Imagine you took the world’s 50 most famous mountains — Everest, K2, Denali, Fuji — and put their image on a flash card. Now imagine that you’ve flipped through the entire deck and quizzed yourself. Could you name most of these mountains based on their profile alone? The unique silhouette they cut into the sky? Odds are, only two of those mountains would be gimmes. Kilimanjaro and the Matterhorn. Even Kilimanjaro might be a maybe, but the Matterhorn? There isn’t another mountain on earth that rivals its facade.
On the train ride into Zermatt last summer, I had my back to the town as we rolled up the tracks. What I saw in reverse was the sight of every passenger leaning out the train windows seeking their first glance of the Matterhorn. At one point, I turned around, looked up the hillside, and bam: there it was. The sight of it made my heart skip a beat. I’m not kidding.
Photographing the Matterhorn is easy. Creating a unique image that hasn’t been done before … now that’s hard. Here are some things I learned on how to photograph the Matterhorn during my all-too-brief stay in Zermatt last June.
1. Get the Postcard Shot Out of the Way
Frankly, Zermatt would be a lot lower on the Must-See in Switzerland list if it weren’t for the Matterhorn. It’s not close to any other big tourist draws, and the town itself — while beautiful and full of nice restaurants and interesting hotels — is nothing to scream about. In fact, without the Matterhorn, Zermatt would probably be a ghost town of decayed old wooden cabins. You’ve come this far for one reason: to see this mountain. And while it is not even the tallest peak in the Mattertal Valley — four other peaks are taller — it is the only one you’ll notice from the valley floor. Because the peak is so isolated and domineering, it has become the icon of Switzerland. It’s lonely profile graces everything from the Swiss website home page to postcards to chocolate wrappers to lewd boxer shorts.
There are two places to get the iconic postcard shot. Postcard Spot #1 is just outside Zermatt on the hiking trail to Zmutt. Just after the trail leaves the road, it climbs up through grassy meadows dotted with old cabins (above). I recommend hitting this spot around 9 to 10am when the sun has illuminated the meadows. The snow-covered Matterhorn is usually 2 stops brighter than the foreground, so bracket and be ready to due some exposure balancing in post-production to capture how it looks to the naked eye.
Postcard Spot #2 is three-fourths of the way up the Gornergrat Bahn along the trail to the Riffelsee (above). This is the most photographed alpine lake in the valley, and for good reason. From this angle, the Matterhorn is more like a shark’s tooth than the usual profile. Had we not been traveling with an over-tired toddler (an entire blog post in its own right), we probably would have basked in the view for hours. The peak is perhaps at its most impressive — from anywhere in the valley, really — from this vantage point in late afternoon. The backlight, the seemingly vertical East Face, the bright blue sky, and the shimmering water of the Riffelsee create a unique magic that you’ll be hard-pressed to discover anywhere else on earth.
2. Capture the Banner Clouds
While the Matterhorn is not the tallest peak in Europe (let alone its home valley), it sure likes to act like it is. Because of its isolation, its location on the Alpine watershed, and its extremely steep slopes, the mountain creates a unique weather phenomenon known as banner clouds. In essence (and I’m trying to sound smart here, but I’m just regurging Wikipedia), wind moving around the summit creates condensation on the lee side of the peak. These vortices crop up in the afternoon, and are an indication of how inhospitable it is up on the summit (anyone up for a climb?).
From a photography perspective, the banner clouds are like a snowflake: no two are alike, meaning you can capture something truly unique at any moment. Its best to keep an eye on the peak when they form. What might look like a soupy cloud-bank can quickly evolve into a majestic flag of mist. I’ve already published my favorite banner-cloud photograph in an earlier blog post.
My advise is to just keep your camera handy at all time: banner clouds form quickly, and dissolve just as fast.
3. Pursue Non-Traditional Angles
Because we’re talking about arguably the most photographed mountain in the world, you’ll quickly discover how hard it is to shoot an original image of the Matterhorn. Interesting banner clouds and miraculous light at dawn and dusk can help your cause, but for other times of the day, it can be frustrating shooting this peak.
Compounding the frustration — especially if you are unable to hike far on the trails due to fitness, time or the presence of toddlers — is the foreground from many popular vantage points. To be brutally honest, I was disappointed a lot while visiting the Zermatt area, particularly when we traveled up to the Klein Matterhorn lift and visited the Sunnegga Paradise areas. I’m sure they are gorgeous in winter when the snow covers up all the cables, pipelines, roads, wires and development, but in summer, I found the heavy hand of Swiss craftiness to be a detractor from the scenery.
To combat this, I tried to find alternate ways to frame the Matterhorn. Ways that were unique and showed a new perspective on the peak. I’m not sure I succeeded a great deal, but two images that I’m still proud of are above. One is the Matterhorn at day’s end with one wispy cloud. This was taken from the heart of Zermatt, and it reveals just enough of the summit to make it unmistakable. As a black and white, it takes on a new life.
The other angle was with my Canon 200mm f/2.8 as we rode down from Klein Matterhorn. It was midday, and getting cloudy, but a beam of light burst forth and landed right on the famous Hörnli Hut. Situated at 3,260 meters on the northeast ridge of the Matterhorn, this improbably large “hotel” for mountain climbers is the main staging area for making an ascent via the traditional route to the mountain’s summit. Even in the above image, with a sunbeam cast right on the building, the hut is completely dwarfed by the mass of the Matterhorn.
4. Make a Memorable Portrait
This one is a bit more personal for me. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, we had an exhausting time visiting Switzerland because, well, we chose to go with our 15-month-old daughter. We don’t regret this trip in any way, but we’d be lying if we said it was easy. And poor Varenna, she was put through a lot during our two-week trip. Long train rides, odd nap times, hotels that thought a mattress on the floor counted as a “baby bed …”
Zermatt and the Matterhorn was at the end of our trip, and we finally — finally — found our groove with nap times and comfortable accommodations (sidenote: the Hotel Post is worth every Euro). On our last day, we traveled up the funicular to Sunnegga Paradise, and Varenna found her favorite place in Switzerland. A playground. An awesome playground. And while I bemoaned the dirt roads, cables, pipes and obstructions in the foreground, Varenna was ecstatic. In a field of dandelions, I snapped one of my favorite pictures of her (above left). I put it on the cover of our annual photo book of her that we give to her grandparents. It’s like: (1) oh, what a beautiful smile, and then (2) and what a beautiful field of flowers, and then (3) wait … is that the Matterhorn back there?
Sunnegga Paradise may not be the most photogenic spot for Matterhorn images, but if you are traveling with kids, they’ll love the playground, and those smiles just might last long enough for a memorable portrait.
Here’s a map of the places mentioned above.