Getting close to the Chamois

One of the biggest challenges of wildlife photography is getting close enough to the species to take a decent photograph without causing any disturbance.

Often this can be achieved in set up conditions, however, my personal preference is to always, where I can, figure out my own way of getting close to animals and photographing them in their environment.

On a recent visit to Switzerland, we were staying in the Swiss Alps and I knew that there were chamois in the surrounding mountains. While chatting with a neighbour in the village, I was recommended to keep an ear out for falling rocks which can help you to locate the chamois as they traverse the cliff ledges.

This inspired my next photography project: photographing chamois in their habitat.

Chamois Ecology

Chamois  (Rupicapra rupicapra) are a type of goat antelope, native to the mountain ranges in Europe, including the Swiss Alps. They  inhabit steep, rocky areas in the mountains,  utilising a range of habitats including alpine meadows, open rocky areas, mixed broadleaf and coniferous woodland.

We were staying at about 1100m, and I would regularly see the chamois about this altitude and higher, up to 1800m. 

In winter, chamois come down to lower altitudes despite the unfortunate impact that humans have on the species.

Hunting is a bit of a threat to chamois, and in some countries, they are subject to intensive conservation measures which aim to educate, raise awareness, reduce poaching and reduce the impacts on their habitat, such as utilising sustainable farming practices and promoting more sustainable development.

As far as their diet goes, chamois are a specialist of alpine habitats, and they feed on grasses, herbs, tree leaves, pine needles, buds, bark and fungi. I would often see them grazing on alpine meadows, as well as nibbling leaves off trees clinging to very sheer rock faces.

Chamois are diurnal which means they are active through the day, but tend to be most active in the morning. This meant that I would need to be out early in the mornings, as usual!

Using the Car as a hide

For this project, I decided to use my car as a hide again like I’ve done previously in Cumbria to photograph brambling and on the Isle of Mull to photograph wildlife. This was not only convenient for getting up and down the steep mountain roads and being able to experiment with different vantage points, but it also minimised disturbance to the chamois who didn’t seem bothered at all by the car and would walk right past at sometimes no more than 20 metres away.

I would often see a few chamois together in small herds of about three to five. These are likely to be females with their young, as females and the young live in herds of 5 to 30, whereas males tend to be solitary for most of the year.

During the summer, the chamois has dark brownish coats and this helps them really blend into the mountain habitat. Both sexes are similar, with white markings on their face, and both have straightish horns with hooked tips pointing backwards. The males are slightly larger than the females. In winter, their coats turn a lighter grey.

While I was photographing them it was just incredible to see how well adapted to their environment they are, and how adept they are at traversing, even jumping on the cliff ledges on these blood curdlingly sheer mountain faces.

Ideally I was looking to get some zoomed out photos to show the environment, but in practice I found this quite difficult as the chamois themselves would then become tiny and get lost in the frame. I started to look for angles or locations where they would be more pronounced, such as on a rock outcrop, or standing atop a prominent ridge.

Due to low light conditions and the constant mist and drizzle, while I was out shooting for this project (thanks Switzerland!), I mostly found that I had to use a very low shutter speed and very high ISO, sometimes up to 6400.

These settings are not a strong suit of this particular camera and it really pushed it to its limits. The challenge was to lower my ISO by lowering my shutter speed as low as I could and still get a sharp image. 

I would rest the camera and lens on the window ledge to reduce camera shake and take several frames in the hopes that the chamois would be still enough in at least one of them.

While the conditions weren’t ideal, it did give me scope to take more atmospheric shots. I was also filming for a video, and while it takes some getting used to, it’s a really enjoyable experience to be filming and taking photos, and my camera handled that pretty well. I use the presets on the Canon 7D mark ii to quickly switch from filming to taking photos – You can check out my post and video here for more info on this.

These grim weather conditions continued for a few days – quite a contrast to the sunny days, harsh light, and blue skies earlier in my trip.

Persistence

I’d not been getting anything close to the shots I wanted on the first day, and I don’t think I took a single picture on the second and third days. This can happen occasionally – it’s one of the frustrations of being a wildlife photographer. However, persistence pays off, and on the fourth morning, it all came together and I got the shot I was looking for.

This particular image I am really pleased with as it really shows the harshness and beauty of the habitat, the landscape and the environment that the chamois inhabit. It is textured, not two dimensional, and really shows the angles of the slopes and ledges, as well as the pine, without overshadowing the chamois itself, so it is a photograph that I am proud of and it was worth it to stake out these guys over the four days.

Taking on this project was challenging, and there were times when I really thought it might lead to nothing. Practicing patience and persistence is a really big part of the photography journey, and it invariably is worth it to persevere even if just to practice that skill as you’ll no doubt need it at some point!

Have you been there? Does this resonate?

Please do leave a comment – I’d be really interested to know what you think of this project, the photography, and what your tips are to hone your patience. As always, if you have a question or a comment, I’ll do my best to respond to each and every one!

Thanks for reading 🙂