Sunday 9 January 2022

Revisiting Old Haunts - A Winter Photography Guide to Füssen and Surroundings

I think we probably all have our favourite local places for photography. We're lucky where we are with my local little woodland and Lake Ammersee only 10 min away by car. One of my other go-to places for a day-long photo trip is Füssen, home to the (in)famous Castle Neuschwanstein. I've only been to the castle once, and that was before I was living in Germany, and I have avoided the area like the plague for a number of years, but as I've gotten back into photography, I've rediscovered the area and have gone back countless times, either to hike or just to blow away the cobwebs with camera in hand.

A Wintery Neuschwanstein || Olympus 34 mm, f/7.1, 1/80 s, ISO 200
I was at a bit of a loose end in the week after New Years, and one of the other photographers in the Munich Expat Photo Group reached out to me to see whether I wanted to join him for a day's shooting. We'd been trying to get together for quite a while and this seemed like a great opportunity to hit the trail, especially with the fresh snow and icy temperatures forecast. I think autumn and winter are my favourite times of year for shooting here, with the mixed forest providing some great colours and winter providing, well, none. 

Wintery Scenes || Olympus 35 mm, f/6.3, 1/15 s, ISO 200
We'd chosen our day well; it had snowed the day before, it was still cold and there was little wind to speak of, so there was a good chance of shooting with the snow still on the trees. Of course it's possible to shoot in winter without the snow on the trees, but I always find it to be too contrasty, unless it's something simple like a silhouetted tree against a beautiful sky. So fresh snow was looking good to (re-)capture some old favourites and take some new ones that have been on the list.

All of the photos shot here are within a 30 min walk from the respective car parks and should be well within the reach of most people. I would strongly recommend sturdy footwear, or even boots if you venture into the water as suggested below for some of the waterfall shots. 

Alongside your camera, a tripod, polarising filter and even neutral density filter help, as well as spare batteries if your camera is susceptible to the cold.

St. Coloman Church

One of the images that has been on my list for a while is the church of St. Coloman on the flat valley floor below the castles. The snow simplifies this image beautifully, as does the hoar frost on the surrounding trees. This image was also a very interesting object lesson in the benefits of the Olympus hand-held high-res (HHHR) mode. The sky was very tricky here - quite bright even compared to the snowy foreground. The single-shot didn't leave much detail left in the sky. Enter Olympus HHHR. This puts the camera into overdrive, it shoots multiple (16) 20 MP images and assembles them together as a 50 MP RAW file in camera (there is also a tripod high-res mode which boosts the size to 80 MP with fewer shots). The process is relatively slow and no good for moving objects (think leaves or grass in the wind), but for scenes like this it works nicely. The trees here had obviously lost most of their snow already, but they'd picked up a bit of frost overnight (subtly enhanced in post-processing), rescuing the photo.

St. Coloman, Hohenschwangau || Olympus 41 mm, f/6.3, 1/100 s, ISO 200 
I don't often include the beta images here, but in this instance I will. Below is the original photo before editing (compare the sky) as well as a non-HHHR image where I've attempted to tone down the sky in ON1 Photo Raw and just got a muddy blur.

HHHR Unedited
Non-HHHR, Edited
This is definitely a first-thing-in-the-morning shot. Sadly, our lazy asses had missed the first colour of sunrise, but I'm still very happy with this photo, especially as there are no other vehicles in sight; often there are cars parked off to the left of the church. This morning there were no such obstructions.

Castle Neuschwanstein

After parking at the Tegelberg car park, we first headed up the trail to the Rohrkopfhütte. There are two vantage points for taking good photos of Neuschwanstein; the Marienbrücke above the castle (presently closed, due to re-open in autumn 2022) and the path up to the aforementioned hut. Reaching the vantage point for this photo entails a 30 min hike along well-trodden gravel paths; you don't need to do the full 90 min trek to the hut (though it's culinarily worth it, the hut has a good selection of food). If you're not going to go the extra mile, once you've seen this scene twice on successive switchbacks, that's it; there are no further shots of the castle to be had.

Greetings from König Ludwig || Olympus 80 mm, f/6.3, 1/100 s, ISO 200
Because you're looking westwards, it's normally best to shoot this scene early-ish in the morning with the rising sunlight on the face of the castle emphasising the red bricks, Whether you shoot wide or telephoto is up to you, but do be aware that you may encounter difficulties selling shots of the castle itself - the Bavarian Palace Administration is fairly strict about permission for commercial photos. 

There are some nice images to be had here of the larger picture - Füssen itself or even just a catch of some valley detail. With my m43 12-200 mm lens (24-200 mm in full-frame terms), I didn't need to change lens all day and can take the larger vista or pick out details like these lines in the landscape very nicely.

Füssen from the trail up to the Rohrkopfhütte || Olympus 29 mm, f/8, 1/125 s, ISO 200
Winter Lines || Olympus 100 mm, f/8, 1/125 s, ISO 200
Returning to the valley we came across this micro-scene underneath one of the snow canons in action. I love discovering little motifs like this and get more of a kick out of an original shot than the big well-known scenes; it's the reward of originality. This may even be one of my favourite images of the day.

Winter Gems || Olympus 47 mm, f/11, 1/5 s, ISO 200
Working the composition; Photo Mike Didrich

The Pöllat Gorge

Descending back to the Tegelberg car park, we took a left past the Reith Alm towards the bottom of the Pöllat gorge - always worth the detour. I swear that the gypsum mill at the bottom of the gorge looks more and more dilapidated every time I pass by. We didn't stop this time but bypassed the provisional barrier at the entrance to the gorge (as everyone else does) to get to the mill race. The gorge itself is closed again at the moment as it is extremely prone to rockfalls, but the best photos (IMHO) are to be found at the bottom of the gorge, with my favourite golden rock and the green pool below. I don't know what it is about the rocks in the eastern Allgäu mountains, but the water here is almost emerald. It seems to react with the rock as well leading to quite yellow colours, a really pleasing combination.

The Mill Race || Olympus 34 mm, f/5.6, 1/15 s, ISO 200
One of my favourite shots here is to the left of the mill race; a pool below a rock spout. Admittedly I've taken a little liberty with the colours here, but more a nudge than a shove, if you know what I mean.

Golden Trail || Olympus 61 mm, f/16, 4  s, ISO 200
There's one winter scene at the bottom of the mill race that has always eluded me; I've shot it several times, but it's never worked for me. I've been trying to capture it using Joshua Cripp's principle of identifying the element of a scene that first catches your attention and emphasising that in the photo using all the tricks of the trade - making the image a caricature of that aspect of the scene. The iced-up fallen branch is a real attention grabber and I want to make it part of the image. My companion for the day used another principle - eliminate all distractions, cropping out the branch and seemed to get an altogether more pleasing image (this is my version of that). Neither of them are going to end up in my personal gallery though.

Too Many Elements || Olympus 66 mm, f/18, 1 s, ISO 200
Simplifying the Scene || Olympus 100 mm, f/16, 15 s, ISO 200 

Icy Candelabra || Olympus 100 mm, f/16, 1/2 s, ISO 200

The Lech Falls

Mike (the other Mike) had indicated that he wanted to check out the Lech Falls whilst we were on site. It's not a subject that I'd normally shoot, but a while back I'd seen a cool shot of the falls with a cute wooden cabin above them. The falls are an artificial structure (probably why I don't relate to them very well), regulating the water flow through the narrow gorge just before Füssen. Don't forget to look down as you cross the bridge!

Into the Gorge || Olympus 12 mm, f/11, 1/15 s, ISO 200
We were surprised when we arrived to see a heavy flow of water coming over the steps, in fact there was so much that you could barely see the steps at all. Finding the angle to catch the falls and the hut proved almost impossible. I'll post the image that I managed to get here more for information than anything else. If anyone else can do better, I'd be very interested to learn where you shot it from (providing it wasn't a drone shot).

Lechfall || Olympus 12 mm, f/16, 1/2 s, ISO 200
The elusive cabin shot || Olympus 23 mm, f/16, 1/5 s, ISO 200

Stuiben Falls

The Stuiben Falls just outside Reutte (20 min away from Füssen by car) are one of my absolute favourite locations for a number of reasons; not too many people know about them, they're a bugger to find the first time you're there, but once you find out where they are, they're super accessible - just a 5 min walk from the car park over the bridge at the end of the valley. Lastly, the colours are superb, though I definitely need to get back here in deep winter with tons of snow and a bit more ice. To get the best out of these falls, you'll need a tripod and either a remote control / cable release or an on-board timer to enable you to take slow exposures, allowing you to capture the misty water flow. A special dark filter (GND) can help here as well. Depending on the effect you are after, I generally find a shutter speed of 1/5, 1/2, 1, 2 or 15 seconds gives satisfying results.

Looking down on the first section of the falls || Olympus 12 mm, f/16, 1 s, ISO 100
To get to the falls, walk behind the transformer field beyond the car park (over the bridge), cross the footbridge and you're there. The falls themselves break down into three sections in terms of photo opportunities; the first one is just over the footbridge. You can either drop down into the riverbed  and stone-hop to a suitable location (watch out for fluctuations in the water flow, especially if there's a storm over the Plansee) or shoot it from one of the platforms along the path. When shooting from the platforms, do watch out for any vibrations if you're using a tripod for long exposures. The grounding isn't as solid as it looks and if other people are walking nearby, you'll probably have to wait for them to pass before getting a crisp-sharp image.

Lower Falls Detail || Olympus 16 mm, f/11, 1 s, ISO 100
Section two is best shot from the narrow sloping bridge above the first falls looking east. Again, you'll need to coordinate with other people, whether fellow photographers or hikers. The bridge really is quite narrow and setting up tripods is not straightforward. A Gorilla Pod that you can attach to the handrail might even be a better option.

The Middle Falls || Olympus 21 mm, f/16, 1 s, ISO 100
Middle Falls Detail || Olympus 66 mm, f/16, 2 s, ISO 100
To get to the third section worth shooting, carry on up the trail for a couple of minutes until it levels off and you can drop  down to the stream. You'll then need to cross the stream (see caveat above) to look into a mini horseshoe falls. These work either as a detail shot or as a smaller element of the larger scene. Whichever it is though, make sure you have a polarising filter with you to cut out the surface glare.

Upper Falls - Detail || Olympus 31 mm, f/11, 10 s, ISO 100
Upper Falls - In Situ || Olympus 29 mm, f/9, 5 s, ISO 100

Other Locations

Under other conditions, it's often worth a trip to the Marienbrücke for a classic shot of Neuschwanstein with the Forggensee in the background.

Plan A for the day had been to shoot sunset over the water or ice at Hopfensee, a charming location, if a little overrun with Influenzas these days for my tastes. The clouds had already come in though, so we decided to cut our losses and run.

Driving down to Füssen along the B17 there are a couple of spots along the road with vistas overlooking the Bannwaldsee. Given the right conditions (morning mist, evening colour), these spots can be worth stopping at too.

There are nice panoramas of Füssen and the Forggensee to be had from the top of the Tegernsee Cable Car. Be aware that you won't be able to see Neuschwanstein from here though.

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