Trips: Chasing Autumn in the Swiss Alps Stories

In my free time, I can often be found in the Swiss Alps with my Intrepid 4x5 Mark 4, Lucille.  The red bellows immediately attract attention, and curious hikers will stop to ask what exactly I’m doing.  At some point the predictable question comes.  “Are you a professional or is this just a hobby?”  The real answer is that, to call it a hobby feels somehow inadequate. Although I do sell prints to help cover my film costs, I wouldn’t call it a vocation either.  My short answer for inquisitive hikers tends to be “Let’s call it a passion”. 

St Moritz - Nikon 90mm, 2 sec at F32 with 0.6 GND on Ektar 100

Recently I had the opportunity to take a 2 month hiatus between jobs. There was no question in my mind that I would spend it diving fully into large format photography and exploring new depths.  Although I’ve lived in Switzerland for nearly 10 years, I still have a long list of valleys deep in the Alps that have been begging to be explored. Many are too distant for weekend trips, and so this was the perfect opportunity.  My work break coincided perfectly with the brilliant autumn colours of the birch and larch that usually reach peak in late September or early October. Having complete freedom from any rigid work schedule also meant I could time trips according to the best weather, meaning I could leave home on a moment’s notice for several days in the mountains.

At the beginning of September I pulled out my long wish list of photography destinations. I decided to focus on a few small valleys in the cantons of Valais and Graubünden.  These cantons are famous for Zermatt and St Moritz, respectively, but I’ve always been much more interested in capturing the beauty of some of the smaller and more intimate valleys hidden away from the more popular and famous Swiss villages. These smaller havens have always held a special place for me as an escape from the stress and hectic routine of a busy job, and I love the challenge of trying to capture their enchanting atmosphere.  First I needed to map out my strategy.

St Moritz - Nikon 150mm, 1 sec at F22 with circular polarizer, 81B warming filter and 0.6 GND on Provia 100F

St Moritz - Nikon 150mm, 2 sec at F32 with circular polarizer and 0.6 GND on Ektar 100

I spent hours pouring over satellite imagery to find the best areas for autumn colour, always being careful to note where conifer forests were located and where the tree-line fell.  Webcams became an indispensable resource, not only to understand the valley orientation but also to check the changing colours every few days to guide my timing.  

Switzerland also has an extensive network of mountain huts where adventurous hikers can share stories, get a hot meal and have a warm place to sleep. I called many of the huts to understand when the grasses and trees tend to change colour, when snow starts to fall, and any other local wisdom they could offer up. But only so much preparation can be done from home, so I also spent several weeks scouting in the valleys. I wanted to find the vantage points, decide on compositions and better understand how the mountains interacted with the light.

Val d'Herens - Schneider 75mm, 3 min 30 sec at F22 with 0.6 GND on Ektar 100

Val d'Herens - Nikon 150mm, 2 sec at F22 with circular polarizer, 81B warming filter and 0.6 GND on Provia 100F

In early-October I was finally ready to go.  My first stop was a small valley called Val d'Hérens near the Swiss-Italian border.  Despite being between Verbier and Zermatt, few people have heard of this valley. It remains an area mainly for grazing cows in the summer and local skiers in the winter.  When I arrived I had an hour’s hike up to the prime location I’d scouted several weeks before. While the weather cooperated and offered beautiful golden hour light, autumn came several weeks later than expected and the trees were only just beginning to change.  This turned out to be a nice surprise because the colours gave the feeling of transition, and the mountains felt as if they weren’t sure if they were holding on to the final days of summer or settling for the cold winter ahead.

Loetschental - Schneider 75mm, 2 min at F22 with 0.6GND on Provia 100F

My next destination was a valley called Loetschental. Similar to the Val D’Hérens, it’s surrounded by popular tourist destinations but rarely sees outside visitors.  This is a valley that I return to often through the seasons because the light has a very special quality thanks to the southwest orientation of the valley.  This allows for different parts of the valley to be in different types of light at the same time – blue hour in the deeper parts of the valley and golden hour on the peaks, for instance.  I find this lends a certain magical feel to photos, where the line between dream and reality becomes blurred.  The larch were still a few weeks ahead of peak colour, but the high end of the valley is covered with smaller trees and blueberry bushes that were turning brilliant shades of red and orange.  For me this added to the special feel of the images – the valley felt to light up on fire at the edges of the day.

Loetschental - Nikon 300mm, 2 sec at F22 with circular polarizer, 81B warming filter and 0.6 GND on Provia 100F

My two month break was quickly coming to an end, and I had time for one last destination.  I wanted to be sure this last stop was in peak colour.  Fortunately the larch around St. Moritz was finally changing, so I packed the car for the 5 hour drive to the south-easternmost corner of Switzerland. There are many small valleys in this area to explore, and each day I drove to a different area to find the best spots for the next day’s sunrise and sunset. The valleys in this region tend to be much wider, which means the light is more evenly spread. The larch take on different moods over the course of the day. In shade or before the sun rises they can look more melancholy, while in the sun they are radiant and blazing with bright shades of gold. It was a great challenge to capture both.

Loetschental - Nikon 150mm, 1/4 sec at F22 with circular polarizer and 0.6 GND on Ektar 100

It was in one of these small valleys that the other question I’m often asked came from a local couple on their evening walk. Maybe you’re wondering as well. “Why is your camera named Lucille?”  I only name my analog equipment, never the digital cameras.  I find the digital realm, although much more versatile and easier to use, somehow feels a bit lifeless and numb.  Analog cameras all have their own quirks.  Faults and limitations that add to their character.  They have their own personalities in a way.

St Moritz - Nikon 150mm, 4 sec at F22 with 81B warming filter and 0.6 GND on Provia 100F

When I first learned of Intrepid, I instantly loved the personality of the cameras and how simple they are.  No bells and whistles, not a lot of nice-to-haves and needless innovations. Instead they offer a well constructed and lightweight camera that challenges the photographer to focus on good composition and exacting lens movements.  It reminded me of how beautifully simple innovations were 100 years ago, and how this simplicity can still function perfectly well today.  When I bought her, I knew the camera needed a name with a little sass that comes from years of experience and knowing what’s necessary and what’s not.  I remember these same qualities from my own grandmothers.  I knew this beauty with the red bellows had to be named Lucille.

Andrew Roberts | website | Instagram

The End.