Art of Landscapes
The Bavarian Forest
The tension mounts. He’s walking towards me and looking at me straight in the eyes – I know this is it. Finding yourself in direct eye contact with a wolf takes you back to the wild: it’s an experience you’ll never forget and this encounter is sending shivers down my spine, despite the fact I am trying to concentrate on capturing the shot.
I’m working with the Big Gun today, my EF 500mm f/4 L IS. In this white world, I need to keep an eye on my exposure to ensure I don’t underexpose, which means a slower shutter speed. But is it fast enough to freeze the moment? Do I need to raise the ISO? Every second seems like an eternity but I just shoot, aware that there will be no second chance. The shutter rattles as I fire away, focussing on the wolf’s eyes. He’s still there, still walking towards me. But 30 seconds later it’s all over – and he’s gone.
Was it all real? Did that really just happen? Well yes, it did. The moment was real, intense and unforgettable. But this wolf wasn’t completely wild: he and his pack live in one of Germany’s large enclosed areas for wildlife, known as a Tierfreigelände. So welcome to the Bavarian Forest, a wooded low-mountain area in the south of Germany that extends into the Czech Republic. This forest offers some great opportunities for landscape and nature photographers – especially in winter.
Back in the Netherlands, I’m always surprised that the whole country grinds to a halt when just a little snow falls: roads become slippery slopes, and public transport ceases to run. But in the south of Germany they know how to deal with a little bit of winter. The roads stay perfectly drivable and it’s easy to travel everywhere, which means that all the parks and key locations remain quite accessible during wintry weather.
In fact, we discovered that we had planned our own visit to the National Park area of the Bavarian Forest perfectly: winter was in full swing with freezing temperatures and plenty of snow. In addition, the hotel we had booked was great with a free spa, so Janneke was having a ball as well. We were there for a whole week: to enjoy the scenery, and hopefully to capture some great images.
Our trip started well with these wolf shots in one of the country’s largest Tierfreigeländes, where wolves, lynx and even bears roam in large contained areas. As a result of this environment, these animals still display a certain amount of natural behaviour. For a nature photographer this can result in some memorable images, ones that are almost impossible to capture in the wild.
I was only carrying my 500mm lens on a sturdy tripod equipped with a gimbal head, then a large rucksack with all my other gear. The forest had seen some heavy snowfall the week before our arrival, and although this was great for enhancing the scenery, it had its downsides too. Ploughing through inches of snow with all my gear really tested my fitness, especially as these wildlife enclosures are pretty large. But as usual, it was a case of ‘no pain, no gain’.
Yet there were plenty of moments when it was just a case of sitting and waiting, as was the case with this image of the European pine marten. I knew she was at home, so I posted myself in front of her little front door with my 500mm lens on a 1.4 extender – and just waited. And after a couple of failed attempts, she poked her head out just long enough for me to make the shot.
It’s these simple, brief moments that can completely make my day – just one moment, the pine marten and me. Not a bad start for Day One. But this trip wasn’t all going to be wildlife photography: landscapes would remain the core. So it was onto higher ground and into the mountains for some location scouting for the next couple of days.
In fact, the very next day was earmarked as a ‘landscape day’. And with beautiful blue skies and some great light, I felt like a kid in a candy store. But at one location we visited we were in for a surprise. Parking our car near a beautiful pine forest covered in fresh snow, we went in search of some photo opportunities.
This search started very well, but within half an hour we realized that we had walked straight into a long distance cross-country skiing race! What we had thought was a walking trail, turned out to be a ski trail. We quickly abandoned the spot in search of an alternative, although I had managed to bag the Winter Wonderland shot before we departed.
This alternative soon presented itself as we made our way back to the hotel. Tired and cold, we were longing for a hot shower and meal, but while we were driving back my eye caught sight of a small lonely tree in a white field, backed by an overcast sky – a very simple and minimalistic image. I quickly realized that the hotel would have to wait, so I turned the car around at the next junction.
As I parked the car next to the field with the tree I had already visualized the image. To make it happen I would need my 16-35mm lens with an ND 0.3 grad grey soft filter, but I would have to use the filter in an unconventional way. The foreground was too bright and needed holding back, so I turned the filter upside down to allow the sky to dominate and to hold back the foreground – this was the only way to create the shot and to achieve a balanced exposure.
In the end, this simple and fairly easy image has become one of the key images in my portfolio and it is still widely published today. I also use this image in my lectures and talks as an example of an if-you-see-an-opportunity-grab-it image – even if you are cold and tired.
The rest of the week continued to provide some great photo opportunities, as there are many beautiful viewpoints in the forest from which perfect views over the hills and valleys can be seen. On one such occasion, cold air flowed through the valley below to bring an even more arctic feeling to the already frozen landscape so I made a panorama to capture the full vista, shown in the Cold Valley image. This shot didn’t prove easy: I had to work fast, as moisture on my camera and lens was already starting to freeze.
Many photographers think of the Bavarian Forest as a wildlife destination, and that is certainly the case. But for me, it’s a hidden gem for landscape photography with a lot to offer us, from high viewpoints, dense forest and even wide-open fields. In one week, I only scratched the surface.
Article By Bas Meelker