There is an inherent beauty in attaining a pure representation of nature's most expressive fleeting moments in a photograph. Eager to learn the tricks of the trade from two seasoned professionals, a group of two dozen amateurs and semi-professionals have come together on the Santis for a workshop entitled 'light and the mountain landscape'. We are being hosted by photography school ViewFinder Center for Photography--and taught in English by owner Matthew Anderson and guest instructor Christian Heeb.
At 2,502 metres above sea level, Santis towers above the gentle hills of Appenzell like a natural fortress. The highest point of the Alpstein massif, it is said to offer views of six countries on a clear day. From my vantage point outside mountaintop lodge Alter Santis, I can pinpoint three of them straight ahead: Switzerland, Austria and Germany.
Lit by the late afternoon sun and offset beautifully against a backdrop of deep blue, endless sky, the mountains are bathed in a warm orange glow. The low light defines and contours the landscape, gracefully highlighting differences in topography and texture. As I turn the ring on my 28-300 millimetre lens, two hikers pop into focus on a nearby ridge. Zooming out, I can see the vast expanse of Lake Constance framed by the bustling city of Bregenz in Vorarlberg to the south, and Constance further north. After a spell of storms, we are unbelievably lucky with the weather.
I carefully study the scene of broken mountain ranges, deep valleys and emerald lakes through my viewfinder. Having decided to make the rugged peaks my centrepiece, I align the horizon along the top third of my picture and start metering the light. "Try to use the bluest part of the sky as your reference point," recommends professional photographer Matthew Anderson and quickly takes a shot to illustrate. A series of shutter buttons are pressed, as a number of students follow their teachers' example to capture this picture perfect moment.
This is the first of many photo shoots to take place on top of this landmark summit over the next two days.
Life explored in landscape
In order to inspire our muse, Heeb officially opens the workshop by showcasing powerful masterpieces from his collection of outstanding natural perspectives. Ranging from seascapes and moonscapes to cityscapes, each sample makes maximum use of a photographer's secret weapon--light.
"Light is what makes a picture; everything depends on it. Landscape photography is about being in the right place at the right time. If you don't like to get up early, then landscape photography is not for you," laughs the native St. Galler, referring to the 'magic light' created by the low sun that adds beauty to just about any scene. Revealing some of the secrets behind his trademark shots, Heeb singles out polarising and graduated neutral density filters as his favourite aids and highlights how photomontage can add an x-factor to a composition--such as his trademark, oversized moons.
Framing natural beauty
After a Question & Answer session and a hearty dinner, we are ready to put our newly acquired knowledge to the test and start capturing the fluidity of the surrounding landscape during 'the golden hour' (just before sunset). Our tour of the summit takes us past the weather station that made headlines in winter 1922 following the murders of the station keeper and his wife (murders that remain unsolved to this day after the only suspect committed suicide). Behind the simple structure, a futuristic-looking building reaches for the sky like an oversized needle-the transmission tower of the meteorological observatory from where Swiss radio and television channels are broadcast.
A group of us line up alongside Heeb on the viewing platform hoping to catch a glimpse of the setting sun above Schwagalp. However, the weather has turned and the atmospheric haze swallows but the last ray, offering little but a clear separation of fore- and background in return. While we wait in vain for an ibex to enhance our composition, Anderson takes a group of daredevils on an adventurous hike along the ridge facing the summit. The rest of us make good use of their silhouettes to add interest to our frames. "It is essential that you learn to look, before you shoot," advises Heeb. You need to analyse the frame and ask whether it has a WOW-effect."
Towards the light
If a camera is a photographer's brush, then light is his or her paint. After sunset, we stand shoulder to shoulder to compose masterpieces using the soft, atmospheric light shed by the moon and starry sky. The landscape looks eerie, almost black and white. It is accentuated only by the flaming red glow of distant towns and cities. As a big bank of cloud moves in and obscures the moon, the stars seem to light up just a little brighter, enveloping the transmission tower like a dotted dark blue cloak. Around midnight, we have exhausted all possible variations of settings and viewpoints and are finally ready to call it a night.
While we are banking four hours of much needed sleep, our teachers are busy preparing a surprise for our final showdown the next morning. In a joint effort, Heeb triggers Anderson's camera as Anderson races up the stairs to the weather station from the lower viewing platform, drawing looping white lines of light with his torch, before painting the building adjacent to the weather station with light to make it stand out against the dark background. Heeb exposes the shot for two minutes--the result is a perfect example of creative night photography.
At 4.45 a.m., we reunite, sleepy and wrapped from head to toe in woollies, for the highlight of the workshop--the sunrise shoot. Looking out of the window into the pitch-black night, there is no telling whether the morning will gift us with a picture book sunrise, but we are ever hopeful. We watch in eager anticipation as the night sky comes alive with strange shapes in the first rays of light. With every minute, the colours become more vivid until finally a glowing red and orange ball breaks through the thick banks of clouds to the east of Bregenz. Everything goes quiet as forty-something eyes watch the spectacle unfold through the viewfinder and dozens of clicks capture the scene.
By the time breakfast comes around, we are wide-awake and wired from the morning's excitement. Bonded by the shared experience, we have plenty to chat about during round-off discussions, the cable car trip back to Schwagalp and the enthusiastic email and flickr exchange in the weeks to come.
At a glance
Name: named after Dutch Prince Maurice Van Nassau
Capital: Port Louis
Time zone: +4 hours reenwich Mean Time
Total area: 2,040 km;
Climate: tropical: warm and dry winters (May--October. 17[degrees]C--23[degrees]C), hot and wet summers (November-April, 23([degrees]--33[degrees]C): cyclones (December-March)
Currency: Mauritian Rupee (divided into 100 cents)
Population: 1.2 million
Photographer, teacher and Director of the ViewFinder
Center for Photography
ViewFinder was founded in 2008 and is Switzerland's first English-language photography learning centre. Since January 2012, it has been managed and directed by award-winning professional photographer Matthew Anderson who has lived in Switzerland since 2008. Anderson's photography career began in news photojournalism in his native home of America, where he worked for daily newspapers and freelanced regularly for the Associated Press. Anderson is responsible for developing ViewFinder's photography courses and workshops, and teaches several of its programmes as well. When he's not busy sharing his passion for photography with students, he carl be found shooting high-end weddings, commercial assignments and editorial projects around Switzerland and abroad.
www.ViewFinderCenter.com Flickr Group: www.flickr.com/groups/919124@N21 Meet-up gatherings: www.meetup.com/viewfinder www.MatthewAndersonPhoto.com
Photographer and guest instructor at ViewFinder Center
World-renowned Swiss travel and landscape photographer Christian Heeb is teaching at ViewFinder Center as a guest instructor. Based in Bend, Oregon (USA) but originally from St. Gallen, he has made a name for himself with his "scenic landcapes, lush environments as well as vibrant city scenes." Travelling tile world for 25 years, his photos have appeared in over 130 coffee table books, countless calendars and magazine articles.