There is something innate about mountains that draws people to the hills. They are harsh and unforgiving. A hostile environment. For centuries humans have looked upwards in wonder. Can this face be climbed? Can I stand atop that peak? The mountains don’t care for the plight of humans. They’re a frontier that we can only conquer momentarily; we may win the battle, but never the war. There’s just something about big rocks…
Undoubtedly you have felt this draw, and as a photographer have desired to capture this ambiguous feeling through your lens. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you are sent home with your tail between your legs. Fortunately for you, someone else (me!) has got out there and learned the hard lessons so you don’t have to. Here are my 13 tips for improving your mountain landscape photography…
1. Live in the Mountains
My number one tip for improving your mountain landscape photography may seem daft, but there’s more to it.
Every day I look at the mountains. I’m looking at the mountains right now as I write this. By spending so much time marvelling at lofty peaks in my backyard I begin to notice the intricacies in the steep faces, and patchwork of snow and rock.
When you live in the mountains you get to learn their flow. You learn how the light hits the slopes and lights up ravines and rock faces at certain times of the day. You see the rock stand still but the weather, the snowpack, the springtime growth change around it.
By spending more time in the mountains, just observing them, you will improve as a landscape photographer.
2. Research and your intended location
Locations planning is key to successful mountain landscape photography. Sometimes magic just happens by chance, but it helps to account for least some of the variables.
Most importantly, when considering a location don’t forget to factor in the direction of light. What time will light hit this face/ridge/canyon wall? Will it be best to shoot at sunset or sunrise? Will the scene be shadowed by neighboring mountains?
Think bigger picture as well as daily. Consider when the best time of year is to visit a particular location. We all love vacationing in summer, but winter can make unique photographs of popular locations.
Plan ahead and you’ll be more successful more often. Pro tip: wear a watch.
3. Search For and Photograph Unique Natural Features
Many National Parks and protected lands possess great natural landscapes that are signposted, and pointed on maps. But don’t be fooled into thinking these are the only places to find great landscapes.
The first thing I do when researching an area to explore is open up Google Maps. I flick between views, and click around, hoping for something to catch my eye. Recently I came across a mountain valley that appears dead straight and perfectly U-shaped, carved by a long gone glacier. I tried to make it back but the snow became too deep and the trail impassable (the snow is melting fast, so I’ll try again in a few weeks!).
Start exploring dusty dirt roads and places people don’t go and you’ll start finding unique landscapes. Some of the most impressive landscapes I have come across have happened by chance while exploring BLM lands. It helps to be in the middle of nowhere.
4. Compose Your Photograph with Complimentary and Interesting Layers
Generally speaking, adding layers to an image makes it more interesting. Think of your classic mountain scene – Wild flowers in the foreground, an alpine lake in the middle, and in the background a snow capped ridgeline. Adding elements to the fore, middle, and background give the image a sense of expanse. It draws the viewer in. They can smell the flowers as they stand by the lake, the peaks towering above them. In a single image you have created a better sense of the location.
Be thoughtful when composing your image. Choose elements that are complementary, or interesting. Choose elements that express your experience with the natural world at that moment. Once you have decided what you want in the photograph, compose your elements in a visually pleasing way. Explore reflections, symmetry, and framing, and you’ll be soon shooting unique mountain landscapes.
5. Have A Subject
An easy way to really boost a mountain landscape photo is to include a manmade or natural subject. An eagle soaring above a peak is more interesting than the peak by itself; a mountain valley in spring is more interesting when you dot in an old miners cabin by the river. These elements evoke a story. On their own, the mountains are just big lumps of rock. But, by adding a subject, you can bring your scene to life.
Unfortunately this isn’t a Bob Ross tutorial, and it’s pretty hard to drop in a happy little elk drinking from the stream. But, it’s not hard to find these elements. A Google search can yield results for nearby human relics, abandoned places, and prime wildlife viewing locations. I spend a lot of time exploring the mountains and I find myself stumbling on these scenes frequently. The more you get out there, the more conscious you become to the wildlife, plantlife and oddities you can find deep in the mountains.
6. Focus Stacking
This is a technique used to get your entire photography – fore, middle and background – in focus. This is done by taking multiple photographs, focusing your lens on different areas of the background, then compiling the focused part of each photograph into one fully focused image.
This yields sharper results than shooting a single photograph at f/22+. A lens typically has a sweet spot for sharpness (somewhere between f/8-11), and by focus stacking, the entire image will have maximum sharpness.
First, set up your camera on a tripod, making sure your settings are on manual. Set your aperture between f/8-11, and adjust your shutter and ISO for an appropriate exposure. Focus your camera on the farthest element. Shift your focus closer and closer, taking a photo with each adjustment.
Three to five photographs should be enough to create one fully focused image. Use
7. A Mountain Landscape Doesn’t Have To Be Wide
So often the object of shooting mountain landscapes is to capture a large scene in a single photograph. The genre typically favors vast, sprawling and layered landscapes.
But, it’s hard to stand out in a genre of similar looking photos with only a wide angle lens. I like to take a 75-300mm lens with me when I head for the hills. I can easily pick out interesting natural features and shoot grand images of far away peaks with that amount of zoom.
Sometimes when I want to take a wider angle shot, I’ll take a series of shots in panorama and stitch them together in
8. Explore Change
Compared to human life, mountains are at a stand still. But really, they are alive with change… you just need to slow it down. Seasons and daily weather impart massive differences in the mountains.
One way I like to capture this change is by repeating the same shot over a period of time, kind of like a photo timelapse. By doing this you can create a series of photographs that brings the mountains to life. All of a sudden they don’t feel so static anymore.
Showing change has always been a popular photographic objective. In landscape photography change is less explored. It’s less obvious to us.
Every day things change in the mountains – snow melts, snow builds, leaves fall, trees grow. Slow time down a little, and give yourself a new perspective on change in the mountains.
9. Love Bad Weather
We all love a bluebird day in the mountains, but unfortunately it does nothing for your photography. Weather gives life to an otherwise still mountain scene.
Add morning clouds pouring through a mountain pass, or snow blasting off an ice-encrusted peak and you’ve instantly got yourself a more engaging scene. Weather adds a sense of feeling to a picture. Because we all experience weather, we can all relate to it in some way.
In the mountains the weather is always dramatic and photographing the weather is crucial to creating a feeling in your images.
On a more simple level, clouds and weather add unique visual layers to landscapes. Mountain landscapes are permanent, but the weather is ever-changing. A common landscape scene can suddenly appear alien with a good dusting of snow or a blanket of low lying clouds.
I think unusual weather events are always worth setting up the camera for. I like to use clouds to focus attention towards a certain aspect of an image. I’ll shoot the ridgeline once the clouds have filled the valley, leaving only the jagged peaks exposed, to draw attention to the mountain’s harshness.
Great mountain landscapes photographs do come at a cost… the cost usually being getting wet and cold. You need to learn to love the bad weather. Stormy, rainy days mean great photographs. You know for sure the sky is going to light up with pinks, purples and yellows as the sun sets in the evening, but you need to get to the shoot before the weather breaks.
I like to live by the old adage “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.” If you are prepared, then it’s like any other day in the mountains – a good day!
10. Change Your Point Of View
When travelling to popular mountain landscapes you’re going to come across many popular photography spots – kind of like photo ‘must haves’. Drive through the Wawona Tunnel and try not to stop at the iconic viewpoint of Yosemite Valley – El Capitan, Clouds Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Falls… I swear it’s impossible, my car just pulls hard to the left.
Stopping at these iconic spots is part of the fun of photography. But don’t forget to explore the landscape with your lens from different angles and different places. A successful landscape photograph is a unique one. A faraway location maybe. Or a different point of view of a classic scene.
So typically are mountain landscapes shot at eye height, at obvious locations while walking along the trail. Get high, shoot from above. Show how the canyon cuts a scar across the desert; show the lineup of snow capped peaks stretching to the horizon. Getting above the landscape makes huge features feel small, and brings a sense of massiveness to a location. Try heading to highpoints for unique viewpoints, or sending the drone up more often.
If climbing big hills ain’t your thing you could get low… not in the club, but with your camera. Head to the base of the ridgeline and shoot right up the face, or venture below the rim into the canyons below.
When you want your mountain features to appear grander, and give viewers a sense of encapsulation, then get low and shoot upwards.
11. Explore The Same Area Again and Again
This one’s simple. You just gotta keep exploring. By returning to the same area you begin to develop an intimate knowledge of the best viewpoints, sun angles, shooting times, and unique natural features. You’ll start to see what those passing through don’t,Your new found knowledge will be reflected in the quality of your photography.
As you learn more about a location, each repeated visit will become more focused. I think the first trip somewhere is like a reconnaissance mission.
I find out what the sunlight shines, where the best spots are and scout out features that may be worth exploring. On successive trips I’ll aim for locations at certain times and keep a closer eye on my watch. The result is better photographs (and more good photographs) every trip.
12. Get Lucky
Sometimes you just get lucky. You stumble across a beautiful location, perfectly timed, take one photograph – the best one you’ve ever taken – and call it a day. But, it’s hard to get lucky from your couch. The easiest way to improve your chances is to get out there!
Go off the map, get away from the masses. Climb mountains, hike obscure trails and go to unfrequented lands. Photography is the best excuse I’ve ever had to go outside every day. The more often you go out and explore, the more often you get lucky.
I love unplanned spontaneous adventures. I think the solitude of the mountains influences and enhances my photography. I’m almost always surprised with some stunning vista, or unique landscape I never knew existed. The more I get out, the luckier I get, then the more I want to get out… It’s a vicious cycle.
13. Break The Rules
My final tip for better improving your mountain landscape photography, is to disregard everything I’ve said and listen to your heart. I’m a firm believer in breaking all the rules. Photography is becoming increasingly popular. Everyone has a camera in their pocket, and the realm of landscape photography is certainly more inundated than other niche photographic styles. To stand out you have to be different. To stand out you have to break the rules.
I think photography is an outlet for things my eyes really like. I see it, I like it, I photograph it. And that happens a lot when you live out here in the Rocky Mountains. I try not to get bogged down making a shot perfect, I just let the clicks flow and keep exploring.
Break the rules, explore the hills with the camera at your eye. Remember photography should always be enjoyable, and your camera is the perfect excuse to have fun!