What is a better subject for an iconic landscape photo than a majestic mountain peak? While mountains provide an ideal setting for nature photography, they also present some challenges. In this post we’ll look at 10 tips that can help you to get the best results with your own mountain photography.
Photo by Markus Spiske
1. Plan Ahead and Anticipate the Lighting
Planning ahead is always important, regardless of whether you are shooting mountains or some other type of landscape. There are two reasons that I think planning is especially important for mountain photography:
1) You may need to do a lot of hiking and expending a lot of energy (and taking time) to get from one place to another. Planning ahead can help you to be in the right spot at the right time without wandering around spending a lot of time and energy trying to find the shot that you want. Tools like Google Earth can be helpful for planning and scouting.
2) Lighting can be very challenging in the mountains. Peaks can block the sun and valleys can be in deep shadow, so planning ahead can help to anticipate the conditions and the lighting. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a helpful tool for planning based on lighting, and of course, watching the weather forecast is important as well.
2. Understand that Golden Hour Could Be Very Short, or Non-Existent
Photo by Ales Krivec
Typically with landscape photography the best time is right around sunrise and sunset. But in the mountains you may find that, depending on your location, the peaks could block the sun and shorten, or even eliminate, the golden hour. This won’t be the case in every situation, but be aware that waiting for the golden hour may leave you without the shot that you were after.
Related reading: Guide to Shooting Landscapes in Low Light
3. Include Foreground Interest in Your Composition
Photo by Michael Hirsch
Foreground interest is an import part of composition for landscape and nature photography, and perhaps it is never more evident than in photos of mountain peaks. If the peak or peaks are the focal point of the shot you don’t want the foreground to dominate the composition, but you do want to have some interest that will pull viewers in. In some cases you can use a foreground element with leading lines that will direct the viewer’s eye to the mountain peak.
4. Change Your Perspective
Mountainous areas obviously include a great deal of variety in topography, and changing your perspective even just a little bit can have a dramatic effect on the end result. Rather than limiting yourself to one spot, try hiking or some light climbing to get to a different elevation that will give you an alternative perspective of the same scene. In many cases the most interesting and unique photos will come from different perspectives. This is especially true when you are shooting at a popular location that has already been photographed countless times before.
5. Include People for Scale
Photo by Lee Roylland
With most landscape photos you are probably trying to eliminate people from your composition in any way possible. However, sometimes it can be a good idea to include a person, or a group of people, in your shots to help give a perspective on the scale of the landscape. You certainly don’t need to do this with every shot, but look for the right opportunities.
6. Include Water in the Composition, When Possible
Photo by Alberto Restifo
Related reading: Using Reflections in Landscape Photography
7. Bracket Your Shots
Photo by Alejandro Gonzalez
Because the lighting and shadows can be quite tricky in the mountains, bracketing your photos can be a good practice. This means that you would take multiple shots of the same scene (usually with your camera on a tripod) exposing one shot for the lightest part of the scene, like the sky, and exposing another shot for the darkest area in the scene, like the shadows of the valley. The exposures can then be blended manually in Photoshop, or you can use them to create an HDR image in Lightroom, Photomatix, or some other HDR software. Sometimes two different exposures is enough, and in other cases where there is a greater variance from light to dark you may want to take 3, 5, or 7 shots.
To learn how to use Lightroom’s HDR merge please see this video tutorial.
8. Use a Small Aperture
In general, a small aperture (larger f/stop number) will allow you to keep more of the scene in focus. With mountain shots you will typically want as much of the scene to be in focus as possible. Not only do you want the foreground elements to be in focus, but you also want the distant peaks to be in focus. A small aperture like f/16 – f/22 can help to accomplish this, but be aware that each lens is a little different. Don’t assume that shooting at f/22 will automatically give you the sharpest image. Most lenses have a range where they tend to be the sharpest, so it is important to test your lenses and know how they perform. You may find that you’ll get the sharpest photos at somewhere around f/11 – f/16 instead of pushing it closer to f/22.
Related reading: 11 Steps to Tack-Sharp Landscape Photos
9. Carry a Lightweight Tripod
When photographing mountains you will typically need to hike, and in some cases you may even need to do extensive hiking, climbing, and camping. The weight of your tripod can have a big impact whenever you are doing these types of activities. Having a lighter tripod will make your trek much easier and will keep you from leaving your tripod at home simply because you don’t want to carry it.
10. Don’t Limit Yourself to Iconic Shots
Photo by John Salzarulo
Many of the mountains that are popular photographic subjects have certain views that are iconic and have been seen many times by most viewers. While there is nothing wrong with taking some shots of your own from these common angles and perspectives, if you want to create something that really gets the attention of the viewer it is difficult to accomplish when you are basically re-creating a shot that has already been seen many times. If you are at popular destinations you can look for new perspectives to get a unique shot. And if you are researching places to go, consider locations that aren’t as familiar to most viewers. There are many great destinations that will give you the opportunity for amazing shots that most people have never seen.