5 Landscape Photography Tips for Photographing Mountains

After graduating from photography school, I spent a good deal of my 20s photographing the city scapes of New York. In my 30s, after I relocated to upstate New York, I discovered a new muse–the landscape. What’s so nouveau about the landscape? You’ll only understand this after living in a cramped, fifth floor walk-up apartment–with views topped only by brick walls–for years.

Anyone who went to photography school is familiar with “the golden hour”–that gorgeous time right before sunset or right after sunrise. It’s by far the best time to shoot landscape photography. Everything–and I mean everything–is gorgeous at this hour.

When I moved to the Adirondacks, I sought inspiration from the area’s numerous mountains and lakes. Though I’d attended various photography schools, studied with different photographers, and shot a good deal of (non-mountainous) landscape photography in the past, nothing prepared me for photographing mountains.

mountains and lake landscape

“The South Side of Lake Cathrine” captured by Mitch Johanson (Click image to see more from Johanson)

I’ve since met other photographers in the area who concur that the terrain poses unique and significant challenges that affect not only neophytes, such as myself at the time, but also more seasoned area photographers.

I was relieved to discover this. After all, the thought had occurred to me that my urban environs had deflowered me in the most vulgar of ways. Or that my years attending photography schools, and the long hours of inhaling photographic chemicals, left me so ill-equipped that I couldn’t even properly take a simple nature photograph.

But it wasn’t photography school, nor my many years in an urban environment. It was that photographing certain elements of nature can be even more mysterious and baffling than the human element, which I had, at least to some degree, come to readily understand. So, here are some tips and tricks that I’ve learned while wrestling with such subjects.

1. Know Where You Are

I’m not talking about bringing a compass with you wherever you go, unless of course, you have a habit of getting lost, in which case it might be worthwhile. But, more so, you need to understand your lighting and position. Remember before when we were discussing “the golden hour”? Well, one of the things you’ll soon discover when photographing mountains is that there often isn’t a golden hour, or if there is, it can be diminished greatly–very disappointing when you’ve spent hours waiting for a particular shot.

golden hour landscape photography

“Walk on By” captured by Mark Broughton (Click image to see more from Broughton)

2. Shadows Haunt You

It’s the shadows of nature I’m referring to here. Until you’re out in the middle of nature, you don’t realize how shadows can–and will–get in the way of your shot. Think about light and shadows and the way they play upon each other; if you’re not looking for a highly shadowed shot, this will be a problem.

When I first started to photograph mountains, I’d set up my shots so my back was to the sun. But if you’re familiar with pine trees, you’ll know that’s when their shadows get particularly frisky. You can work around this, however, by setting up near a creek or lake, which will decrease the amount of shadows in the picture.

snowy mountain

“Over the Mountains” captured by ‘Wizam’ (Click image to see more from Wizam)

3. You’re Not a Mule Horse, You’re a Human

If you’re used to hiking long stretches of terrain with heavy packs on your back, then maybe you can skip this one. But those of us who range from average to flabby, consider that we aren’t mule horses, and not in the best of shape. It’s best to accept this ahead of time, because in the process of seeking out your shots, you’ll climb many a steep and arduous mountain, and for this reason, it’s best to leave the heavy tripod at home.

After a few trips carrying my full-weight tripod, I thought it was time to give myself a gift–a travel tripod. Invest in one. It’s worth it.

high contrast landscape photography

“Cascading Shadows” captured by ‘Nikon Ian’ (Click image to see more from Ian)

4. For the Love of Contrast

There is no even keel when it comes to lighting the landscape evenly in the mountains. A bright sky might just be sitting above a group of mountains that are totally in shadow. With most cameras, the dynamic range is too low to capture the detail of both. To overcome this issue, you will probably want to invest in a graduated neutral density filter, which will allow you to do things like darken the sky, so that you can get more precise detail in the mountain ridge and sky you’re photographing.

5. Nature’s Not Always Quiet

In fact, it can be pretty darn busy, which can pose a problem when you’re looking for a good foreground element. This is something you can’t bypass, as a good foreground element not only captures your viewer’s eye but also gives the shot depth. In nature, this can be a serious challenge; the terrain is full of hundreds of different elements (refer to the shadows point above), competing for your attention. It can be difficult to set up a shot where you actually have something in the foreground.

There’s no easy way to get around this one. You’re probably just going to have to search for a while to find a foreground element. But the search will be worth it in the end.

I know I said five, but there’s another point I want to mention, and that’s that when photographing in the mountains, keep in mind that you’ll need to go very wide to get a complete and well-composed shot.

About the Author:
Thank goodness for my background and experience in photography school. This article was written by Travis Silver

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2 Comments

  1. Agree with everything except I don’t find it extremely difficult to find a FG element, but it depends. But mostly, want to say to everyone out there photographing landscapes that you sometimes do not want to go wide in order to get a well composed shot. Go wide a lot, sure, but if you are rigid about this you will miss great compositions. I know because I’ve experienced it. I find many great compositions around 50 mm. focal length, and even some good ones at telephoto lengths.

    • Kevin says:

      I totally agree. I shoot on a crop sensor with my widest lens (a 28/3.5, so about 42mm equivalent on FF) and still do quite well. I even break out my big gun, a 500mm (so 750mm equivalent on FF) to pick out that one little detail that makes the picture. Do I wish I had wider or FF, sure, but do I miss it…no, not really. :) Its not your gear that makes the image, its the 6″ behind the lens.

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