Welcome back, friends! Or should I welcome myself back here since I’ve been quite caught up with small side projects in the last two months. But I’m back and ready to roll!
So let’s see what do I have in my sleeve at the end of this extremely warm winter. Nothing else but a winter landscape photography discussion. This talk is based on a very short trip into the Ciucaș Mountains (Romania) that I and two friends of mine took last weekend.
OK, let’s do it, quickly, until the last spots of snow here and there are gone and then this whole thing would seem out of place. Who loves snow photos and winter talks during the start of a fresh beautiful spring …
Landscapes have always been fascinating for both the casual viewer but also for its seeker, the photographer. There is an intense connection between the viewer and the photographer. While the viewer is transported to the artist’s unique perspective of the reality, the photographer enters another realm, multi-dimensional, in order to understand and capture a message or a story that nature is sending us. You could call the image a translation of that message. A translation that can stir different emotions and feelings in each and every one of us.
Landscape photography is part of the broader genre of Travel photography. Although today it might seem that travel photography is something trivial and very easy to achieve due to the multitude of spectacular content provided through social media, it actually requires a lot of knowledge and planning. It is almost a way of life. For professional landscape and travel photographers, I mean. Posting my occasional trip photographs does not make me a landscape or travel photographer. But it is one of the things that I love to experiment and, why not, maybe one day I can ‘git gud’ enough to become more dedicated in a professional way.
There are a few things that can sum up the life of a landscape photographer. It starts with a lot of patience, solid planning (from the gear packing, transportation and the trip itself), area scouting, and it ends with having the right tools and gear and of course photography skills and knowledge. And time! Aaaaand some good physical condition would surely be beneficial. And luck. But I’d add that in this field most of the time you make your own luck with knowledge.
So, the first thing you need in order to do landscape photography is to … have a landscape to capture, right? That’s easier said than done. This trip to Ciucaș Mountains was specifically planned for photography. Well, almost. When it comes to mountain hiking and landscape ideas I have one solid source of information: my friend Dragoș. Dragoș is an experienced mountaineer (and also an occasional guide).
In the last months, we had many talks about going to some places he knows, in the mountains, where I could capture some amazing photographs. My only problem is my extremely poor physical condition (three stair flats are quite enough for me). So, after many months of talks and propositions finally, we synchronize our timings right after the first and only snow in Romania this winter, somewhere at the beginning of February.
The chosen destination was proposed by him as the easiest for me, considering my lack of experience with winter hiking and, of course, my splendid physical condition. The goal was to reach Ciucaș Peak (1954 m, part of Ciucaș Mountains and Curvature Carpathians) and capture some beautiful panoramic shots from there. Don’t worry I didn’t get there. I died ten thousand times.
Our time window was one day and a half while spending the night at the Cabana Vârful Ciucaș. The weather forecast was encouraging (for photography) with both days as sunny, but with temperatures as low as -13 °C and -19 °C. So I had to take extra measures. Our plan was to reach some good areas at the time of the sunset. Or get up early for the sunrise and position ourselves in some rewarding vantage points. Another thing I was very intrigued about was the fact that we were going to have an impressive Full Moon ( a snow moon), and I had some hopes for moonlight landscapes.
Similar to the trip to Iceland, I opted for multi-layer clothing with water and windproof top layers. This time instead of the thin jacket I chose an old winter (skiing) jacket. Next, was a warm hoodie with a zipper, a merino long sleeve, and a t-shirt. As for the legs, the same water and windproof pants (they are just amazing) that I can put them over anything. This time, I had the jeans with some long johns underneath. Over the waterproof pants I also used waterproof leg gaiters (I had to google the English expression for these). And some very nice new boots that I bought with this occasion.
What was needed: as little as possible luggage. What I wanted to pack: all the lenses, all the accessories, all the cameras. So I had to prioritize. My main camera body, my new 70-200mm lens (hello there! we didn’t present ourselves, did we), the 14 mils, batteries, cards, filters, and the tripod. These were the minimum necessary. But the 14 and the 70 to 200 seemed a little extreme, what if they were TOO extreme for this trip?
Since I’ve never been there it was difficult to make safe cuts in the gear department. That’s why it is so important the knowledge of the place for the landscape photographer. So I took the 24 to 70 mm lens for safety reasons. Proved to be the least used lens.
Next, tripod. Absolutely necessary, proved a bit useless for most situations. Mostly because I felt like being on the run most of the trip, while barely walking through the snow with walking sticks – the last thing I needed was to mount and dismount the tripod now and then, here and there. But I carried it with me all the time. Better safe than sorry.
I also packed a GoPro Hero 5 camera, just for the time-lapse capability. At first, I wanted to borrow from my office the Panasonic Lumix GH5 camera, just for this reason. Because my Canon 6D does not have this gem of a feature. But it would have been too much for my bag. And my back.
Other important accessories were my lens and camera cleaning pouch. Proved to be essential.
To get there is not very complicated, especially if you are coming from Bucharest. Take the DN1A road to Cheia resort and at some point, you can park your car in a parking lot near Fabrica de Apă. From there you have several options detailed in Romanian here. We chose the option where we asked for a 4×4 off-road car from the Cabana Vârful Ciucaș to take to their HQ (our destination). I totally recommend this place but mind that it is usually fully booked so an early reservation is required.
This place has very nice rooms with great views, extremely warm (we had to open the windows at midnight although outside was a blizzard) which is good. They also have a nice restaurant with everything you need.
Once we got there, we prepared for the expedition. I checked all my gear, put the spare camera battery in a pocket near my body to keep it warm, equipped all the wind and waterproof layers, buckled my camera around my shoulder and we were ready to go. One last thing: which lens should I go with first? The long one? The wide one? Naah, the safe one. So I started the trip with the 24 to 70 mm lens. I also mounted the UV filter and a CPL filter.
NOW, I was ready to go.
Needless to say that 10 meters from the building I stumbled in the snow on our path. I mean, I really really stumbled I couldn’t pull my feet off the deep snow. A very good start for the journey ahead.
My poor physical condition showed its limit quite soon. What seemed an easy hike, for me was a bit difficult. The gear bag on my back was not so heavy (3-4 kilos, maybe 5, tops). The path we had to walk was not difficult at all, Dragoș kept reminding me “This is the easiest possible path!”. I gotta say I whined over 3000 in my head halfway through the hike.
The landscape, for a change, was absolutely stunning. Perfect winter views everywhere you turned your head. Unfortunately, the skies were murky and gloomy, with a shy sun hiding beyond some low clouds.
To my surprise, there were plenty of people on the path. Some returning from the Ciucaș Peak, others going the same direction with us.
I had a very slow pace, because I was stopping here and there to capture some shots, departed from the walked path in order to get different vantage points, but mostly because I’m totally out of shape.
Finally, we got to a peak, not THE peak, where we did a short shooting session with the newfound sun. A sun closing to the sunset, which was perfect. I took some great shots with both the 14 mm and the 70-200 mm.
The missed opportunity
We decided not to pursue the Ciucaș Peak any further since the sun was coming down quite fast. So we returned.
On our way back the sunset was just too gracious with me. The aforementioned peak was perfectly lit with its last warm rays. Like in a portrait session. I used my 70-200 for some really nice shots. At some point, I had to mount the tripod. The only time during the trip. I wanted to capture a panorama in portrait camera position. And I also wanted the images to be sharp and clear.
I took two panoramas one at 127 mm, the other one at 70 mm. The one at 127 mm is one of my favorites and it took 11 photos. The two characters barely distinguishable, but yet unmissable due to their colors, give scale to the whole landscape. The image is displayed above, before the moon shot. Because it would have been too easy to just post the image right after this paragraph, right?
So what was the missed opportunity?
As I said, on our way back, the sun was graciously shedding its last light, making a great introduction to a stunning, marvelous Full Moon. Not quite full, the next day the Moon was at it’s ‘fullest’, but still, a wonderful sight. Which gave me a great chance at using the 200s of my 70-200 mm lens. And I took that chance and also said Thank you, Moon! But.
There is the ‘but’. We ended our trip for the day and went to our room to prepare for dinner. I, for one, did not eat anything all day. I was famished. And destroyed after the light trip :). Once we enter the room (which was really-really hot) after several hours at -15, my camera went full condensing-shit mode right away. I knew it would happen but the room did not have a balcony so I didn’t have any choice. BUT!!!
But when we went out, to go to the restaurant … The sky was all indigo, so clear, with no clouds, just this weird indigo color. And the Moon at its brightest right in the middle of it. The sight was stunning. Dragoș almost begged me to go get the camera. But. I knew it was already soaking wet, so there was no way I would risk damaging the electronics. But it would’ve been perhaps one of my best shots. The frame was just perfect with the Moon looming above the pine trees covered with snow. And that indigo sky … Damn. Luckily I had my phone that A.I.-ed the shit out that frame and took all of its charm.
Moonlight landscape photography
I’m not sure if this term really exists in this form, but I’m too lazy to search at this hour. For sure, I know it is a thing. And I wanted to experiment it that night. No matter how tired I was. After dark, I took my tripod the camera and two lenses (the 24-70 and the 70-200) and went outside. Only to be welcomed by a massive wind and cold. Really really cold.
The light was perfect. Unfortunately, all the surrounding buildings had quite strong light projectors that could reach quite far. I hardly found a spot where I could frame something without any of those lights. But still, the biggest problem was the wind. I needed some long exposures but it was quite impossible to do that. I had to hold the tripod with both hands so it wouldn’t be obliterated by the wind. Somewhere above there is the only reasonable photo I could capture that was not very blurred by the tripod movements.
It was a very interesting experience and definitely I have to try again. There is something quite different at moonlight landscape photography.
The end and full gallery
The next day I woke up quite early so I had a chance at capturing some sunrise photos, but from the room windows. My first sunrise in some years. :). I also used the GoPro for some interesting cloud forming phenomenon
So this is pretty much all about last weekend’s trip. It was rejuvenating for me and I am very happy with what I came back. Gotta thank my friends Dragoș and Alexandra for their patience with my lazy ass. And my wife for trusting me to come back alive.
The title and spirit of this post were inspired by Two Steps from Hell songs, especially Winterspell from the Skyworld album.
Thank you, friend, for reading and please leave a comment below if you’d like to ask or share anything related winter landscape photography, moonlight photography or really anything else.
Have a great spring, cheers!