Travelling & Photographing the Dolomites
The Dolomite Alps – Le Dolomiti
My 2018 Dolomites photography workshop is full, please see the 2019 Dolomites Photography Workshop here
Please note this is an old blog, I have since spent another 2 months in the Dolomites, visiting in summer, autumn, and some crazy hikes in winter, for an update when my new Dolomites blog is published, please subscribe to the newsletter below.
The Dolomites had lingered on my list of places in which to venture forth, and embark on some photography, for some time, until finally in July 2017 I saw an opportunity to visit en-route to the UK, after a three-month spell running photography workshops in Greece and Cyprus. Alas, stopping off in Italy en-route to the UK failed to materialise for several reasons.
Finally, late this autumn, I boarded a flight to Venice and began a two week trip, with the intention of it serving the purpose of a reconnaissance mission for a future Dolomites workshop.
You can see my Dolomites Workshop here, or at the foot of the page after the travel blog.
Apparently you should save the best until last, not possible within this blog however, as right at the end of the trip, perched on the Passo Falzarego, shooting the Ursa Major Constellation at twilight, I not only witnessed an awesome spectacle, but managed to capture it on camera too.
So, luckily, I had my composition looking northward over La Villa, in Alta Badia (South Tyrol) and was busy with a 35 mm lens, capturing the night which had a nice pink hue due to the dusk light having almost gone, although a slight, pale afterglow lingered, enhanced by the camera sensor and relatively high ISOs being used. Coming to the decision that I needed to get tighter into the stars for more definition, I proceeded to start reaching for my second camera with a 50 mm lens attached.
Whilst doing this, a glimmer of light shot through the air, I stood in awe at its intensity, the elevated position at which I was situated meant that this seemed to streak through the sky and proceed toward the tiny town below.
As it burnt out, and the light from it faded and fizzled, then died, I waited for the crash below and possible annihilation; adamant it was going to take out the valley.
Nothing occured, just the silence of the mountains, and the rasp of the icy wind that was increasing its assault on my face.
It all happened within a few seconds, but as always with these things, time slowed and seemed to pause during the event.
My senses caught hold of me, a buzz of excitement rushed through my body, I raced to my camera on the tripod like an excited child; one thing I recalled, whilst time had appeared paused, was the clicking of the shutter during the event. Realising I had an eight second exposure I had triggered before reaching for the second camera, as I reached for the playback button, I knew it had clicked whilst the asteroid was still visible, had it caught any of it?
Turns out it was the most ever reported Meteor in the world, period!
A huge thanks to The American Meteor Society who started the frenzy that was to follow over the next 72 hours. I forget how many times I pulled over to answer the phone on the way to Venice airport, two days after it was actually shot, as the guys at the European Space Agency got excited over it, then proceeded to make the image their home page banner and pushed it out on their social media, sending it viral. It also ended up on NASA Image of the Day.
Time of Year
So why the start of November? It takes only a little research to show that this is the time of year the weather can turn, cable cars have stopped ferrying people to the peaks, and overall the region supposedly becomes an uninhabited wilderness (if you are to believe comments on Google), complete with ghost towns that apparently, do not have any inhabitants.
Naturally, not all of this is true!
But if it were, perfect!! At least from a landscape photographers point of view: nobody trudging around needing to be cloned out, no light painters at night messing up shots, and if the snow comes, pristine white, contrasting with golden hues as the larch trees clung to the last of their autumn coats.
In reality, many of the retail shops do close as this is ‘off season’, convenience stores may close earlier, and there are some restaurants that close, however, many are to be found open in all the larger villages and towns.
There are still hikers, and a photographer or two meandering around, and popular locations like Lago Di Braies still attract visitors, although I had it to myself at night.
Driving through the Veneto region, the weather was warm and sunny, and the golden larches littered the landscape contrasting against the deep blue skies in the Alpine landscape.
The weather however did turn, on the 5th of November, in the form of a heavy snowfall. The satellites had been showing some heavy sh*t coming for days, serious snow, so I was well equipped, but up against it to get to one of the locations I had prioritised!
Having only arrived on the 3rd, this meant making the summit of Seceda priority; it was this iconic peak that first attracted me to the area.
The round trip hike from Ortisei was a long one that’s for sure, around 11 km to be precise, and around a 1600 metre incline and return decline.
Although the sun was warm hiking up, the windchill was pretty harsh at the summit where air tempartures were perceived to be in their minuses.
Although the light was pretty unspectacular, I ended up with a few really nice shots approaching the summit of the distant peaks with the sun glistening off the tops, but there was flat light on the summit.
Typically it then became overcast for a few hours at nightfall; waiting around for a several hours, the handful of people who had been on the summit had begun the return leg, it was almost time to give up, until a small, hazy window appeared through the cloud revealing some hazy stars, depicted in the image to the top right.
The Passo Gardena, (Gardena Pass in English) was the route chosen from Alta Badia, both to and from Ortisei (situated in the Val Gardena district), I could not help myself from blasting out this pano en-route home, although you could barely see a star, the skies were moving so fast, and the moonlight. Oh the moonlight! I feel I didn’t do it justice, it was spectacular.
The heavy snowfall was, typically, heavier than predicted, ridiculously heavier then predicted in fact. So lets put some emphasis on the word ‘heavy’, to say deep would be an understatement. Watching it snow all night off the balcony, situated in a beautiful location in Alta Badia called La Val, it didn’t take a genius to figure that this was going to change the dynamics of the trip; thankfully preparations had been made, thus correct clothing and micro crampons etc had made the trip with the rest of my gear.
We received around a metre of snow on the lower ground and had to dig the car out, it continued on and off throughout the day, and the next day; locals exclaimed they had not seen snow of this quantity, this early in November, for several years.
Naturally the statement was delivered with a wry smile, and rightly so; the Dolomites have seen one or two bad ski seasons of late, so much so that 4,700 snow-blowers had to be implemented to keep the piste covered for skiing! These things tarnish the landscape somewhat in areas, global warming to thank.
Read more about Dolomite snow-blowers and recent issues with lack of snow on TIME.
The winter weather rendered the landscape absolutely stunning. Five minutes down the road from the apartment, and it was possible to shoot landscapes such as the ones above! In fact, I spent the day in the area just watching the cloud cover and uncover the valley, and at times, completely engulf myself, and the Nikons!!
Driving through Alta Badia
Giau Pass had been another location that was a dead cert. They do an excellent job of keeping the passes open in winter in the Italian Alps, so getting up onto the high pass was not a problem, a little hairy coming down on the frozen hairpins (snow blows off the trees and welds itself to the shady corners), low gears were the order of the day travelling back down at night, and it’s advisable to try and have a good idea of the weather when you are up there; hit some horrible conditions high up on the Sela Pass, so bad I had to re-route or risk the night in the car.
But the Giau Pass was simply spectacular, with amazing views like the one above and below looking to Monte Cristallo.
Giau Pass was so intriguing I visited it two days on the bounce to shoot at golden hour and capture the pink hues on the summits, then proceeding to nightscapes under the amazing starlight.
One thing the large quantity of snow did hinder was trails, so they were hard to find, even the trail to Croda da Lago had disappeared under a deep blanket of snow. In places the stream had been completely covered and it was impossible to see where the trail was, or what you were walking on, so with no guide, I turned back vowing to return October 2018; I continued to meander around the top area of the pass, often falling waist deep in snow drifts …… nope, no snow shoes, or tennis rackets.
La Val, situated within Alta Badia was base camp for the start of the trip.
This location was used for the just under two-hour trip to Santa Maddalena (turned out to be the Achilles heel of the trip weather-wise), the 1.5 hour journey to Ortisei and the hike up Seceda, plus a visit to the the Pragser Wildsee (Lake Braies in the Prags region of the Dolomites; Lago Di Braies), although I had to return here on another occasion from accommodation to the south of Cortina d’Ampezzo.
La Val made for an excellent location from which to explore the northern Dolomite vicinity, and the accommodation was beautiful, to a high standard, and at a very reasonable price.
Lago di Dobbiaco was also discovered whilst staying in the northern region, it was by accident after leaving Pragser Wildsee. After discovering it on the map, I consulted a guide book I had along on the trip called ‘Photographing the Dolomites‘ (I cannot recommend this book enough and you can read my review here).
The author, James, had mentioned it, but it looked a little unexciting to say the least; however, as it was close, what the hell I thought, let’s pay a visit, and I was glad I did.
Even though the light was off the lake by this point, a brilliant mist rolled around Lago di Dobbiaco, often consuming me.
I changed my plans to co-ordinate with a night shoot at this location, hoping the mist clung to the water under the starlight; lady luck was on my side.
The photo in the centre below is one of my favourite from the trip, the brightest star is Fomalhaut, also designated Alpha Piscis Austrini, is the brightest star in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus and one of the brightest stars in the sky; no filters, and just one 15 second exposure created the shot, within 20 minutes, the mist had vanished.
I crossed the Falzarego Pass multiple times, and the scenery is stunning on the approaches, and on the top; again, I didn’t get to visit all the areas I had intended, partly this time due to a twisted ankle that occurred whilst shovelling snow off the drive one morning to get the car out!
As Samuel L Jackson would probably say “Mother****er!”, it gradually got worse the more I drove, trying to climb a piste in the snow became it’s final straw, and from then on I hobbled, and moaned.
Driving over the Passo Falzarego
Back, Back, Back & Forth
Sometimes you have to visit an area multiple times, and still you don’t get the shot, this was certainly the case with Funes (Santa Maddalena), I gave up in the end and went and stayed nearby for a few days to get the shot, and still, it lacked light.
In light of this, I passed over the Passo Gardena several times, and finally decided to climb (limp) further up the hill one day to shoot the ridges making up the north side of the Sella Group, there is actually a glacier lake up there, well, proglacial as the glaciers recede, Lech dl Dragon.
The amount of miles, or kilometres as they were easier to measure, on the European continent covered on this trip was insane, for it was not just about trying to create a mini portfolio, with a few decent shots along the way, but also to get a real feel for the area, and understand how the light worked on location at certain times of day, where various constellations were at this time of the year against which backdrops; and also gain an understanding of navigating the region.
The Dolomites Journey
So, the success of the trip overall? Well, it can only be deemed as a result really. Photographically, I gained a shot of a lifetime, although this is my second such shot, so let’s hope they come in threes! I also nailed maybe one or two other high-calibre shots, and built a small portfolio of reasonable works in the space of 13 days; not bad considering two of those days were spent returning to Venice and back!
Workshop reconnaissance wise? Yeah, I’m ready to be able to safely guide a team out there in October, get them to locations when the light may be favourable, and that work well at night; more to the point, to be able to deliver a standard of tuition based around what we aim to shoot at the chosen destinations. It’s a stunning region, ideally suited to photography workshops due to the ease of access, and hiking trails suited to beginners; although my team will be in for one heck of a decline hike down from Seceda, but it’s well worth it!
On a personal level, so much to discover and learn about this region, i’ll return prior to my October 2018 Dolimites Workshop, even if it’s a week or so on the ground on the run up. So much to explore, so many opportunities, I cannot stress enough how breathtaking it actually is; certainly something different from my Iceland and Scotland workshop locations, which was needed.
Lot’s to learn about the culture of the region too, from the glitsey Italian influenced town and area surrounding Cortina d’Ampezzo, to the Ladina speaking and German influenced areas of Alta Badia and Funes, that naturally merger and spill into each district as the cultures combine (not disimialar to many European boarder areas), and hardly surprising the South Tyrol is autonomous. You would need years here to get to grips with the hundreds of regional and area names, not to mention the thousands of Tyrolean mountain, ridge, pass and peak names.
Li Dolomiti, where Italy and Austria adjoin, quite simply breathtaking, and a must for anyone even toying with the idea of travelling to the South Tyrol province.
Airports – Milan, Verona, Venice, and Innsbruck.
Train – Belluno, Balzano Brunico, and Fortezza, there are then excellent public transport links by bus.
Road – The roads are of a high standard and the driving is relatively easy (though make sure you have a head for heights if you intend to navigate certain mountain passes; the main roads in from the south are the A22 and A27, and the A13 from the north (Austria) adjoining the A22.
Again, ‘Photographing the Dolomites’ is highly recommended and exact busses and travel routes are clearly explained within.
Dolomites Photography Workshop
The Dolomites Landscape and Night Sky Workshop
15th – 20th October 2019