Poland’s first civilisation dates back to about 400 B.C., but it wasn’t until A.D. 966 that the region’s tribes became united under the Slavic chief Mieszko, the first prince of Polska. In the late 1500s, Poland and Lithuania joined together and formed a large, powerful commonwealth with elected kings.
Poland is steeped in hundreds of years of wartime history dating back to the Battle of Cedynia 972, the Battle of Legnica 1241, the Battle of Grunwald 1410 and the Battle of Vistula Lagoon 1463. Poland is also home to the remnants of Nazi Germany’s occupation (1939-1945).
Poland is the home of the delicacy pierogi and many other good foods, former Pope John Paul II, hundreds of miles of ancient forests, river trails, waterfalls, mountains, ancient mounds, 500 castles, 2,500 palaces, the famous Trail of the Eagles Nest and Zakopane pronounced Za·ko·pa·nuh.
Zakopane is a town in the extreme south of Poland, in the Podhale region’s southern part at the foot of the Tatra Mountains‘. The earliest documents mentioning Zakopane date back to the 17th century, describing a glade called Zakopisko.
In 1676, it was a village of 43 inhabitants. In 1818, Zakopane was a small town that was still being developed. There were only 340 homes that held 445 families. The population of Zakopane at that time was 1,805: 934 women and 871 men. The first church was built in 1847 by Józef Stolarczyk.
Today, Zakopane is home to 27,200 inhabitants (census 2017), of which 2 million tourists visit annually. While there’s still a great deal of construction work on the outskirts of Zakopane, the region is mainly developed with hotels, hostels, supermarkets, restaurants, pubs and bars, train stations, trams, mountain chairlifts and cable cars. Food and drink are somewhat pricey depending on where you choose to eat out, as is travelling about; however, for the most part, prices are fair.
This was my first visit to Zakopane, so I looked forward to it. My family and I departed from Częstochowa at nine in the morning by car and reached Zakopane just before midday. The drive was pleasant. There were a few road tolls on the way that delayed us, but apart from that, all was well. Afterwards, we passed Krakow and Gorczański Park Narodowy (Gorce National Park). From there, the views were pretty stunning as we began our ascent from the low grounds of Poland to the high grounds.
Zakopane is Poland’s highest town, with an elevation of around 750-1000 meters above sea level. The roads leading into Zakopane are primarily steep climbs, and your ears regularly pop on the ascent. However, as mentioned, it’s worth it because once you reach the outskirts of Zakopane, a whole new world of ancient green forests and huge mountainous terrain greets you.
After we had arrived in Zakopane, we checked into our log cabin close to the Giewont Mountain and the Cicha Woda. Cicha Woda is a small stream that flows from the high Tatra Mountains through Zakopane. Cicha Woda means (quiet water) in Polish which we found very relaxing, especially at night-time. After we had settled in and unpacked, my family and I began exploring.
I spent the majority of my first day in Zakopane at Gubalowka. Gubalowka is an excellent observation point where you can safely scan the mountains, forests, and high grounds for an appropriate shooting and hiking point. Gubalowka sits at an elevation of 1,226 meters above sea level and is ten minutes from the local town centre.
The image above is one of many I shot from Gubalowka that illustrates the Gerlachov Peak or Gerlachovský štít. The shortest road distance between Gubalowka and Gerlachovský štít is approximately 77.8 km (48.3 miles) by car and 17.2 km (10.6 miles) as the crow flies.
Only members of a national UIAA club are allowed to climb the peak on their own. Other visitors have to take a certified mountain guide. The climb is worth every penny, and the scenes are spectacular. If you enjoy mountaineering, get your UIAA certificate. Once qualified, you can work at your own pace without time limits.
From a photographer’s perspective, Gubalowka hosts the best frontal views of Wielki Kopieniec, Mount Giewont, Kondracka Kopa and Wołowiec. Wołowiec is probably my favourite of all the mountain peaks because of its symmetrical shapes, long windy paths and low, dense cloud cover.
The cloud cover was thick and low during our stay in Zakopane. Therefore, I couldn’t shoot any clear imagery of Wołowiec. However, I was fortunate enough to shoot numerous atmospheric mountainous terrain images from Gubalowka before the haze and clouds set in.
The image above illustrates the Giewont Summit, known as the King of Zakopane or (The Sleeping Knight). The Giewont Summit is approximately 1,897 meters above sea level, which tourists can climb; however, it’s not easy and will take about three hours to reach the summit and a further 8.2 hours to complete the circular route.
Alternatively, if you’re not able to climb the mountains on foot, there are cable cars and mountain chairlifts that leave every half hour, albeit they are pricy. When paying for your ticket, you need to check your departure time (when you want to go) and arrival time (when you want to come back). Ensure you input the correct dates, times, names, and contact telephone numbers because tickets cannot be refunded.
Tickets for the cable car in the high season are approximately £20 for an adult return and £18 for a child return. During the low season, an adult return is about £14, and a child return is about £10. To avoid long queues, booking your tickets online is probably best. Alternatively, you can book days in advance too.
Ticket prices do vary depending on where you shop. I purchased my ticket from the ticket machine near the cable cars. However, there are cheaper options online, at the local post office in Zakopane centrum at Krupówki 20, 34-500 Zakopane, Poland, or you can buy from several express ticket machines dotted around Zakopane.
The ticket machines and online ticket service provide verbal and written instructions and commands in English, French and German. Alternatively, there are manned kiosks, though the queues can stretch for some distance, so you must leave early. I found the ticket machines relatively easy to use, with no hidden charges. However, I cannot vouch for every ticket machine or vendor.
It’s also worth noting if you’re late for your departure, you may need to buy a new ticket. Moreover, if you stay at the summit past your (arrival home time) or miss your cable car, you will be charged approximately £5.00 extra for a new ticket back down.
The last cable car leaves the summit at 1900hrs in the winter and 2100hrs in the summer. Cable cars and stairlifts can only be accessed by public transport. If you’re using a rental vehicle, it’s probably best to park your car some distance from the central public car park and transport facilities because parking charges close to the stairlifts and cable cars are expensive. Taxis to and from the cable cars are laid on for tourists because the public is strictly forbidden from parking close to the protected parks.
If you’re thinking of hiking the Giewont Summit or taking cable cars or mountain chairlifts for a long photography project, you must plan your journey. It’s best to leave early in the morning at sunrise and take plenty of fluids, food, and essentials in the event of an emergency. You’ll need suitable footwear, a rucksack, waterproofs, and sun cream. Furthermore, keep an eye on the weather. Weather conditions in the Tatra National Park can be unpredictable.
Wild camping is illegal in the Tatra Mountains on the Polish side. Tourists found to be illegally camping will be fined £90 each. Tourists can pitch a tent on the Slovak side in a few designated camping spots. However, camping is illegal in level 3 zones on the Slovak side. The Tatra National Park is home to numerous wild animals ranging from brown bears, Eurasian lynx, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and several endangered species of flora and fauna.
If you’re thinking of planning a long journey or vacation in the Tatra Mountains, then it’s probably best to book a mountain hut for the night or even a few weeks. There’s plenty of accommodation available on both the Polish and Slovak sides. The Dolina Chocholowska is the largest mountain hut in the Tatras that boasts 121 beds in rooms for two people or dorms of 4,6,8, and 14. Alternatively, you’ve Morskie Oko, which boasts stunning views all year round. For more information about accommodation in the Tatras, please click this link here and here.
After I had finished shooting for the day, we decided to tour the local town centre. The unusual location of the town, hidden between a gentle range of Gubałówka and the rocky Tatra summits, was a decisive factor in its career as a tourism centre.
As early as the end of the 18th century, Zakopane, a small and remote village located at the southern end of Poland, started attracting the first summer holidaymakers. The visitors arrived mainly from Cracow in horse carts, often carrying domestic equipment, which they couldn’t find in the modest highland peasant cottage.
In 1889 Zakopane became a health resort attracting patients suffering from tuberculosis. When in 1898, the construction works on a railway track were finished, the first train from Kracow reached the town. This rapidly increased the number of tourists from 1,600 in 1898 to over 10,000 in 1900 (over 2 million at present).
Zakopane is home to many cultures and dialects, not forgetting good food. We decided to eat at the Restauracja Owczarnia, which served the most amazing authentic Polish delicacies. For dinner, I had the traditional fire-roasted pork knuckle. The horse radish was a tad too much, and I skipped the traditional potatoes and had fries instead. The meat was so tender it fell away with the slightest touch, and the crackling was out of this world. Prices are fair. For a family of four, we paid just over £60.00.
After eating, we returned to our log cabin and settled in for the night. Cabin hostels are relatively cheap in Zakopane; we paid £35 per night. We chose a shared facility with our own private rooms, walk-in showers, baths, comfortable beds, a large functional kitchen, television, radio and Wi-Fi.
On our second day, we rose early and decided to go our own way exploring. My partner and the children chose to explore the town centre, home to the Upside-Down House and the Be Happy Museum. The Upside-Down House is somewhat overrated. However, the children and mum had fun in the Be Happy Museum. I regret not visiting the museum because it’s home to various candid photography ideas.
The Be Happy Museum is where dreams come true, and the imagination turns into a sweet and colourful experience. This is a place where illusion stuns and laughs to tears. There are dozens of scenes for taking photos, including a marshmallow foam pool, a banana swing, a magic unicorn and much more.
If you’re into candid photography or looking for a few different ideas to make your portfolio or social media page pop, the Be Happy Museum may be up your street. The Be Happy Museum is also great for young budding amateur photographers.
While the family enjoyed themselves in the Zakopane town centre, I decided to head to the Tatra summit. I took the cable car, which took approximately fifteen minutes. The views from the base camp to the summit were incredible. However, it’s probably worth noting that the ride-up may not suit you if you fear heights or suffer vertigo or claustrophobia. If you do have a fear of being in enclosed environments, you can take the chairlifts.
If you’re planning on visiting Zakopane for a landscape photography project, you will need a variety of wide-angle and telephoto zoom lenses, filters, and a sturdy tripod. Before leaving England, I had conducted what I believed was enough research on Zakopane to ensure I was carrying the correct equipment.
Unfortunately, I overlooked a few environmental obstacles, i.e., dense haze, thick low clouds and intense mountain sunlight. I could have done with an antistatic UV/haze and skylight filter set, variable NDs, a polariser set and a light pollution filter. However, I had to make do with what I had.
For this brief photography project, I took the following equipment:
- Sony A7 IV and Sony’s first flagship A7 series
- FLM CP34-L4 II tripod
- Sony 24-105mm FE f4G, Sony 12-24mm f/4 G, and the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master OSS
- 0.6 medium grad and the 0.3 and 0.45 hard grad
- 3, 6, 7, 10 and 15-stop neutral density filters
- Polariser filters
- Extra batteries
- Bank chargers and cables
- IR wireless shutter release
- Camera, lens and sensor cleaning kit
- Clip-on shade umbrella
- Hiking Boots
- Thin warm coat
- Viper tactical shoulder bag (with extra clip-on webbing pouches)
- Badger Balm
Once I arrived at the Tatra summit, I knew immediately that any form of photography would be challenging. Weather conditions at the summit near Szlak Pieszy Czerwony were unfortunately bleak for the first few hours, with dense, sweeping low-level clouds covering the mountain range. Visibility was also poor, making hiking along the cobbled paths and jagged rocks difficult and slow.
I set my tripod up at Szlak Pieszy Czerwony, hoping the cloud cover would give me a few hours of photography practice; however, this never happened. Momentary breaks in the cloud revealed incredible scenes of mountainous terrain, and below me, at about 800 feet, stunning views of running streams, a waterfall, and cloudy blue lakes.
Unfortunately, due to the precarious terrain and sweeping cloud cover, I decided to stay put and try my best with the equipment I had. After several hours, I decided it was probably best to head back down. Cloud cover was intense during my trip, reducing visibility to a few feet, and I needed to be back on time for my cable car.
Low and dense cloud is a regular atmospheric event in most high mountain ranges. When the wind blows across a mountain range, air rises and cools, and clouds can form. Some clouds form when air encounters a mountain range or other terrain. Unfortunately, because camping is prohibited in the Tatras, it wasn’t wise to stay much longer, especially with sunset nearing. Therefore, I will book a log cabin in the mountains on my next visit.
Local mountain guides did explain that the best time to climb the summit for photography is between June and September and to keep an eye on the local weather bulletins instead of national forecasts before setting off.
With that said, I don’t regret travelling to the summit, and now that I know what to look out for and what equipment to take with me, I’ll be better prepared. In addition, the local guides pointed out that the best observation points for all year-round landscape photography are at a low-level, especially during the winter when the mountains are usually covered in thick snow blankets.
I didn’t take any video footage at the summit. Still, to give you some idea of how alluring but dangerous these mountain peaks are, I’ve included a video below for your information. The hikers in this video were fortunate enough to climb on a clear day. The video illustrates climbers on the path to Mount Rysy.
As mentioned in my article, please take the correct clothing, footwear and essentials before climbing the Tatras. During my time at the summit, I witnessed some foolish tourist behaviour ranging from selfies on the edge of cliff faces, tourists barging other tourists out of the way on paths no wider than a few feet, and plenty of tourists not wearing suitable clothing. The Tatras must be treated with respect at all times. If in doubt, please read the rules here and here before your ascent.
Drone photography is strictly prohibited on the Polish and Slovakian sides of the Tatras to protect vulnerable wildlife and low-flying aircraft in the national parks. Tourists caught flying their drones without federal park authorities’ permission could be issued a warning or a fine of up to £55.
The High Tatras are home to 200 lakes. The best lakes I viewed were Czarny Staw, the Smreczynski Pond, the Great Polish Pond and Morskie Oko. However, I found them to be crowded with tourists. Therefore, I didn’t bother shooting much in the way of photography. While it’s nice to have the occasional person wandering about in a landscape, especially if you’re shooting a storytelling illustration, a few hundred tourists in bright, high-visibility clothing do not make for a nice image.
However, on the Slovakian side, where there are fewer tourists, there are ample shooting opportunities to shoot some pretty dramatic landscape images with lakes and huts in the foreground. Popradské pleso tarn looked incredible, with thick clouds sweeping over the ancient forests. This would have made for an astonishing landscape image because the scenes are dramatic. There are many leading lines in the landscape to work from and storytelling options, especially during sunrise and sunset.
The High Tatras are also home to several alluring waterfalls, which make for a great long-exposure landscape project. Waterfalls are situated on the Slovakian and Polish sides. The Wielka Siklawa is the largest of them all and is said to be Poland’s pride and joy. Unfortunately, during tourist season, it is packed. Therefore, Czarnostawiańska Siklawa is the next best option for a long-exposure project.
The town of Zakopane is the highest point in Poland, and it’s one of the most beautiful towns on the planet I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. However, don’t let its mesmerising beauty give you a false sense of security. The Tatra mountains have claimed many lives. Therefore, you must respect the Tatras at all times. Paths at the top are steep and only a few feet wide in some regions. One wrong move, and it’s a long way down.
My family and I rented a 4×4 vehicle for our fifteen days stay in Poland. Rental cars are more convenient, cheaper, and easier to get about. We departed Częstochowa in the morning and reached Zakopane in under four hours. The drive was pleasant and scenic; we only made a few stops on the way. There were several road tolls on the way, which held us up by a few minutes per stop; however, apart from that, everything was plain sailing.
That said, various transport options (on the Polish side) are available for tourists wanting to holiday in Zakopane. However, there are no direct flights to Zakopane. The closest airport to Zakopane is Poprad–Tatry Airport (TAT) which is approximately 20.4 miles from Zakopane by car. Alternatively, tourists can fly to Krakow Airport and take the shuttle bus to Zakopane.
Zakopane does have a train station that ferries passengers to and from Krakow and Warsaw; however, most people travel by coach, rental car or rideshare schemes. If your travel options are limited or you fear flying, you can catch a train from London that will take you into mainland Europe onto Zakopane.
However, it’s not easy, and you will need to change trains and coaches on the way; depending on which services you use, the entire journey will take around 22-36 hours, and your final stop will be Zakopane Train Station. The only disadvantage of travelling from London to Zakopane is the price, which can range between £230-£579 per person for a return ticket.
In my opinion, Zakopane hosts everything a landscape photographer craves, such as mountainous terrain, atmospheric scenes, leading lines, curves and lots of symmetry, ancient forests, mystical lakes, streams, waterfalls, wildlife and miles upon miles of lush green pasture that’s home to ferns, wild grasses, 720 kinds of moss, liverworts, alpines, poppies and bell flowers, etc.
Zakopane and the Tatras have much to offer in the way of storytelling landscape illustrations; for example, there were many occasions I witnessed hikers ascending the Tatra cliff face only to stop and evaluate their surroundings before vanishing into the thick cloud cover. That would have made a good image. Solo rock climbers can also be viewed taking a break on various cliff ledges overlooking nearby lakes with fog and clouds sweeping over them.
Sunrises and sunsets over Zakopane and the Tatras offer a great display of colour too, and when the temperature drops, you can often see a lone mountain house or hut with the lights on and a log fire burning in the distance.
The early morning dew and fog wafting over Zakopane are also worthy of a good storytelling illustration. In wintertime, skiers can be spotted taking chairlifts up the mountains through the dense cloud and then appearing at speed through the cloud, skiing down to the bottom of the hills. So, I think Zakopane and the Tatra mountains offer everything a landscape photographer dreams about.
The Tatra mountains are home to approximately 200 lakes best viewed at high elevations on a clear day and lower elevations on a cloudy day. The Great Polish Pond is the most beautiful, situated 1,665 meters above sea level. On a clear day, the Great Polish Pond looks spellbinding and medieval; however, the scenes are magical when low clouds whip over the pond and surrounding trees. In addition, the leading lines in the landscape at the Great Polish Pond also make for a great print.
Autumn is the best time to visit Zakopane; September and October are very sunny. That said, I did find it challenging to shoot the mountains at the end of September because it was so hazy. In addition, I also noticed a slight presence of smog over the town, which is not unusual, but pollution and haze are somewhat of a nightmare when it comes to landscape photography.
Tourists visit Zakopane all year round, of which Summer and Winter are Zakopane’s busiest seasons. Therefore, exploring other regions of Zakopane and the Tatras with less human traffic may be wise to obtain the best landscape images. Moreover, I recommend a 7–14-day trip to Zakopane and the Tatras to ensure you shoot enough photos to work with once you’re back home.
Tourists can also hike through the Tatras into Slovakia, which I highly recommend to all my landscape photography friends. There are huts and small mountain hostels in the Tatras where you can stay for the night or a long weekend; however, please be advised that camping is strictly forbidden on the Slovakian side in zone 3 regions. The High Tatras are also suitable for Astrophotography too.
When visiting the Tatras, you can do so from either the Polish or Slovakian side. Both sides are busy. However, the Slovakian side seems quieter, less crowded, and touristy. Since driving to the High Tatras of Slovakia takes longer, fewer people are here. And since it does not work as a day trip option from Bratislava or Krakow, day trippers do not add to the crowd levels.
The trails are less crowded on the Slovakian side, and the lines for the cable cars are much shorter. It feels more peaceful on this side of the mountain range. If you want a fantastic hiking destination away from the crowds, driving to the Slovakian side of the Tatras is worth the extra time.
There seem to be more hiking options and picturesque views on the Slovakian side than on the Polish side. In addition, there are multiple cable cars on the Slovakian side that you can ride up into the mountains. This makes hiking accessible for many people. Cable cars save time and effort by eliminating the first significant climb. From a photographer’s point of view, the hiking trails are much more dramatic on the Slovakian side too.
Most of the Tatras mountain range is located on the Slovakian side, so if you want to hike high into the mountains and photograph some dramatic scenery, the Slovakia side is ideal. That said, walking on the Polish side is just as picturesque too.
The High Tatras of Slovakia is more remote than Zakopane. The closest city is Krakow, 2.5 hours away by car (on the Polish side). The nearest city is Bratislava (on the Slovakian side), which is over 3 hours away by car. Poprad is a small city that is located near the High Tatras. It is possible to take a flight here, but your options will be limited.
You can get here by public bus or train, but to do so, expect several transfers. The most convenient way to tour the High Tatras of Slovakia is by car, although you can also get around by bus.
Since a day trip to the Slovakian Tatras from Bratislava or Krakow is not a great option, you will need to spend several days here. Two days are enough to hike one or two trails and ride a cable car into the mountains. Three days is better, and four or more days would be perfect. If you’re looking to explore and capture dramatic imagery, then 10-14 days is best; trust me, you won’t regret it.
Regarding photography equipment and travelling, it’s best to plan before travelling and keep an eye on local weather updates, not national metrological reports. If you’re looking at staying in the mountains on either side, you will need a sleeping bag, bathroom essentials, universal plug adaptors, bank chargers, etc.
Moreover, you will need a strong rucksack (with a waterproof high-viz cover), euros because credit cards are not accepted everywhere, a thin waterproof coat, suitable clothing (especially for climbing), and footwear. I took two cameras with me, one fitted with a wide-angle lens and the other with a telephoto zoom lens.
For this trip, I took the basic Sony A7 and the Sony A7 IV, and I brought the Sony 24-105mm FE f4G, Sony 12-24mm f/4 G, and the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master OSS lenses. That said, I could have done with a longer lens, i.e., the Sony FE 200-600mm, for more detailed storytelling images.
I found the vast majority of mountain haze and smog confined to the Zakopane region of Poland. While there is also hazy weather on the Slovakian side, the weather conditions seemed much calmer. That said, it’s always best to go prepared with the correct lens filters, variable polarisers, variable neutral density filters, graduated neutral density filters, light pollution filters and an antistatic UV/haze filter set.
Regarding tripods and ball heads, it’s probably best to take a strong tripod with a stiff ball head. I took the FLM CP34-L4 II tripod fitted with the BH-55 ball head. I had no significant issues with the tripod; however, I struggled on steep inclines where the paths were no more than a few feet wide. Therefore, for my next trip. I will be looking into a bespoke tripod designed especially for mountaineering.
When hiking through the Tatras, I noticed several tourists had suffered injuries consistent with falling and sliding, all of which were not wearing suitable clothing for climbing and hiking, i.e., shorts, t-shirts, sandals, and trainers. While some paths through the High Tatras are easy to walk, most aren’t, especially over jagged rocks. Therefore, it’s imperative to take the correct clothing.
I hope this article has been of use to you. If you have any questions, please feel free to drop me an email.
Thank you for reading.