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  • Writer's pictureMike Page

Winter on the Seiser Alm

Updated: Feb 17

When we were freshly married and relatively new to the freedoms of living in mainland Europe in our 20s, we were full of wanderlust and the desire to explore new places. We couldn't understand old people who would only holiday in the same hotel in the same resort every year. Over the past thirty years, we've discovered some favourite places that we revisit every now and then. Maybe those old farts were onto something after all. We've not quite stooped to their level yet; we're still making plans to visit new places and apart from skiing vacations it's rare that we'll use the same rental property more than once (campsites don't count, do they?). One of the places that has found a fixed place on our list of regular spots is the Dolomites, though this was our first winter visit and our first trip to the high plateau that forms the Seiser Alm in 22 years.

The Schlern at Sunset || OMDS 12 mm, f/8, 1/200", ISO 200

The Seiser Alm (Alpi di Susi in Italian) is a mountain plateau at around 1,800 m high in the western Italian Dolomites and not far from Bozen/Bolzano. If you're interested in the geography, check out the Piste Plan here.

Moonrise over Seceda and Langkofel || OMDS 12 mm, f/8, 1/640", ISO 200
Seceda (left) and Langkofel by moonlight || OMDS 12 mm, f/3.4, 10", ISO 800

Essentially there are three main mountains that dominate the landscape of the plateau; the Langkofel/Plattkofel, Schlern with the iconic Santnerspitz and off in the distance the Geislergruppe with the famous Seceda. The Schlern is the first feature that strikes you as you arrive in Compatsch, be it by road or cable car. As you crest the Alm, the magnificent Langkofel and Plattkofel raise their heads above the horizon. To catch a glimpse of Seceda you need to head further onto the Alm.

Langkofel and Plattkofel || OMDS 16 mm, f/8, 1/400", ISO 200
The Schlern || OMDS 38 mm, f/5.6, 1/640", ISO 200
Lang- and Plattkofel || OMDS 29 mm, f/8, 1/250", ISO 200
A welcome respite at Hotel Ritsch || OMDS 12 mm, f/8, 1/640", ISO 200
Seceda and Furchetta || OMDS 23 mm, f/8, 1/400", ISO 200
Dolomite Huts || OMDS 47 mm, f/8, 1/320", ISO 200
Schlern and Santnerspitz || OMDS 34 mm, f/8, 1/320", ISO 200
Langkofel and Sella || OMDS 25 mm, f/8, 1/400", ISO 200
Sella Group || OMDS 86 mm, f/8, 1/320", ISO 200
Langkofel and Plattkofel || OMDS 28mm, f/5, 1/1000", ISO 200
Schlern || OMDS 35mm, f/5, 1/800", ISO 200
Seceda and the Geiselr Group || OMDS 14 mm, f/8, 1/320", ISO 200

I've talked before in another blog about photographic niches and exploiting them. I'm not the best cross-country skier, and although I'm a good photographer, I'm not an award-winner (no, I'm not fishing for complements - I think I have a relatively sober estimation regarding my ranking in the greater scheme of things), but there aren't many cross-country skiers who go out with a big camera strapped to their shoulder, let alone a tripod in the rucksack. I get to places and see things that not many other serious photographers do and that gives me a slight edge - my niche.

Frozen River || OMDS 92 mm, f/8, 1/13", ISO 200
Frozen Teeth || OMDS 100 mm, f/8, 1/15", ISO 200
Mountain Chalet || OMDS 80 mm, f/8, 1/320", ISO 200
Ice Flowers || OMDS 47 mm, f/8, 1/800", ISO 200
Frozen Puddle || OMDS 100 mm, f/11, 1/200", ISO 200
Frozen Windscreen || OMDS 60 mm, f/8, 1/60", ISO 800

One of the things that photographers look for in landscape photos is something called leading lines. A leading line is essentially a line that leads the viewer's eye into the scene. Often these lines are subtle - a path, a fence or wall, a rock formation. Cross country ski (Langlauf) tracks are less subtle

Schlern || OMDS 18 mm, f/9, 1/320", ISO 200
Natural Leading Lines || OMDS 12 mm, f/11, 1/250", ISO 200
Through the Chalets || OMDS 28 mm, f/8, 1/320", ISO 200
Lang- and Plattkofel || OMDS 20 mm, f/8, 1/250", ISO 200

Each morning we were greeted with views of the moon setting over the Ötztal mountains way to the west and north of us. It never ceases to amaze me, how much the lunar cycle changes from day to day, let alone over the course of a week. On the first morning we woke to catch the moon just dipping behind the mountains, by the end of the week it was up well into mid morning. It's about 25 min later each day.

Sunrise and Moonset || OMDS 25 mm, f/5.6, 1/100", ISO 200
Pink Sky over the Ötz Mountains || OMDS 24 mm, f/5.6, 1/15", ISO 200

Mid week we decided to do an easy half-day so that I could conserve my energy for a sunset shoot (more below) and so we drove round the corner to an isolated track in the Langental. Although several hundred meters lower than the Alm and thus theoretically a few degrees warmer, the steep-sided valley is a cold air trap. We parked at -14.5 °C, and we reckoned that it was probably a good five degrees colder than that at the end of the valley.

Up in the Langental || OMDS 57 mm, f/8, 1/500", ISO 200
Ice Sculpture in St. Ullrich || OMDS 18 mm, f/8, 1/1000", ISO 200
Ice Sculpture in St. Ullrich || OMDS 21 mm, f/8, 1/400", ISO 200
Sella Pass || OMDS 18 mm, f/8, 1/400", ISO 200

There are never any guarantees when taking photographs. The eye and the camera see things differently. What looks good to the naked eye can often disappoint and vice versa. My photos in the Langental proved this point anew. I thought I was catching some solid images but ended with dross, a few exceptions notwithstanding. And at a price too; we were so cold when we finished the trail and we didn't really recover proper body temperature until well into the afternoon.

On the Farm || OMDS 41 mm, f/8, 1/50", ISO 200
St. Valentin || OMDS 100 mm, f/8, 1/100", ISO 200

Once warm I was faced with the question whether to crack open a beer or carry out my harebrained scheme to go back up onto the Alm, catch the last bus from Compatsch to Saltria and capture the Langkofel at sunset. Warm apartment or freezing views. Everyone has different ways to break down and analyse the important elements of photography. Some will tell you that it's about colours, contrasts and composition. I take a slightly broader approach and break it down into four essential components; (i) technical camera skills - focussing, exposure etc., (ii) compositional skills, (iii) post-processing skills (what you do with the RAW image using software) and (iv) perseverance and planning. You can have all the technical and composition skills, but if you don't go out in the right conditions - light, weather, etc., you'll only ever get good photos, but seldom excellent ones unless you're really fortunate with the conditions. You can maximise your chances though by planning your shoots according to the prevailing weather. There are still no guarantees, but you can increase the chances of getting the truly great shots by going out at uncomfortable times of day or in inclement weather. So as 16.30 rolled around, I said no to the tempting beer and yes to perseverance and started donning my winter thermals, digging out the clever photography gloves where I can free the thumbs and forefingers and drove back up to the Alm.

Schlern by Moonlight || OMDS 8 mm, f/2.8, 13", ISO 800

I'd decided on the spot I wanted to shoot from the day before - scouting your location is especially important when you're working to a relatively tight schedule, working in low-light conditions, or both like I was here. I'd chosen a spot with a good view of the Lang- and Plattkofel and researched the sunset time, knowing that I'd probably lose direct light a few minutes before then. Taking the last bus from the 2 h carpark at Compatsch I arrived to find just the tips of the mountain catching the dying sun. Because I was ready to go I was able to catch this light, but the best was yet to come. Never, ever, ever, pack the camera away after the sun sets. It ALWAYS gets better. Well, almost always. Tonight paid off in spades. Not only did I catch the last rays, the level of particles in the air turned the sky into a giant yellow lightbox. And then it got even better! I ended up with three sets of shots from the same shoot with absolutely amazing but very different colours in each. I'd have been exceedingly happy to get any of these three shots, but to get all of them within a few minutes of each other was a dream come true. I was amazed how much colour there was at sunset in the eastern sky. I'd assumed that all the colour would be to the west. I've come to love the pastel colours of the winter sky and was thrilled to be in a position to capture them cleanly. Many photographers lament the absence of clouds for photography. Apart from the fact that beggars most certainly can't be choosers - we hardly had any cloud all week - I love the way that the negative space gives the colour palette a chance to shine in these shots.

17:23 Langkofel || OMDS 12 mm, f/8, 1/30", ISO 200
17:33 Langkofel || OMDS 25 mm (pano), f/8, 1/30", ISO 200
18:03 Langkofel || OMDS 10 mm, f/8, 6", ISO 200

Shots taken, it was time to walk back to Compatsch by the light of my headtorch. The snow was mercifully bright, if a little slippery in places and I was able to get back to the car minutes from my 2 h stay running out.

Towards the Sunset || OMDS 14 mm, f/8, 1/8", ISO 200
Hotel Ritsch by Night || OMDS 8 mm, f/8, 3.2", ISO 1600

Sometimes a photo works and sometimes it doesn't. Even the very best photographers accept this. Things that look good to the naked eye don't always translate to a good image. The eye picks out details that the camera cannot, whilst at the same time the camera sees everything, including things that the eye successfully blots out; who hasn't come back from a shoot to find images with protruding branches or other details interrupting an otherwise perfect photo? Certainly not me! And don't get me started on colours and dynamic range - the ability to differentiate between dark and light aspects of a scene. Even the best digital cameras on the market today are 60-times less sensitive to the human eye in this regard. Who has never tried to take photos of the moon and come home with an overexposed blob? Long story short, there's always a little bit of luck involved and a nagging question at the back of the mind - did I get it or didn't I? I take a tablet with me on vacation these days, but not a laptop. This allows me to transfer the photos from the camera, perform a rough edit and look at them on a slightly larger screen than that on the back of the Olympus (33 vs. 10 cm). They looked good, but I couldn't look at them at full resolution until I got back. I knew I had something good, but it wasn't until I could look at them in the comfort of my own office at home that I could really breathe out. In the bag!

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