Seiser Alm Revisited
What inspires you as a landscape photographer? Which spot(s) call to you in your dreams? For the last three years I've had a series of muses. In 2021 it was the satellite communication centre in Raisting at the southern tip of lake Ammersee. Last year it was the Eisenberg, a hill near Füssen with two castle ruins and a lovely view into the Alps of the eastern Allgäu. My love for the area even saw me getting up for a dawn raid in the autumn, hoping to catch some mist rising over the fields.
This year it's the Seiser Alm, Europe's largest high plateau situated near Bozen in Italy. We first came here in September 2001 to celebrate the kids' first birthday and thoroughly enjoyed it. We've spent a lot of time in the Dolomites over the intervening years, but never returned until this February for a week's cross country skiing. The plateau offers a fabulous network of ski tracks with a jaw-dropping backdrop of mountains. The area is dominated by three stand-out ranges. The first mountain that you see as you reach the Alm, whether by road or by cable car from Seis is the Schlern, a high flat ridge that ends in two prominent needle-like peaks. Then as you arrive on the plateau, your eye is immediately drawn to the twin peaks of the Langkofel and Plattkofel, an incredibly photogenic formation of long slopes and jagged pinnacles.
As you progress onto the Alm, you begin to get glimpses of the famous Seceda ridge and the accompanying Fermeda peaks. From the Alm they're not normally as eye-catching as from the top of Seceda, but under the right conditions, they are also worth the photographer's attention.
After our week of cross-country skiing, we decided that we needed to come back in the Autumn to hike and catch the autumn colours. And so we found ourselves driving back over the Brenner pass at the end of September to spend four nights in the wonderful Dibaita Puflatsch. Although relatively rustical, the Rifugio punches well above it's weight culinarily, and we always looked forward to coming back to Jesko's locally sourced four course meals in the evenings. Being offered the informal 'du' address on the second evening was a plus too.
Although Sharon and I packed in some fantastic hikes on our five day trips, even surprising ourselves with the number of metres ascent we were achieving, I'd really hoped for some vibrant autumn colours. Sadly, the beginning of October was full summer still, colours, temperatures and all.
As well as the four nights on the Alm, we planned in two stops; one on the way there, one on the way back. On the outward journey we turned off the Autostrada one exit early and found ourselves in the absolutely beautiful village of St. Magdalena in Val di Funes. There are principally two stunning photo opportunities here - one the church of San Giovanni standing alone on a meadow in front of the magnificent Geisler range. The second is the collection of houses around the church of Santa Magdalena in with the same backdrop. I immediately fell in love with the place even though the midday light wasn’t the best and we were still lacking the autumn colours. I knew that this would be a place that I would visit again and again.
We were fortunate that our trip at the beginning of October coincided with the Almabtrieb - the autumn cattle drive to bring the cows and sheep down to the lower pastures or barns for the winter. Although it's not quite the event that it is in Bavaria and Tyrol (see here). The cows with the highest milk yield for the year receive the special honour of a floral wreath to wear.
On the way back we stopped at Ortisei to head up on the Seceda cable car. Again, an absolute must shoot in the eastern part of the Dolomites. The jagged ridge leading up to the Fermeda peak and beyond is pastoral to the south with its grassy slopes and formidable to the north, dropping down steeply to the Val di Funes where we'd started our tour. Although the true classic view of the ridge is actually from the second drop here, my eye was caught by three foreground features; the striated rocks to the right, the cairn garden at the bottom and the golden patch of autumnal monkshood. In the summer this provides a meadow of lush blue blooms that has been mistaken for lupin.
And... ...Back (Again)
I came away after a great break with some good photos but not feeling satisfied with the colour palette (yeah, picky I know). And so three weeks later I found myself back in Ortisei and Compatsch, this time with my good friend Matthias. The weather was… …challenging, but the colours had arrived. Not only that, but there was a scattering of fresh snow on the tops.
We started off at Rifugio Fermeda underneath Seceda - easily accessible from the Col Raiser cable car, but by the time we'd climbed up to the ridge the weather had socked in. We just had time to take a couple of shots of the ridge with clouds forming on the north side. Despite the 400 m ascent to the ridge, Fermeda not only provides the best option
Dawn on day two showed promise. The manager at Rifugio Fermeda knows her clientele and explained which doors we could use in the wee hours to get out (should we need to). We'd scouted out our dawn photography spots the night before so that we wouldn't be stumbling about cluelessly in the pre-dawn light. If you have the chance, always go the extra mile and do this. We located a small lake near the hut where we focused our efforts and were well rewarded. We elected to forgoe a 2 h round-trip back up to the ridge - though looking at Matthias' drone shot this may have been a poor decision.
This last shot alone was reason enough to not regret hiking back up to the ridge before breakfast. We were off to a good start.
Day two saw us up on the Seiser Alm. Finding accommodation so late in the year wasn't easy, and certainly wasn't cheap. The first afternoon saw us wandering around aimlessly in the mist looking for subjects. After a completely rainy night though we woke to a strip of light on the western horizon, illuminating a ton of pristine snow on the Ortler. Although we were still under the cloud, the signs were good.
The day started quite moodily, which is a dream come true for many photographers, myself included. Throw in fresh snow on the peaks from the night before and light dancing across the rolling hills and we were happy as boys in a sandpit.
Up on the Alm we bumped into four (three here) Dutch photographers that we'd shared the Rifugio with the night before. Like us, they were determined to get the most out of the great weather after the previous day.
We had a good day’s photography. A very good day. The weather transitioned from moody to sunny over the course of the day. After visiting the tarn at Hotel Sonne we retreated to the meadows between there and Ritsch - the classic spot. And sat. And watched. And waited.
As the sun set on the plateau I got tired and headed off back to the hotel. I should have waited as Matthias did - he was rewarded by a beautiful moonrise. To say that I’ve learned my lesson would be an understatement. So much for my advice to always wait until after the sun goes down. In my defence, I’ve never got a decent shot of the sun setting on the Plattenkofel/ Langkofel and I was tired. On the other hand, I have had some decent post-sunset shots. Had I waited, I might have captured an image like Matthias' lovely shot of the moon rising over the Böe Massiv. Had-a-would-a-could-a! Next time.
Sadly, Matthias had to return to Germany in the evening, leaving me to tackle dawn on the Alm on my own. One of the iconic images that I really wanted to grab was mist on the Alm at dawn. Friday morning was a wash out with heavy rain in the night only clearing well after the magic hour, but I managed to drag my butt out of bed early on the Saturday in order to get to the spot that we'd scouted the day before. Although there was a thin line of cloud covering Saltria, there wasn't any over the fields as I'd hoped. Still worth getting up for, as testified by the 30 other photographers standing at the same spot.
Back at the hotel, I bumped into a colleague. She wasn't staying there, but she and her partner were walk-ins for breakfast, having driven down the 3½ h from Munich that morning. We stopped to exchange pleasantries after the obligatory brow furrowing and 'is that?' and 'it can't be!' - not helped by the fact that we probably hadn't seen each other for a few years as I predominantly work in home office these days. Towards the end of our conversation as she asked me what I was doing on the Alm, she asked me a simple yet profound question that has had a seminal effect on me. All she asked was whether photography was a hobby or a passion for me. I'd not thought about it in those terms before and it really helped me to put some other things in my life into perspective and make a decision that I'd been gnawing on for almost a year.
I was so happy with this stitched panorama that it's my PC background. Lovely stuff and a great reminder.
Leaving Seis behind I headed over to Val di Funes, excited to see what the day might bring. After a walk up to San Giacamo church above Ortisei and a quick lunch in the village, I drove round to find significantly more autumn colour than three weeks before. There was just about light on the San Giovanni church and some nice clouds hanging around the Geisler Peaks. The sun wasn't quite making it to the back of the valley though - too late in the year.
After mucking about at the photographer's corral for a half hour or so, I decided to try my luck above the Santa Magdalena chapel. San Giovanni is my favourite composition, whether portrait or landscape, but on this day Santa Magdalena was the shot to be had.:
I think that after three trips in one year I might be cured for a while. We'll be back again in February and if time allows, I'd like to take a crack at Seceda in the snow. Apart from that, my portfolio is still missing a classical 'mist at dawn' shot, but apart from that I've got all the classic views now. And next year's Muse? No idea. Watch this space.
I seriously think that the images on this page are some of my best yet. I've yet to find anywhere where my heart beats for photography like in the Dolomites. If I measure success in terms of images that end up on my gallery page per day shooting, then there's nowhere like it for me. Other photographers thrive on Iceland, the Lake Distict or in the Lofoten Islands. I'm extremely fortunate that the Dolomites are a mere 3½ h from Seis - 4½ h from Cortina.
If I've piqued your interest in the Dolomites, Matthias and I are planning to run a tour there with four participants in October 2025. We'll look after all the organisation and coordination. If needed, we can also give some photographic instruction, but the emphasis will be on a peers' tour than a workshop. Accommodation will be mountain lodges (Rifugios) as far as possible, with one or two nights in mountain hotels. When we were there we were spending around €200 per day for lodgings and lifts, might end up being €250 per night, so €1250 all told, flights notwithstanding.
You'll need to be fit enough for a strenuous 4 h hike in the mountains with overnight gear and generally be relatively robust. The main risk will be the weather. We've chosen late October to maximise the chances of getting autumn colours, but if winter arrives early we could be screwed. This year, for example, the Seiser Alm was still completely green at the beginning of October. Three weeks later there was partial autumn colour in the larches, today everything is covered in snow.
At the moment, the following locations are on the table; Tre Cime + lakes, Lago di Croda, Lagazoi, Seiser Alm, Seceda and Val di Funes. There will be a few less well spots in between. I think we've both shot all of these places multiple times and have a good handle on how to get the best out of them.
If you want to be put on the (pre-registration) list, get in touch and we'll keep you in the loop.