Winter 2020/2021 & 2024
Revisiting the Hautes Fagnes (Hohes Venn) and Sauerland. Photography and hiking in Winter Wonderland
For more than 3 years I’ve been photographing landscapes. Until the end of 2020 I never had the opportunity to shoot locations that are covered in snow. Winter is a loose concept in Germany. It either gets cold but no downfall or it’s rather warm and there’s massive downfall in form of rain.
Right after Christmas it began to look promising. The forecast predicted snow in certain regions and this time Mother Nature delivered. But there is that one little thing called pandemic that limited the way we were are allowed to move over most parts of the last year and it wasn’t any different this winter.
The first spot that was literally covered in snow was the Hautes Fagnes in Belgium. It takes a 2 hour drive to get to the Venn, therefore I decided not to be there for the sunrise. 10 minutes away from the destination there wasn’t any snow and I began to wonder what to expect. 3 minutes later, there still wasn’t any snow. But then suddenly the road began to rise and I was clearly gaining vertical meters.
Another 2 minutes later I was surrounded by snow covered ground and trees. I arrived late in the morning at my destination and the parking spots were already full. I parked my car on the side of the road, got my equipment and began trudging through the snow. It was a long time ago when I last had seen such pure white. It was white everywhere. Even the fir trees were covered in now and no green pine needles were seen.
It was pure joy to hike through the Hautes Fagnes looking for subjects to shoot and listening to the unique silence that can only be provided by a snow covered landscape. I was also lucky with regards to wind. For the most part of my hike there wasn’t any wind. The sky was almost white too. Only compared to the pale white of the snow it was rather a light grey. Between the cloudy sky and the ground there was a little gap of clear but yellowish sky that provided a little light on the scene.
On my way to a bunch of interesting tree formations I shot several handheld photos. It was fun just shooting as I was passing by some subjects. The snow was so bright that you could easily use ISO 100 or 200, F 5.6 and the shutter speed was still perfectly fine for shooting handheld. Not before arriving at my shooting destination I mounted my tripod to shoot the scene that I had in mind. Several gnarly, twisted burned trees were covered in snow. There was a beautiful strong contrast between the white snow and the almost black and wet tree trunks. Without doing much in post production, the final picture looks like a painting. The one thing that you almost always have to do in post, when shooting snow pictures in RAW is to adjust the white balance and to pull up the whites and brightness. Otherwise the pictures is always too dark and grey. I am satisfied with the pictures that I got, but I'm still hunting for those morning light winter scenes.
Two weeks later I had another opportunity to go for a hike. This time I chose the Sauerland. Its an area with a slightly higher altitude and therefore it still had lots of snow. The weeks before this area was overrun by snow tourists. I consider it a good thing to see people getting out and kids having fun in the snow. But in times of Covid-19 the local government decided to shut it all down and to make sure that these areas are closed and that nobody has fun anymore. Even police had to guard this areas. Anyway, the situation calmed down and two weeks later, the amount of visitors was considerably lower. In fact there were so few people that I met only 3-5 people or couples on my 4 hour hike. I enjoyed it massively to hike along the white and bright roads and between the snow covered trees. It wasn't so much about shooting this day. There wasn't any light anyway and I just enjoyed be out in the woods, breathing in this cool and fresh winter air. I revisited a location that photographed two years ago. The Plästerlegge waterfall is the tallest waterfall in NRW and in wintertime there is enough water and the view isn't blocked by the foliage. At least it was this way two years ago. I am happy that I already have that picture in my portfolio because nowadays you can't even see the waterfall anymore. It is completely overgrown by trees and other fauna.
That's so interesting about nature. Sometimes, when it all comes together, it reveals its beauty for a certain amount of time. But sometimes nature hides its gems. And that's great because it takes an effort and persistence to witness those rare occasions of nature showing off.
With my main subject not being visible anymore I went on for a walk in an area that I haven't been before. On my hike up to the Rothaarsteig I was all on my own. I could hear the layer of ice cracking beneath the snow It felt like I was accompanied by hundreds of snow covered trees along my way up. On top of the hill there was a small and lovely village. You couldn't get there by car as the road was closed for vehicles that weekend. That's why it seemed like there were only the local residents and that's also why it didn't feel touristy at all.
Again this time I shot many pictures along the way and most of them I like more then the one shot that I came up for. I heard about those forest sculptures along the Rothaarsteig and about one in particular. I thought it would make for a great subject but in the end I see it as an distraction in between nature. You can see the results below. Make up your own thoughts.
Update January 2024
We don't get much snow where I live. There might be 2-3 days each winter where there is a little bit of snow but it hardly lasts longer then one day before it melts. If you want to spend a day in a snowy landscape the nearest regions are Sauerland, Eifel and Hohes Venn. This time I decided to go to the Hohes Venn as after the snowfall there have been 2 nights in a row with up minus 15° celsius. I need to drive 2 hours to get there. So in wintertime and to arrive before sunrise I had to get up at 5 a.m. I arrived at 7:30 a.m. just 1 hour before sunrise. The sky was clear and the first colors of the upcoming sunrise where already visible. But the most spectacular thing was that the whole landscape was completely frozen. I've never seen this before so my excitement level was quite high. Again, as described in another blog I was already feeling the pressure of finding the right composition in time. In addition to that the freezing temperatures also distracted my from concentrating on the experience and from slowing down. There were too many motives and the everchanging light. The first hour was rather result-oriented than experience-oriented photography. I managed to get some good shots but some of them are lacking the finesse of a well thought out composition and sharpness along the whole frame. I shot handheld as it was to cold to also manage a tripod. So focus stacking wasn't really an option. Nevertheless I'm satisfied with what I got and really enjoyed the landscape afterwards.
It was a great experience but I wasn't really in the moment and I did not manage to immerse myself into nature. But I know why and I guess I learned my lessons. Show up even earlier and prepare for the cold.
After the sunrise I stayed for another 2-3 hours just hiking through the landscape. It was magnificent and I was simply enjoying the views and sounds. Maybe I should accept that there is time where photography is prio #1 and then there is a time where experiencing and exploring is prio #1. I wish I could find a way to slow down and concentrate on one composition when I'm in the field. I imagine myself setting up everything in advance, then watching the scene change over time and enjoying it and just spending this one second that it takes to press the shutter button.