cafe Emil (great coffee and home made cakes) in the middle of town for my morning coffee. The walk was about 400m, during which time I saw three cars being pulled out of snow drifts by vehicles which I can only describe as monster trucks.
I could see no sense in driving in these conditions and decided to wait out the storm, looking rather enviously at great auroras and clear starry skies in the previous night's pictures from one of my friends who was in the south of Iceland at the same time.
As the morning progressed there were a number of new arrivals in the cafe. They were all wondering what had happened and I was able to understand from their conversations that the storm was very local... a few kilometres in either direction and things looked quite different.
After lunchtime the visibility improved a bit and, having extricated my car, I went back to Kirkjufell where the scene was quite different than the day before, but still not exactly beautiful.
The high winds and minimal visibility had unsurprisingly caused the cancellation of my whale watching trip, I rebooked it for two days later, the last full day of my trip, so I really had to hope for no further weather disruptions.
As evening fell, the weather calmed down a lot, and started to clear. I was finishing a rather good pizza at 59 Bistro Bar in the town when the aurora app on my phone alerted me to the northern lights possibilities for the evening and I was soon on my way back to Kirkjufell.
I arrived at the empty car park and made my way towards the waterfalls. Although the car park was empty I could not be sure that there would not be other photographers in the area so I slowly made my way up the icy trail without using my torch... a torch beam walking through your picture without your control is a total disaster for 90% of night photographs and the last 200m of the trail would be in the frame of anyone shooting the mountain at night. As it happened I was alone when I got to my position, but I set myself up in the dark, having learned to operate my equipment in darkness for just such a situation.
-- complaints section: skip ahead if you rather not read them --
Then it started. Headlights in the car park 400m away... shining into the scene... left on for many minutes. Then, one by one, other photographers made their way up the trail. Torches on full beam, shining here there and everywhere. More headlights, more torches. Perhaps 20 people in total, but one at a time or in small groups. Gradually they arrived beside me. Torches to find the way. Torches to set up their tripod. Torches to change their camera settings. Torches left on the ground shining into the scene while they mess around and talk to each other. Torches to my direction to see who was there (blinded!). The initial fuss took nearly half an hour, which felt like half a day to me... after that it was only occasional as someone needed to change their settings. I was not amused.
If you allow your eyes to get used to the dark and know your equipment you can function perfectly well in real darkness and not interfere with anyone else. If you have to briefly use a light then most lights have lower settings that can be used and also you can direct the beam in a way which doesn't disturb others. If there are some other people out at night causing a lot of light then thats one thing, but you would hope that other photographers might have some understanding of the consequences of their actions and act with a bit more consideration.
-- end of complaints section --
Eventually it was possible to take some pictures, but the northern lights were quite weak by that time and the clouds were coming and going.
On the way back to the hotel I tried to capture the auroras from the other popular Kirkjufell view, it looks almost like a sharks fin when viewed from the other side of the bay.
The following day provided a fresh start. After cloudy beginnings the weather became pleasant and sunny although still violently windy. The storm and the rearrangement of the whale watching had put an end to my ideas of traveling north to Hvítserkur but I felt like I could safely explore a bit closer to my accommodation.
I drove to Stykkishólmur where there is an interesting (but maybe not attractive) modern church in a nice little village.
I then decided to drive towards Ytri Tunga, a beach where there was a good chance to see seals, this having been recommended to me by the staff in Fosshotel Hellnar earlier in the trip. The weather was still bright and sunny but it had started to snow lightly and visibility was a bit difficult when the air was full of snow and the sun was in your eyes. The road conditions were still fine so I continued on my journey. When I arrived at Ytri Tunga, noting a car stuck in the snow near the car park and choosing my parking place carefully, it was indeed possible to see seals playing in the surf. Unfortunately the only angle to photograph them was strongly backlit which was not ideal... but it was fun to watch them for a while.
By now the conditions started to be a bit more extreme, the wind increased again and the snow was beginning to fall more heavily. I thought it wise to head for home.
One of the hazards of traveling in such an extreme but unfamiliar destination is that you can't always tell which routes to avoid. The shortest way back to Grundarfjörður meant taking highway 54 to Olafsvik so I set off on that route, encouraged by the sight of the occasional other vehicles taking the same route. This was not a good idea.
The road conditions became steadily worse as I continued, and I considered turning back, but there was a lot of snow and no places to turn. I could see that there was just a couple more kilometres to go so I decided to continue. As I came round a bend there was a sudden white out, the wind-blown snow and the low sun cutting the visibility to about 15m. I could still see the tall yellow poles at the side of the road so I followed those, I did not brake but I stopped accelerating, controlled a loss of traction pretty well and stayed perfectly in my lane while my car ploughed gently to a stop in the 85cm of snow that had blown in a large drift across about a 10 metre stretch of highway. Stuck. I could not move forward. I could not move back. Hazard lights on. Laugh at myself while feeling mortified that I had become one of those idiot tourists. Become somewhat concerned about my situation and start to put my thoughts in order.
It was about 45 seconds before a snowplough pulled alongside and the driver explained how he was going to pull me out. Clear snow from the front of the car. Find and uncover the recovery point. Find the hook in a tool set near the spare tyre. Attach hook to recovery point. Attach tow rope. Engine in neutral. Back to clear road. Remove rope, remove hook, cover recovery point. Thank my rescuer... many many times.
I would like to thank my rescuer once again here. What he did was hugely helpful, but the way he did it was also very impressive. He was friendly, patient, efficient and did not seem irritated in the slightest. He told me, with a smile, that he had already pulled out many tens of cars during that day, and by the time I was free there were three more cars within 100m waiting their turn for rescue. I imagine he dealt with those just as helpfully and efficiently.
The rest of the return to Grundarfjörður was comparatively uneventful, which was fine by me.
Somewhat reluctant to repeat the circus from the night before, I studied the weather forecasts. I decided to skip the evening session and forget the sunrise, hoping that I could get good conditions and some peace and quiet by going to Kirkjufell at 0400 the next morning. That would allow me about 90 minutes during the full night and the astronomical twilight where it would be optimal conditions for shooting any auroras or starscapes... with any luck no other idiot would be foolish enough to choose to shoot at this ungodly hour instead of in the equivalent light of the evening.
In something of a change of fortunes, this was a good decision :)
The sky was at least partly clear, some wispy clouds came and went. There were noticeable but not dramatic auroras. There were an incredible amount of stars... and it was possible to see the tail of the Milky Way. There were many good elements to play with.
As the astronomical twilight (the period when the sun is between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon) progressed, the auroras faded away, but the clouds also thinned and it was possible to see the Milky Way more clearly.
When I look through the photos that I took during this period, I can see that it is not a universally good idea to get up in the middle of the night after many consecutive days with insufficient sleep. I don't think I was thinking as clearly as I could have when it comes to composing my shots and if I was to be critical then I feel a little bit like I have baked some premium ingredients (i.e. kirkjufell + auroras + Milky Way) into a very ordinary cake.
After a couple of hours additional sleep I left my accommodation and was returned to something approaching consciousness by the excellent coffee in Cafe Emil. The rest of the day would have two main parts, the first and most exciting would be the whale watching trip while the second was the more tedious prospect of driving for many hours to get somewhere close to Keflavik airport ahead of my return flight in the morning.
I think that the whale watching deserves its own blog post, so I will leave details of that for next time. Stay tuned.
The wind was still quite heavy, the road conditions were questionable, and I would have to do much of the driving in the dark, so I tried to limit my stops on the return journey as much as possible. I tried to time it so that I could take a final look at the black church in Búðir at around sunset time. The snow over the previous days had given a new look to the area and it was nice to be there again... despite the three drones zipping about over my head as I tried to take some final pictures.
As I arrived there the afternoon sun was leaving its final marks on the snow covered mountains and the white covering gave the place a peaceful look.
The combination of the heavy winds and the plentiful snow meant that there were many wind-sculpted snow dunes in the area and for my final picture of the trip I tried to make use of those.
Overall, this trip was absolutely fantastic. Iceland is an amazing place to be and provides wonders around every corner, it was great to be there once again. It is not, however, an easy place to be when the weather is harsh and I felt like every day was a battle against something or other. It was tough. From photography point of view it is a great challenge, and one that I am happy to have taken although I consider the results to be a bit of a mixture - some successes and some disappointments.
Thanks for following my blog.
Until next time.
Last week I made my second visit to Iceland, and once again it seemed like my flight had managed to land on a different planet - it is such an extreme and other-worldly experience to spend time in that country. As this trip was a bit longer I will split my field report into multiple blog posts.
My previous visit had taken me along the whole south coast of Iceland, this time I decided to concentrate on West Iceland and the Snaefellsness peninsula. My resting place on the first evening was near to the port of Akranes but I decided to take the scenic route from the airport, driving through Þingvellir national park and visiting the beautiful Bruarfoss waterfall.
Bruarfoss might be the smallest waterfall I have visited in Iceland, but it may also be the most beautiful. The glacial waters have an amazing colour and the river takes a nice winding course via a couple of pools just after the falls. It was also slightly difficult to find... but it was worth some extra effort and I got there eventually.
From Bruarfoss I continued a short distance further inland to visit the thermal area at Haukadalur where there are many active vents, including Geysir - the first widely known example of its kind, responsibile for contributing the word geyser to the English language. These days Geysir is active only intermittently while it's near neighbour Strokkur is much more reliable, spouting water and steam 30m into the air every few minutes. This was an area that was amazing to witness, and to smell, but not really to photograph - the surrounding terrain was a bit of a muddy mess and there were hundreds of people in the way.
I continued to Akranes where I watched the sunset near the old and new lighthouses.
I had understood that there should be an old abandoned boat in a slipway near to the harbour in Akranes and I planned to try and photograph that the following morning... but having explored where I thought it should be, and a few other places as well, I could not find it. Luckily the port was an interesting subject without the abandoned boat and the still waters made for nice reflections in the hours before sunrise.
After my night in Akranes I again took a detour inland on my way up the west coast. Repeating the formula from the day before I headed for the waterfalls of Hraunfossar and Barnafoss (a hundred metres apart - very convenient).
These waterfalls were both fascinating to look at, but when it came to photographing them I did not find inspiration easily. One problem was the light which was too harsh and direct but the other people at the location were perhaps more of an impediment to me.
There were some areas that were fenced off, with many signs asking people to stay behind the fences to protect the vegetation that was holding the riverbank together. I can admit that I have sometimes disregarded such boundaries where doing so involved minor trespassing or minor danger, but in this case I thought that the signs made a sensible request and I decided to respect them even though that meant giving up the best shooting positions. Other photographers had made a different judgement and the protected area was full of people... which, as well as being a bit stupid and disrespectful in my opinion, also meant that they were blocking out the view for anyone trying to observe or photograph from the permitted area.
In the end these obstacles worked to my advantage as I looked for alternative compositions in the area. About 40-50m upstream from the main torrents at Barnafoss I spotted an area where there was a rapid flow of glacial water framed by volcanic basalt and decorated by icicles. A long lens allowed me to capture an other-worldly shot which was quite different and unique despite standing at a popular place surrounded by photographers and selfie-hunters who were all taking the same shots that thousands had taken before.
My next port of call was at Deildartunguhver, another thermal area, this one harnessed for the benefit of the Icelandic population. Boiling water emerges from the depths at a rate of about 180 litres per second and this provides hot water and central heating for most of the houses within a 65km radius. The 64km hot water pipe to Akranes is the longest in Iceland and the water is still about 80 degrees celsius when it arrives at the other end.
After returning to the coast the scenery was quite beautiful on the drive towards the Snaefellsness peninsula.
It is actually a "big problem" from photography point of view because if you stopped every time you got fascinated by the view you could only cover about 10km in 24 hours. When visiting a new part of the country it is extremely difficult to know whether it is a good idea to try and find a place to stop and walk back to shoot. The amazing photos that you imagine from a fast moving car are often illusions, your brain is remarkable in its ability to edit out obstructions and distractions in real time but the camera is not so clever, every power line, bush and rock is fully visible in the photo when you return to the spot. It is very often (but not always) the case that when you stop you end up disappointed and also late for your real destination... and it is also very often the case that you end up full of "maybe I should have..." thoughts any time you don't stop. I have struggled with this on every kilometre of both my Iceland trips.
Eventually, after regretting multiple stops and multiple non-stops, I made it to my next highlight - the black church at Búðir.
This tiny church, in the middle of nowhere, in the shadow of mountains and glaciers, was maybe my favourite destination of the trip. I scouted it out as well as I could before continuing to my accommodation at the Fosshotel in Hellnar. Normally on my Iceland trips the accommodation has been functional and basic but this was a number of steps up from that without a corresponding step up in price, and it also has a nice restaurant. I highly recommend staying here if you are in the area.
After dinner I did some scouting of the nearby attractions and realised I was rather exhausted... I decided to get some sleep, but first I thought to check that the aurora forecast (which did not look encouraging) was correct.
Any time there is a chance to photograph auroras that takes priority over sleep... so I drove the twenty something kilometres back to Búðir.
The little black church is unfortunately (from photography point of view) rather harshly illuminated at night, creating a massive difference in brightness within any scene. Some other photographers had the good idea to cover the main light with a towel which mitigated the problem slightly... and they also had the less good idea of continuously waving their torches around in order to see well enough to adjust their camera settings. It does not take much unwanted light to completely ruin an exposure.
After an insufficient amount of sleep it was time to go back to Búðir once again... this time for the sunrise.
As usual it is the time before the sun appears which is the most interesting, the colours are often quite magnificent and the soft tones are a lot easier to capture than the harsh light and shadows that dominate after the sun makes its entrance.
The area near Hellnar has some beautiful cliffs and beaches, as well as a lighthouse. My plan was to try and add some good seascapes to my portfolio. I am often drawn to that kind of scenery, and very much like other people's seascape pictures, but my own efforts have never been quite as good as I would hope.
At Londrangar there is a good vantage point and a spectacular view over the vertical cliffs, full of nesting gulls... but the composition would benefit greatly from taking 5 steps to the left. Any attempt to do so would not be that wise as the 50m drop to certain death in the Atlantic would rather disrupt your photography session. A drone would be helpful in this situation... but I would like to resist that temptation, I find the constant buzzing of other peoples drones rather irritating and it is an increasingly regular phenomenon at all places of photographic interest, it really takes you (and everyone else) out of the peaceful beauty of a location. Maybe when they are completely silent and one quarter of their current size I can think again.
A short trip around the coast from Hellnar you can find the black sand beach at Djúpalónssandur. As is often the case in Iceland, the prospect of imminent death is waiting for you at this attraction, and you enter at your own risk. In this case the peril is provided by "sneaker waves" as it is in the beaches near to Vik in the south. The beach slopes gently down to the shore, but just beyond the shore it drops off rapidly, creating conditions that are just right for occasional waves to come 15 or 20 metres further up the beach than the waves coming before or after. If you are swept out by one of these sneakers, you will not make it back. As if this danger was not enough, the beach is also guarded by a fearsome Troll woman :)
The beach itself is beautiful as well as deadly, a typical Icelandic black sand and black pebble beach with interesting volcanic rock formations.
Having survived the deadly beach it was time to make my way towards the second part of my trip which I would spend in Grundarfjörður near to the iconic Kirkjufell mountain. The journey from Hellnar to Grundarfjörður would take a little over an hour if you managed to drive without stopping... but such things are almost impossible in Iceland so it took me nearly 3 hours.
One of the regular features of the scenery in Iceland is the lovely Icelandic horse, my friend Bragi Ingibergsson has many beautiful pictures of these animals and I wanted to get at least something to remember them by from this trip.
Besides the horses, another regular feature of the Icelandic scenery is abandoned buildings and machinery in the middle of nowhere. I suppose that the tough conditions will inevitably defeat some of the human settlers and then the low temperatures help to preserve the ruins, such scenes are typical on many of the routes I have driven.
My trip reaches its half way point... and I will save the rest for my upcoming posts.
Thanks for reading my blog and have a good day!
A new destination this time as I took a short family trip to Riga, the capital of the Baltic state of Latvia. Although the flight to Riga is shorter than an hour from (my home airport) Helsinki I had somehow never made the journey before, but it turns out to be a good destination for a city break and and an interesting place for photography. The main point of the trip was to spend some time with my mother, who made the rather more adventurous journey to Riga from the north of Scotland.
The city itself has an interesting mixture of styles. The old town, with some buildings dating from the 1300s, has a number of old churches and interesting buildings and is a small enough area to allow you to explore it in a day. The Daugava river forms the western boundary of the old town and there are some interesting bridges spanning the river.
In the picture above you can see a train crossing "the Railway Bridge" in the colourful time before the dawn. Its steel arches are a great feature, especially at night when they are illuminated. The building in the background is the Latvian Academy of Sciences and the arches of the central market can be seen to the left of the bridge arches.
The central market is a fascinating place in itself. It is housed in five former Zeppelin hangars, huge semicylindrical buildings which are bursting with life during the opening hours every day. You can find all sorts of fresh meat, fish, vegetables and bakeries in the market as well as clothes, bags and other memorabilia in the stalls outside.
It would be possible to spend tens of hours just viewing the different churches and religious buildings in the old town, my favourite of these was the Riga Cathedral which was constructed beginning in 1211 and has been adapted and modified many times over the intervening centuries.
As well as accessing the main area of the church, it is possible to stroll around the cloister, this is all included in the €3 admission price.
Latvian national library
On the other side of the Daugava, the main building of the National Library of Latvia is an imposing presence. Opened in 2014, this iconic building has 13 floors and employs over 400 people. The lines and shapes of the building are interesting both inside and out and the decision to use a large amount of the internal area for an atrium that extends the full height of the building allows for multiple vantage points. It is definitely worth looking around if you are in Riga.
There were many hundreds of visitors to the library when I was there, but the enormous building quickly swallowed them up and I could maintain my normal "no people" style of photography for the most part.
It seems that I quite often find staircases and escalators interesting when photographing in cities, and this was no exception. As well as the fancy criss-crossing staircases pictured above (not the previous picture but the one before), there was also a more functional high capacity evacuation route which caught my attention.
It is often a good idea to check both the "looking down" and the "looking up" views when photographing a staircase, they are often quite different... it is worth investigating even though you have to climb all the stairs to find out.
The TV Tower
One of the more surprising attractions in Riga is the soviet-era tv broadcast tower. At 368 metres high, this is seemingly the tallest tower in the European Union, the 3rd tallest on the European continent (after the tv towers in Kiev and Moscow) and the 15th tallest in the world.
Situated on Zakusala island, in the middle of the Daugava river, it dominates the surroundings. The tower is accessible with a walk of around 40 minutes from the old town but it is possible to drive right to the base of it if you have access to a car.
From the base of the tower it is possible to ascend in a custom made elevator up one of the legs of the structure. As you might notice the legs are not vertical so the elevator has to make a curving, diagonal journey up to the viewing level (the lower windows in the red part of the the structure) at 97m. From this level it is possible to get panoramic views to all directions, and even though it is "only" 97m high that already makes a huge difference to the view.
The best time to visit this tower from a photography point of view would be in the middle of winter as it is the only time of year when the sunrise, sunset and even darkness hours coincide with the opening hours. The distance to the city and the heat haze during the day, combined with whatever has accumulated on the windows since their last wash, make it challenging for daytime photography.
I understood from the helpful staff member on duty that the tower would be renovated in the next 12-18 months to allow even higher viewing points for visitors, possibly including an open air viewing deck... that will not be for the faint hearted.
The Art Nouveau district
Another highlight that was well worth a visit is the Art Nouveau district. There are a few blocks of really amazing buildings as well as the wonderful "Art Cafe Sienna" which has a selection of amazing cakes, an extensive range of teas and excellent coffee, all of which can be enjoyed in really beautiful surroundings.
My main target when visiting this area was another staircase, this time at the Art Nouveau Museum, perhaps my second favourite staircase so far after the lightbulb staircase in Prague. The Riga staircase is very ornate and beautifully designed.
One major challenge when trying to photograph this staircase is the lighting. There are some large windows at various points going up the stairs, they present something of a difficulty as even when they are hidden from view they still contribute light from unwanted directions... but the bigger annoyance is the motion sensitive lighting that is deployed at various points. The slightest movement or any coming and going caused changes in the lighting conditions, sometimes in the middle of an exposure. Luckily I had time and space to be somewhat patient at this location, it would have been more irritating if time was short.
My final destination in Riga was the Sky Bar in the Radisson hotel. What a perfect place to observe a winter sunset, bringing another trip to a conclusion.
My next trip, in a week's time, will take me to the west coast of Iceland, I am very much looking forward to that. Hopefully the weather will cooperate and I can come back with some good pictures.
Thanks for reading!
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