Mountains are a photographer’s paradise, but they’re also a challenge. Here's 6 top tips for taking stunning photos among our planet’s peaks
Whether you’re in the Rockies, the Alps or the Andes – or just out in the hills close to home – our planet’s peaks, ridges and glacial lakes provide some of nature’s greatest backdrops. Armed with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, a tripod and a camera backpack you can take your own mesmerising mountain photos right away. Here are some of our top tips to get you started...
1 Be prepared
Landscape photographers need a relatively good level of fitness, none more so than those heading into the mountains. It goes without saying that mountain photography is potentially one of the most physical of all the genres, and if you're going to climb up steep slopes and search for unique angles without getting exhausted it’s worth getting fit.
Steep hikes get easier with practice, but if you’ve planned a once-in-a-lifetime photography trip to an iconic mountain range and are planning to tackle some tough trails, try to get fit in advance to help you get the most out of it. Reckon on going on a practice hike at least once a week for three months prior to help your body prepare. Your camera will thank you when you reach that impossible peak.
Although backpacking with a camera into the wilderness requires a certain level of fitness, mountain photography can be enjoyed by anyone. High-altitude national parks usually have scenic drives, viewpoints with plenty of parking and short walks into spectacular scenery that are accessible to all.
2 Avoid the cliches and find a unique perspective
There are so many celebrity mountain shots; Mt. Fuji in Japan framed by a blossoming cherry tree or with a Shinkansen ‘bullet’ train speeding by, Iceland’s Kirkjufell with the Northern Lights swirling above, and El Capitan in Yosemite National Park lit-up at sunrise, to name but a few. They can be hard to resist, but replicating those iconic shots is a photographic cul-de-sac. Of course it’s fine to go to the same viewpoints as everyone else and get that ‘hero’ shot, but don’t expect it to be a keeper because the bar has already been set very high. You’ll get more from the experience if you aim to create your own unique compositions.
As well as avoiding cliched compositions, it's wise to get off the beaten track purely to get away from crowds, which will ruin your landscape photographs. But that doesn’t mean you have to head into the wilderness. Instead of heading to tier-1 national parks in summer, visit off-season when everyone’s gone back to work, or choose lesser-known parks, state parks, national monuments and beauty spots. A really simple example is the north rim of the Grand Canyon, which is far less visited than the south rim.
3 Keep to a narrow aperture
Whether you use a wide-angle or a telephoto lens (you’ll find the latter more useful in epic mountainscapes) you’re going to want to keep everything sharply in focus. That means using a narrow aperture (f-number). The higher the f-number, the narrower the aperture, with many lenses topping-out at f/22, but plan to work between f/8 and f/11. You can, of course, go for full manual mode, sticking to ISO 100 in daylight, but pushing it upwards in low light.
However, a good shortcut for mountain photography is your camera’s aperture priority mode, which will look after the shutter speed for you. It differs according to your lens, but as a rule of thumb for anything under about 1/50th of a second you’ll definitely need a tripod. Despite that, you should aim to use one for all landscape shots because it will help you keep your shots tack-sharp.
Don’t ignore the sky. A striking cloud formation can lend lots of contrast, colour and interest to a composition, so it’s crucial not to overexpose it. If you do, your sky will be rendered featureless – and impossible to rescue in post-processing. So consider bracketing, which is the act of taking a sequence of identical photos with different camera settings; in this case, the aperture changes. You can also use a graduated ND filter, which prevents you from overexposing the sky essentially by allowing you to employ a different aperture for the land and the sky.
4 Get a tall tripod
As well as stamina in the mountains you’ll also need stability for your camera so you can take long exposures. It’s really tempting to go for a ‘travel tripod’ that’s lightweight and usually shorter than eye-level. They’re certainly on-trend, with most tripod-makers offering several models aimed mostly at mobility. However, they’re really expensive, and besides, think about where you’re going and what you’ll be doing. In the mountains you can easily find yourself on the slopes of a mountain where the tripod needs to be set-up in front of you, which means it’s slightly below. So it’s actually more helpful to have a taller-than-average tripod that brings your camera up to your eye-level. Sure, that means a physically bigger tripod, but the extra weight could be worth it.
There’s a specific way you need to position your tripod on a slope. You should have a leading leg at the front that’s fully extended while the two other legs will need to be extended less to keep your camera level. This arrangement will also give you some room to stand and operate the camera from behind without accidentally kicking the tripod's legs. However, don’t ever let your tripod’s position or its maximum height dictate your composition; perhaps there are some alpine flowers or an interesting rock that your camera could be positioned behind, close to the ground. For your composition your own eye level is irrelevant!
5 Concentrate on composition
If you’re faced with a stunning vista there’s only so much you can do in terms of composing a shot that accentuates it. However, you should always adhere to the rule of thirds by making sure the subject of your photo – be it a mountain peak, the corner of a glacial lake or a waterfall – is at the intersection points of a 3x3 grid, rather than centered. Think about your photo’s foreground – scouting what’s immediately in front of you/beside you/below you – and try to work some ‘leading lines’ that take the viewer’s eyes up to your photo’s main subject. That could be the grain of a rockface, a stream or a river, or even a road. Try to keep your composition simple, balanced and uncluttered.
Keep horizons horizontal. You can do that by using a bubble level on a tripod head or in a camera’s hot-shoe, or by using a built-in electronic level on your camera’s LCD screen. It’s also important to think about where land meets sky in your compositions; a low horizon accentuates the sky while a high horizon accentuates the foreground.
6 Shoot in the ‘golden hour’
It’s not true that all great mountainscape photos are taken close to sunrise. But most are. That’s because lighting is all-important in the mountains. During the ‘golden hour’ after sunrise and before a sunset the Sun is low in the sky and its soft, orangey light is projected right onto rocks, escarpments and peaks, essentially lighting them up for you. You’ll also get shadows, which are best photographed side-on; keep the Sun to your side, not behind or in front of you. If you’re in a dark place under a clear sky then the monthly rising or setting full Moon can create a similar effect in long exposure landscape photos.
There are some excellent websites and apps to help photographers know what to expect at different times of day at specific locations. Perhaps the most impressive is The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE), which shows you how the light will fall. Other useful apps include the Blue Hour Site and The Sky Live for checking the times of sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset, as well as predicted night sky conditions. Meanwhile, Stellarium will help you find the Milky Way’s position.