Photographing the Fanal, Madeira’s Huge and Ancient Laurel Cloud Forest

Photographing the Fanal

The Fanal area is one of Madeira’s largest laurel forests, known for its mysterious and unusual landscape with trees said to be up to 600 years old. It grows in the northwest of the island, part of the Laurissilva ecoregion of Paul da Serra which has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.

This dense forest has been protected as the Madeira Natural Park since 1982. The Fanal laurel forest is a type of cloud forest. Cloud forests are found on mountain slopes where the moisture from the sea is precipitated as warm moist air masses blowing off the ocean which are then forced upwards by the terrain, cooling the air mass to the dew point. The moisture in the air condenses as rain or fog. The resulting climate is wet and mild, with the annual temperature moderated by the close proximity of the ocean below it.

This ancient laurel forest is a landscape photographers’ dream in the right conditions. I say that because it’s a waiting game. It’s impossible to predict the best conditions. I was very lucky in this respect, as I had a few days of perfect conditions to get lost in the mist.

My journey begins, like all my photography-inspired trips, with the planning. This involves searching the internet for ideas, locations, weather, places to stay to maximize the potential of each area and of course planning with apps like PhotoPills, the Photographer’s Ephemeris, and other resources. I also use Google maps to create a plan and pin locations and routes together.

Photographing the Fanal

This is a vital part of the trip because the time researching is as important as the trip itself, although as I get older I am less organized and obsessive than I used to be. That’s a good thing! It means that when I arrive at a location, rather than having a plan and preconceived ideas in my head, I start wandering and looking for compositions and stumble upon images rather than planning them. The buzz of finding an alignment or vision of what is in front of you is what keeps me inspired to continue getting out there and creating images.

Photographing the Fanal

This trip was an unlucky one, but also a lucky one in many ways. My plan was to spend one day in the Fanal forest and take a gamble whether the fog, mist, and cloud would show up. In any case, being my first visit to Madeira I had lots of other areas I wanted to visit and the main focus of the trip was meant to be filming with my drone and aerial photography around the Pico Ruivo, one of the island’s highest points, dubbed the Hawaii of Europe. This area is only accessible by hiking and long days spent in the mountains.

After a couple of relaxing days in the north and driving to a few spots, sticking to the plan we found ourselves in the mountains on day three. The weather forecast was okay but after a few hours and walking in what can only be described as horrendous weather, strong winds, no visibility and with heavy rain turning to sleet, I was beginning to regret the whole “stick to the plan” process that I put my wife and myself through.

Photographing the Fanal

Then without warning our plans changed. We had a break in the weather and quickly set up the drone and launched it. It flew out over some vast 3,000 feet. drops with epic scenery all around. Amazing! It was like the scenes I had seen in so many YouTube videos of the place!

I managed to take a handful of images and shoot a couple of film sequences before the controller disconnected with the drone. Helpless and without a connection, I was unable to recover the drone and after some time trying everything to recover the connection, we ended up having to walk away after watching it try to emergency land in the vast mountainous valley below, the batteries depleted and the drone in safety mode, self-landing somewhere below us never to be seen again.

That was the end of all the pre-planning of this trip. Everything had been geared to hiking and mountain photography, so we changed our plans and went to Porto Moniz in the far northwest of the island, a mere one-hour drive away.

Photographing the Fanal

Arriving at Fanal for the first time in the sunshine was a blessing. It gave me the chance to walk around and familiarize myself with the location, find some amazing trees and bookmark them on my app. This, it turns out, would make all the difference in the days to come. Walking around in clear weather is beautiful with lots of cows in the pasture and the gentle wind blowing in from the north slopes, but I quickly realized it is almost impossible to photograph here without the drama of mist and cloud.

That afternoon we went back up the winding roads of the ER209 through the dense forests in the parish of Ribeira Da Janela. The higher we got, the more mist started to roll in. The excitement and anticipation was amazing. Arriving at the main carpark I quickly got my kit together and ran off into the forest. No plans today – just shoot what you see, or not, as the case was.
This was the pattern for the next few days. In fact, each morning and afternoon we did the stunning 30-minute drive up the mountain roads to the carparks, and each time the conditions were different. Sometimes the mist would come in waves, clearing just for a brief moment for you to find your bearings before hitting you again with a blanket of mist and fog, sometimes so thick that you could only see a few meters in front of your lens.

At other times it came with strong wind and a driving rain to add to the atmosphere, compositions running through your mind, and limited time to capture those moments. As quickly as the best conditions arrived, they were replaced by harsh sunlight breaking through the clouds and lighting up the forest floor, before another wave of rain and wind arrived. It was amazing. I was in my element, reacting to the conditions around me.

Photographing the Fanal

Fanal is a masterpiece of twisted trees, covered in equally twisted branches covered in moss. Walking through this magical forest, it feels as though you are participating in the scene of a movie, with the trees talking to you and almost asking you to stop and take a look at them. Each one had their own voice, their unique identity and that ever-present whisper, leading you further and further into the empty mist-filled space, before the next silhouette appeared in the distance.

Photographing the Fanal

This portfolio of trees was shot with a minimal approach and would never have worked without the amazing weather conditions, allowing each tree to shine in its own glory, keeping my aperture around f/11 and using ISO and shutter speed to control the amount of movement in the wind, often playing with these settings for different artistic approaches. The result is a selection of beautiful trees telling their own story, one that has taken hundreds of years to tell.

The article is courtesy of ELEMENTS Magazine. Elements is the monthly magazine dedicated to the finest landscape photography, insightful editorials and fluid, clean design. Inside you will find exclusive and in-depth articles and imagery by the best landscape photographers in the world such as Paul Wakefield, Christian Fletcher, Bruce Barnbaum, Rachael Talibart, Charles Cramer, Hans Strand, Sandra Bartocha and Christopher Burkett, to name a few. Use the PETAPIXEL10 code for a 10% discount off the annual subscription.

About the author: Tim Nevell is a landscape photographer based in West Sussex, UK. His images “are the result of combining travel style documentary photos with a minimal approach and finding graphic symmetry and space in the landscape for the image to talk to me. It has been a natural progression from my early work of filling the lens with as much as I could fit in, to my more minimalist approach you will find throughout my portfolio today. I look through my lens and wonder what will happen next, and what the viewer sees.”