Heavily packed with photo equipment, our autumnal circular hike takes us from the valley station of the Diavolezza mountain railroad to Fuorcla Pischa and through Val Languard, with the aim of photographing ibexes around Pontresina. I wonder if we will be successful?
Who does not know him, the king of the Alps and the tourism mascot of the canton of Graubünden. At home in the steep, alpine terrain, he moves there like a king on his red carpet, with somnambulistic security and a sovereignty that no human will ever achieve: the ibex.
These shy animals, which tend to avoid getting too close to humans, live in the barren high regions of the Alps – where there are more gray rocks than green plants and where temperatures are more often below the zero degree mark than above it.
In Val Languard above Pontresina, the ibexes feel at home, as they have a protected habitat with many retreats at altitudes of up to 3000 meters. The 3262 m high Piz Languard, which can be reached via a marked hiking trail, with the cozy Chamanna Georgy located directly below the summit, marks the highest point in this area, with a breathtaking view of the glacier basin of the Bernina region.
In search of ibex around Pontresina
Without knowing whether we might not carry all the camera equipment around with us for nothing, we stand at the valley station of the Diavolezza cable car, which is easily accessible by the Rhaetian Railway. We hope that the autumn weather and the resulting fewer tourists and hikers will play into our cards and that the ibexes will be well-disposed towards us. Our route will take us once around the Piz Albris, with descent through the Val Languard, past the Alp Languard of the same name and down to Pontresina.
Cool: great weather, a tremendous view of the Engadine mountain giants Piz Palü, Piz Bernina and a solitary hike that we have all to ourselves. Not so cool: having a tripod, a gimbal for a telephoto lens, a camera and two lenses in the backpack, one of them a fast 400 mm telephoto lens with extenders. To put it another way, the backpack on my back is not exactly lightweight.
If it doesn’t work out that way…
But what the heck – about an hour and a half sees us – unfortunately only in a mediocre mood – pass the Fuorcla Pischa at 2835 meters. Thanks to an unclosed zipper on my jacket pocket, my ten-day-old iPhone 13 Pro has taken on a life of its own and sought its way out into the open. Almost as if by design, it landed directly on the jaggedest rock around us and, unfortunately, no display glass, no matter how sturdy, can help: the thing is gone. 😖 After a break and a somewhat calmer mind, we then survey the imposing landscape in which we are standing.
The Fuorcla Pischa is a barren lunar landscape. Hardly any vegetation, but all the more barren stone and whistling wind. Autumn is obviously here, without windproof outdoor clothing it would not be very pleasant here. The Lej da Pischa, lying only a little below in a hollow, is already frozen. The thin ice gives off ghostly buzzing sounds from time to time in the otherwise perfect silence when the surface moves slightly.
Otherwise: no human, no animal. Only us. As if there were nothing else in this world.
Some chocolate helps to get over the frustration about the destroyed smartphone. A few hundred meters later, however, the mood suddenly improves: Marina discovers a small group of ibex standing a little below at a small watercourse. Maybe our visit was worth it after all? Let’s see…
Carefully I unpack the camera, mount the telephoto lens including 2x extender, because this extends the focal length from 400 mm to 800 mm and you “get closer”, and prepare the tripod. Everything happens quietly and without hectic movements, so as not to scare away the animals. They are watching us, but otherwise they are not disturbed at all in their activity. A good sign.
With the camera and the tripod we approach the group carefully and try to keep a distance that does not make them restless. We succeed quite well, because none of the animals behaves frightened, partly they even lie down – totally relaxed.
How to photograph ibexes?
It doesn’t really take much. We’ll show you what tips and tricks we recommend and what equipment you need to successfully come back with some beautiful pictures.
Camera with telephoto lens
The most important thing is certainly a camera with a telephoto lens with the longest possible focal length (I would recommend a focal length of at least 200 mm, 400-800 mm is certainly optimal). The reason is quite simple: the longer the focal length, the less you have to approach the ibexes. The closer you get to the animals, the greater the risk that they will feel disturbed and move away. We humans are not exactly known for a squeamish approach to our nature anyway. Therefore, we should certainly take care not to startle these imposing animals unnecessarily and thus rob them of energy reserves that they would need for flight.
Use a tripod
In addition to the fastest possible telephoto lens, we recommend the optional use of a tripod. The faster the telephoto lens, the heavier the setup – which forces me to do arm curling exercises to calm my burning muscles.
Playing with the depth of field
If you’ve ever taken a picture of an ibex with a smartphone, you’ll probably have noticed that it looks kind of boring afterwards. This is because smartphone cameras usually focus the entire image area and the viewer’s eye gets lost in the crowd of subjects.
Therefore, try to shoot with a rather open aperture (open aperture = low f-number). In this way, you achieve that the background is blurred and the focus is exclusively on the head of the ibex, for example. This makes your photos more interesting and valuable. Unfortunately, corresponding fast telephoto lenses are quickly quite expensive, so you may have to accept limitations here depending on the camera model and lens.
Which camera settings?
There is no one setting, but the following tips will increase your chances of taking razor-sharp pictures:
In addition to an open aperture, use the fastest possible shutter speed. Especially when the ibexes are moving, you should not go below 1/200 s so that the photos are not blurred by the movement.
Depending on the lighting conditions, you may need to increase the ISO value to achieve these fast shutter speeds. Keep in mind, however, that too high ISO values can lead to image noise.
Many camera models come with a continuous shooting mode. This can be especially helpful with ibexes that are moving, as you can select the best image afterwards.
If you use a camera with built-in flash – just leave it off. It doesn’t do anything at the distances anyway and only scares the animals. Wildlife photography and flash are definitely a no-go.
Ibexes don’t know deadlines, they don’t have to catch the last train, and they are also rather pragmatic about eating: they eat what is growing here at the moment. Animals in high alpine regions have to manage their energy reserves and are therefore often characterized by an impressive calmness and sovereignty – a quality that most people unfortunately lack. So if you’re lucky enough to find one or more ibexes, be patient and take your time observing the animals. This may mean waiting half an hour – but with a bit of luck, this will allow you to take some beautiful photos.
Eight animals you shall be
What are “our” ibexes actually doing in the meantime?
Not much: the eight animals, one of which is still very young, have absolutely lost their cool. They lazily move a few meters here, then a few meters there, without a direct destination. One of the animals wears a transmitter on its distinctive horns, so they seem to be tracked in some way.
We found a good spot to stand, about 30-40 meters away from the small herd. In the following half hour photo after photo follows, partly with the camera on the tripod, partly freehand. Marina laughs about my laboriously suppressed gasp half kaputt – she must hold the heavy thing but also not from the free hand stable enough to be able to take sharp pictures. After half an hour and a few changes of location we leave the small herd in peace. I am meanwhile but also übelst cold and I can hardly move my hands before effort – time for a break and some heat from the thermos bottle brought along.
After half an hour and a few changes of location, we leave the small herd alone – but in the meantime I am also nauseously cold and I can hardly move my hands from exertion.
Descent via Alp Languard to Pontresina
Descending, we move along the small high valley Val Languard to the alp of the same name, completely abandoned waiting for the winter season. We pass icy mountain streams, lonely watercourses and not a single person. As crowded as the Engadine is in summer and winter, there are seasons when you can have the breathtaking nature almost to yourself. After a few meters of altitude in golden-yellow larch forests, our route takes us through Pontresina to the train station. With the Rhaetian Railway we return in a few minutes to our starting point at the Diavolezza valley station, which we reach again about five hours after our departure.
Do you have questions about our tour, the equipment we use or do you need more tips? Then just let us know in the comments!
Professional landscape and nature photographer and seasoned technical leader with experience as CTO and Software Engineer. Falko goes almost nowhere without his camera and loves to travel between high mountains and ocean waves to capture grandiose landscapes. He is a firm believer in Work Anywhere and digital working models and finds that a day without chocolate can only be half as good.
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