This Autumn, I ventured into the Apennine mountains of Italy for a magical encounter with one of its most iconic animals, the Chamois.
Back in September I was in the Abruzzo National Park in central Italy to recce a new photo workshop. I was in good company with Mattia Cialoni, an experienced local naturalist, photographer and dear friend, as my guide. At this time of year the reddish hues of autumn are starting to come through, and animals like bears and foxes are still relatively easy to find as they branch beyond their home territories in search of easy food. I hoped we would find at least a few of the creatures that make this region so special and which, after several months of trip research, had acquired a kind of mythological status for me. With excitement and trepidation we were finally here, ready to explore the plateaux, valleys and summits of the Apennines for the animal specialists that inhabit them.
An old mountain refuge, a good spot to scan for our day's target, the Apennine Chamois. Photo © Mattia Cialoni Photography
I have always loved Italy, having lived there for several years, and I have been very fortunate to travel extensively between its regions and hike the Apennine range. But this was my first chance to bring my camera to this experience and I couldn't wait to get going. Our target for the day was the chamois, an endearing mountain antelope that lives on the mountain ridges at higher altitudes. It has an amazing ability to walk across sheer rock faces as effortlessly as walking over flat terrain. Finding a family group on the edge of a rock face was what we really wanted to see.
We were in luck. Just 2 hours into our gentle hike - which had taken us through lush beech forest then passed Lake Barrea with vistas of ancient hilltop villages, and finally entering an amphitheatre of towering peaks - we stumbled upon a family group of 8 chamois up ahead. We smelt them before we saw them: the pungent goats' cheese smell of their faeces had way-marked the last few metres of our ascent. Mother Chamois was keeping a cautious eye on us from her stony seat overhead as her 7 kids foraged nearby. Occasionally she made low whistles warning them not to get too close. We showed we were no threat by taking more interest in our prosciutto and mozzarella sandwiches, and soon we gained their trust.
Taking a lunch break also gave us the chance to calmly sit and watch the group go about their activity. Through watching animals, you discover their behaviour and character, and from there ideas for photos blossom.
Chamois look stunning in their summery finery when their fur takes on a rich brown colour. With black stripes below the eyes and along their neck and back, and a set of short textured horns, they are surely one of the most splendid-looking montane animals. My first aim was to photograph these striking features in a clean classic portrait , although I think it works quite well in black-and-white.
Chamois are not always so easy to find, living in nomadic groups, but they seem to favour rocky outcrops which they return to. The kids stuck close together, copying each other's moves; and the behaviour of one individual, whether sleeping or exploring for food, would encourage the others to follow. This gave us a good indication of where the most fruitful photo opportunities were as we could predict behaviour as it was happening.
Having won mum's confidence, we had won the whole group's confidence and we were afforded many chances to photograph these creatures at close range. I tried to resist filling the frame too tightly and include some context, even if it was just a bit of mountain side or grass, to show the environment they live in.
Interestingly I found that shooting into the late afternoon sunlight gave bright white highlights in the cottongrass and rocks, creating an almost wintery scene. The fur on this chamois' back appeared grey as it would do in winter.
As the sunlight gave away to shadow, I took a few photos in my signature low-light style, using the sun at an angle to give rim-lighting on these chamois. I will never tire of sitting on the mountainside at sunset watching incredible animals like these going about their lives undisturbed.
Photographing the chamois among the grass. Photo © Mattia Cialoni Photography
Sunset on our descent was just as memorable, with the distant peaks bathed in a pinkish glow under a brooding indigo sky - the stuff that photographers' dreams are made of. It was a fantastic day trip with the first of our target boxes ticked and many more beautiful subjects still to find on our Abruzzo adventure.
I will be running this trip next year as a photo and wildlife watching holiday with my friend Mattia. If you would like an adventure in the Italian mountains full of wonderful wildlife, breathtaking landscapes and excellent food and culture, please get in touch or keep an eye on my Workshops page for updates.