Born in in Germany’s Black Forest (in Oberwolfach, to be precise), Klaus Echle began taking photos at a young age, but it wasn’t necessarily preordained that he would become one of the most celebrated photographers of the region and its wildlife.
He started out life, in fact, as a cook. A self-described “pub kid,” he trained as a chef and worked for nearly a decade in the family restaurant business. Fate then intervened, twice.
His older brother took over the restaurant, freeing Echle to study for a forestry diploma and to find work as a forest ranger. Later, Echle’s wife and a friend convinced him to buy “proper camera equipment.” Since then, the photography awards have piled up. “I still like cooking at home, and my wife says I am a good cook,” he muses. “But the forestry profession and my work with nature is my passion.”
A Life in the Forest
Echle’s stated purpose is not to make beautiful pictures but to document behavioral patterns of animals, the endangerment of species and their habitats, and the relationship between human and animals. His approach is focused: He has spent extensive time documenting single species, among them wildcats, lynx, capercaillie (wood grouse), dormice, and bats. He has hand-fed orphaned dormice before releasing them and explored mining tunnels to find the habitats of bats.
In his near quarter-century as a forest ranger, he has seen changes, many not for the good. “Some areas have been taken out of use for commercial forestry, while others have been more intensively used, especially for recreation and sport,” he says. “There have been positive developments—some animal species have returned or increased in numbers, such as the three-toed woodpecker, the wildcat, the eagle owl, and also a few lynx have been seen.
“On a global level, the warming climate means that many animal species cannot escape to higher regions,” he says. “The Black Forest is at a middle elevation, and rises to only about 1,400 meters [4,600 feet]. This means that submontane animal and plant species such as the capercaillie may not have a long-term future there.”
Enter the Vixen
One day a few years ago, he met Sophie. He had taken one of those calls that forest rangers often get about animals trespassing in local yards—in this case, a fox. Shortly after, he got a call from a hunter who had spotted what sounded like the same animal in a nearby area. (Hunting is legal but strictly regulated in the Black Forest.)
The hunter, Anna Rummel, turned out also to be a forestry scientist, and she and Echle decided to follow and study the fox, a vixen they named Sophie. Over the course of more than half a year, Sophie became increasingly comfortable with their presence; she seemed to sense that Klaus and Anna were her friends. She would accompany them on walks in the forest, and eventually even allowed herself to be picked up and held. Throughout, she maintained her natural wariness of other humans, potential predators, and vehicles.
One day, Sophie didn’t show up, and never reappeared. Echle theorizes that she left to find her own territory, or joined with a male, or was driven away by a stronger or older fox. In interviews and his own writings, Echle never seems to mention another possibility.
Despite their beauty, Echele notes that foxes have “a rather bad public reputation.” Ironically, he notes, this may be due to human agency itself. “Because of their ability to learn and adapt well, their population density is actually often larger in settled areas than in the forest,” he says.
For Forest Shooting
Echle says the Black Forest is a four-season location for photography, but that some seasons are better than others. “My favorite seasons are autumn, because of the mist; winter, because of the snow; and spring, because of the fresh colors,” he says. “I enjoy summer photography less, as the light conditions are not as good.”
Echle’s regular equipment kit consists of two Canon EOS 5D bodies (a Mark II and Mark III), 17–40mm f/4L, 24–70mm f/2.8L, 70–200mm f/2.8L, and 300mm f/2.8L Canon EF lenses, plus a Canon accessory flash and a tripod. Echle boosts the ISO of his Canons as high as 800, and three of the photographs in this article have flash added to supplement the murky light of the forest. He says the most useful lenses overall are the 24–70mm and 70–200mm. He also uses a camouflaged blind for capturing wildlife images, although, in the case of certain forest denizens, this proves superfluous (see the photo on the facing page).
“Generally the best times of day for photography are early morning or evening,” he says. (These are also the times when many animal species are most active, affording you the opportunity to capture them in silhouette, or even in shadow, as Echle does in this portfolio.) In misty conditions, he notes, “you can photograph the whole day.”
The usual cautions on behavior apply. “Photographers, like all visitors to the forest, should behave in a sensitive and cautious way—they should avoid disturbing wildlife and damaging plants,” he says.
The Black Forest, Schwartzwald in German, occupies a rectangular area in the southwest corner of Germany, near the borders of both Switzerland and France. In size it occupies just about the same area as Yellowstone National Park. It is dotted with villages and small cities, the largest of which is Freiburg, so the region offers travel photo ops as well as nature shooting.
“The forest is best explored on foot or by bicycle,” Echle says. The Black Forest is crisscrossed with a network of well-kept and well-marked hiking trails. “A particularly nice route is the long-distance path called the Westweg, which runs 295 kilometers [183 miles] from Pforzheim in the north to Basle in the south,” he says. “This is one of the top trails in Germany, taking you from hilltops to valleys, with stays in huts or guesthouses.”
Photographers face few hazards in the forest. “There are no dangerous animals such as bears or pumas,” Echle says. “However, check your skin each evening for ticks.”
Finally, keep in mind Klaus Echle’s words: “It is my wish that wild animals in our surroundings be met with the equanimity and tolerance as the vixen Sophie showed us.”