Picture-perfect: Slovakia’s Tatra mountains provide a stunning backdrop for a landscape photography workshop By Helen Nicholson
Within minutes of stepping out of the cosy minibus into the frozen Slovakian countryside I’m beginning to question my commitment to landscape photography. It’s an art that requires patience, dedication and a certain amount of hardiness, all attributes that I fear I’m distinctly lacking in. This frosty landscape is to be our muse for the next couple of hours as the sun slowly begins to set behind the imposing mountain range. But as the other members of the group set up their tripods by the lakeside or venture off in search of the perfect spot to capture the wintry vista, I’m still pulling on extra layers and weighing up the merits of fingerless gloves.
Cold snap: The frozen Slovakian countryside may be a little on the chilly side but it provides plenty of inspiration for budding landscape photographers
Perhaps my fellow photographers will be so engrossed by their surroundings that they won’t notice if I take a couple of quick snaps and sneak back to the minibus to warm up with a cup of tea and a flapjack?
The scenery is certainly a distraction: the snow-capped Tatra mountains rise proudly into a blue sky flecked with whisps of white cloud and are perfectly reflected in the lake below, which is fringed with pine trees and snow-covered walkways.
I make a tentative start, setting up my borrowed tripod and trying to operate the camera’s controls with my now nearly rigid fingers. Thankfully it’s not long before our amiable tutor, professional photographer Lee Pengelly, comes to the rescue, explaining how to make the shot more compelling by experimenting with different viewpoints and looking for interesting features in the foreground, which will lead the viewer’s eye into the shot.
In the pink: Graduated filters darken the sky during a sunset, accentuating the vivid reds, pinks and oranges
As dusk begins to descend we move position and point our cameras out into the valley to capture the approaching sunset. I’m unimpressed with my initial shots until Lee introduces me to the benefits of graduated filters, which darken the top of the image and accentuate the vivid reds, pinks and oranges that are beginning to soak the horizon. The sky in my photo turns from blown-out colourless expanse to an intense pinky orange. Suddenly, I’m beginning to see the potential in landscape photography.
As other members of the group start to pack up their cameras, I’m still experimenting with different grades of filters in an attempt to capture the perfect sunset. ‘Just one more shot’, I plead with one eye on the hot tea and flapjack rations.
Matt Jevons knows how addictive photographing these stunning landscapes can be. He set up Tatra Photography with his partner, Tereska, in 2003 offering weekend workshops in the eponymous mountain range. The business quickly took off and the couple moved to Slovakia to run the courses full-time. Like many of his clients, Matt went from amateur photographer with just the basic equipment to a seasoned snapper with a state-of-the-art SLR.
The company has since expanded and now offers workshops photographing bear and lynx in Bavaria, birds of prey in the Czech Republic and, more recently, glaciers and geysers in Iceland. A professional photographer accompanies each workshop to offer tips and advice and generally steer people in the right direction.
One click from picture perfection: The group square up to the Slovakian mountains. Scroll down to see Helen’s handiwork…
There are six of us on our workshop – ‘Lakes and Waterfalls’ – including Mike Stephenson from Cambridge who has been on several landscape photography workshops and has honed his talents over the years to such an extent that he could be classed as semi-pro.
‘I booked the trip because I wanted something out of the ordinary’, he explains, ‘Matt and Tereska have made me feel very welcome and knowing the area like they do makes it an easy-going trip.’
Heather Neilson, a 30-year-old lawyer from London, embarked on the course because she wanted to improve her basic camera skills outside of a classroom environment. ‘I love being out in the mountains’, she says. ‘The scenery is stunning and autumn is a beautiful time of year to be taking pictures outdoors with some snow on the peaks and the leaves changing colour.’
Light fantastic: Early birds will be rewarded with some impressive sun rises
As photography is all about capturing the right light we’re up before dawn the next day to photograph the sunrise over another beautiful lakeside location. More tea and flapjacks sustain us as we stamp our feet and watch our breath escape into the frosty morning air while the sun creeps leisurely into view over the mountain top.
Once it appears, filters are hastily snapped into place and we vie for the perfect position along the banks of the lake, trying to honour the rule of thirds as we edge precariously close to the icy water. When hunger gets the better of everyone, it’s back to the penzion for breakfast before we don our walking boots and head into the mountains in search of more panoramic shots.
We are lucky with the weather – unseasonably strong sunshine and a cloudless blue sky bodes well for the day’s photography and forces us to shed a layer or two as we trek up the steep mountain path.
Lively location: The Popradské Pleso Chalet is deep in the Mengusovská Valley and is named after the glacial lake that it overlooks
It takes about two hours to reach the Popradské Pleso Chalet, which is deep in the Mengusovská Valley and is named after the glacial lake that it overlooks. It’s a lively location where the beer flows freely and the sound of drinking songs drifts out from the restaurant as we offload our backpacks and take in the view.
Tutorial over, we spread out along the water’s edge and attempt to put Lee’s tips into practise with varying success. It’s not long before the light starts to fade though, and we head back to the chalet for garlic soup, dumplings and warming shots of Hruskovica (pear brandy), the latter of which comes back to haunt me when my alarm trills loudly in the pre-dawn gloom the next day.
Golden glow: The early morning sun rise creates reflections in the Popradské Pleso lake (left) while graduated filters help to darken the sky (right)
We’re back out trekking around the frozen lake at 5.30am to capture the moment the sun bathes the mountains in a golden glow.
I should be getting to grips with sunrises by now but my lack of equipment is becoming a hindrance. The other members of the group have come armed with large camera bags full of lenses and a multitude of accessories. I didn’t even bring a tripod but luckily Lee is willing to donate his, along with his ‘grad’ filters, which are shared among the group.
My lack of a wide-angle lens is also proving a drawback and I often have to resort to a portrait shot because I can’t fit the whole vista in the frame. Things look up though when, lagging behind the group, Matt points out a perfect reflection in the lake and I manage to capture my best shot of the morning.
After breakfast at the chalet, we head to our final shoot at an impressive waterfall a little further down the mountain. This time our subject matter is moving so Lee explains all about how to use slow shutter speeds to give the water a milky, smoky effect.
We’re also shown how to get a better composition by being more ambitious with our positioning. We have, it seems, been rather laid-back in our approach so far – Lee has been blown off rocks into the sea while trying to get the perfect shot. He advises me to move my camera out on to a boulder to get a better photograph of the waterfall.
Taking the plunge: It pays to be a little more creative when choosing the position of your tripod
Tricks of the trade: You can blur moving water by selecting a slow shutter speed
I edge out towards the tripod that Lee has positioned on the edge of the rock above an icy plunge pool but lose my nerve at the last minute and allow the professional do the honours. The resulting image does indeed look very professional and, of course, I immediately decide to pass it off as my own…
So what have I learned in my three days on the frozen Slovakian mountainside? That once you’ve managed to thaw out your frozen fingers, landscape photography is a lot of fun. That you can learn more in three days on location with a professional photographer than six months in the classroom. And that, in order to produce impressive images, you need patience, dedication and a certain amount of skullduggery.