In this article, I will teach you how you can make stronger compositions that show the relation between Earth and sky through mountain photography.
You can approach mountain photography in two ways. You shoot long or you shoot wide.
To offer you a more comprehensive guide, the first tips focus on wide-angle mountain shots that include a foreground.
After that, we’ll look at using a telephoto lens to zoom way in on the pinnacles for a very different approach.
1. Forget About Climbing
Great photos don’t have to involve climbing gear. Nor do you need years of experience. Today, mountain trails will take you to all but the highest places in the world. You can reach just under 7000 meters by hiking alone on the Aconcagua in Argentina for example.
Hiking such trails isn’t easy at all. It requires extensive training and a huge amount of willpower in order to summit even the least demanding slopes at these altitudes.
Rest assured that for mountain landscape photography, we don’t need to venture to the top of the world.
Sunset among the peaks of Iceland’s rugged Snæfellsnes peninsula. This one was shot from the side of the road, nearly at sea level.
2. Where to Find Photogenic Mountains
Your destination and ultimately your photo, are determined by the rock, age, and shape of the mountains in a specific mountain range.
Without getting into geology too much, hard mountains are shaped more smoothly than relatively-soft mountains. I’ll share my top locations in Europe before we get into wide-angle photography.
The Italian Dolomites are among the most jagged mountains in the world. It’s a two hour flight from London to Venice, followed by a two to three hour drive, depending on where you stay. These factors make the Dolomites among my favourite photography destinations.
The Dolomites are deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their scenic beauty and extensive flora and fauna. It’s also a large area that spans more than Northern Italy. In fact, most people don’t know that the Dolomites continue for a while into Slovenia.
The most easterly tip that bears the name is Polhograjski Dolomiti, although that barely resembles the Mordor-esque qualities of the summits in Italy.
Tre Cime looks wonderful under a veil of stars and this well-photographed place isn’t that busy at all at night.
If there’s one place of endless mountain photography inspiration, it’s the Scottish Highlands. From the rounded domes in the Cairngorms to the spiny Black Cuillin on Skye, these diverse mountains offer amazing views.
This positively enormous mountain range on the Scandinavian peninsula is about 1800 km from north to south.
Jotunheimen in the west hosts the highest mountains, but the archipelago north of the Arctic Circle, the Lofoten, are truly the jewel in Norway’s crown. Azure waters surround snow-capped peaks.
Perfect for snowy mountain photography in the heart of winter.
3. The Wide-Angle Viewpoint
To bring more variation in your portfolio, it’s a good idea to mix up viewpoints and perspectives.
From down below, the base of the mountain will look more massive than its peak.This will make the mountain appear to be looming overhead.
The valleys are the places you’ll want to visit when thinking of wide-angle mountainscapes.
Make your foregrounds large by getting really close. And point the wide-angle lens down to allow the lens distortion to stretch the mountains.
First, look for foregrounds. The less you’re focused on the magnitude of the mountains, the more you can pay attention to small stuff that matters in your compositions.
And keep the camera in hand for now. You don’t need a tripod just yet.
A wide-angle’s distortion is exactly what you want in mountain photography. It enhances the apparent height of the mountains.
That holds especially true for vertical compositions, where you can create dramatic results.
Sweeping, Clean Foregrounds
The idea behind these types of shots is that you have a large, sweeping foreground that connects to the mountains in the background.
Think of flowers, a quirky shape in the snow or a dead tree branch – just about any foreground subject will do. Meandering rivers or waterfalls also work well.
Look for something that’s unique to this location to tell a story about this place. But be aware of anything that is not your foreground subject.
Wildflowers tend to grow among grass. If the grass has lost its colour because it’s later in the season, the dead blades will distract from the image. Carefully remove any dead grass before you press the shutter button.
The same holds true for brightly coloured rocks. Get those out of the shot too. And be especially careful with a crisp cover of snow. One misstep and you will kick snow all over your virgin foregrounds.
4. Getting Close, then Closer
Now it’s time to get that tripod in place.
There’s a rule of thumb to help you decide what to do with your tripod height. The smaller the foreground subject, the lower you need to go.
Yellow flowers in the foreground work well against a blue background because of the complementary colour contrast. This dreary morning in the Swiss Alps is a great example of how the land interacts with the sky.
Make what your image is about clear by filling the entire bottom of the composition with foreground. A waterfall might be fairly straightforward to shoot, but with wildflowers, you end up at minimum focus distance in the best case.
5. Learn to Focus Stack for Better Compositions
Small subjects that appear huge in the frame are technically demanding because you can’t focus everywhere at once.
At minimum focus distance, the difference in sharpness between your foreground and those stunning mountains will be really noticeable, even at f/22. And with the aperture all closed-up, the result won’t turn out sharp anyway.
Focus stacking is your answer to capture both a sharp background and foreground. Think of this technique as HDR, but instead of the shutter speed, it’s the focus distance that changes throughout multiple shots.
While some cameras today offer this in-camera, the vast majority of us need to do this by hand.
How to Focus Stack by Hand
For the best results, every setting on the camera should be exactly the same: white balance, shutter speed, ISO and aperture. But most importantly: the camera’s position.
With focus stacking, you’ll need to fix everything in place throughout multiple exposures. Making sure you’re using a solid tripod and shoot with a cable release. This takes care of the physical movement of the camera.
Start by adjusting focus to the closest object in the scene and wait for the wind to die down for a bit. Hit the cable release and adjust to focus a little further into the scene. Repeat this process until you’ve reached infinity.
These grounds used to be truly alive at one point in time. The very rock on which this was captured used to be some predecessor of coral. And yes, this was all under water.
Note that you need more exposures at shorter distance intervals when you use a larger aperture like f/4 and less at smaller apertures like f/14.
My advice is to start with less images to make it easier to work with in post-processing.
Why Should You Focus Stack Your Mountain Photography?
So what about using f/22 instead? Closing up the aperture that much has some nasty side effects. For starters, you will let less light in. At the same ISO, this will lengthen the exposure time (shutter speed).
Even with the slightest breeze, delicate foreground elements like flowers, grass and ferns will sway in the wind and actually make the foreground look less sharp than say f/7.1.
Also, at minimum focus distance, f/22 will never encompass the entire depth-of-field all the way to the mountains at infinity. Focus stacking will be very useful at your lens’ sweet spot. Even the cheapest lens will appear to shoot sharp images at f/7.1.
And lastly, because diffraction is a physical property attributed to the way light hits the sensor, even the sharpest lenses out there will not be as sharp when you close the aperture all the way.
6. Which Season Has the Best Light
That’s a tough question to answer. It’s largely dependent on the mountain and its surroundings.
Above the Arctic Circle, your best bet is to visit during the Northern Lights season, which can be seen throughout winter.
However, the aurora statistically peaks around the 21st of September as well as the 21st of March. This is due to a strange magnetic interaction between the Sun and the Earth that we do not fully understand.
Aurora above a more remote area in the Lofoten. Be very careful not to mess up the snow in the foreground while attempting to use the virgin snow as a foreground.
The end of September is my favourite time for mountain photography. The Alps are often veiled in mists in autumn, and with the sun not that high in the sky anymore, the light is much softer too.
The best tip I can give you here is to plan ahead. Use Google Earth, Photo Pills or Sun Surveyor to locate your mountain and see if any other mountain will block the light hitting it.
It had been raining all day. Then some lone peak in the Swiss Alps got revealed by the swirling clouds. Moody shots like this can best be photographed in September or March, when the temperatures change a lot
Mountains are among the most remote places on the planet. This is why it is worth the effort to consider mountain photography at night. Hardly any artificial light reaches the peaks, so the night sky is pure and dotted with stars.
Start with a 14 mm lens and camera settings like f/2.8, 25 seconds at ISO 6400 for spectacular results on a clear, moonless night. If it’s too bright, lower the ISO first.
7. Arrive Early and Scout If You Can
Nothing is as frustrating as having to hurry to your location in the fading light with the premise of still having to find an interesting foreground.
Scout ahead during the day whenever you can. Harsh daylight isn’t good for photos, but it is for seeing which foregrounds work and which do not.
Even if you don’t have time to actually see the place before you plant your tripod, it’s important that you take your time before shooting.
This is why I really like sunsets in the mountains. In accessible regions, you can hike in after an early dinner and have all the time to select the best composition.
A long lens can make it look like this was shot in some remote part of the world, not on the side of the road in the Lofoten.
If you really want unique photos though, wilderness camping is the way to go. It can really help you find the needle in the haystack; that special foreground that shows an intimate relation with the mountains.
Plus you end up with mountain photography that most people haven’t seen before on social media.
8. Lens Choices for Telephoto Mountain Photography
A very different niche of mountain photography are images that focus on the summits. These photos often involve a telephoto lens. Some of the best examples I’ve seen are shot in the 300-600 mm range.
Most of those lenses are prime lenses as well, but aside from the extra sharpness, I don’t see the point in their added light-gathering ability.
Looking down with a long lens can mix things up a bit.
Hauling a telescope like a 500 mm prime up a mountain is admirable, but very uncomfortable. Instead, consider using a teleconverter to extend the range on the longest lens you already have.
A 70-200 mm lens will transform into a 340 mm lens with just a 1.7x teleconverter.
Alternatively, there are a couple of 150-600 mm zoom lenses out there that yield spectacularly sharp results for the range they offer.
9. The Telephoto Viewpoint
If you can increase your altitude relative to the mountain you’re shooting, the summits will be more prominent. What’s more is that interesting details will appear that are hidden from the valleys.
Increasing your altitude isn’t without danger or effort, but in some cases (especially in the Alps), you can hitch a ride to the top with a cable car.
The area near Cinque Torri in the Italian Dolomites is kissed by a misty sunrise. Captured from a freezing mountainpeak to the north and from high-up, this is a shot I haven’t seen before. Long lenses like the 150-600 mm that was used here can do that to almost every location.
Once you’re on location, it’s mainly a waiting game for the light to happen. Pick a mountain and stick to it. Keep your tripod locked on the mountain and watch how the light and weather interact with it over time.
Even when there aren’t any clouds on the mountain, they can develop in the crevices and on the leeward side due to changing temperatures.
10. Ideal Mountain Photography Weather
Low clouds will strengthen the connection between the mountains and the sky. The ideal mountain photography weather for those long lenses is without a doubt a dreary early morning.
Imagine swirling clouds among jagged pinnacles that are straight from the Lord of the Rings.
An often overlooked aspect of photography is how your art affects your audience. We tend to shoot the scene and move on to the next one.
If we would just slow down and really observe how the clouds interact with the mountains, we might just see a glimmer of sunshine burst through the overcast sky to make the image more meaningful.
Two Alpine choughs caught twirling in the mists above Lagazuoi in the Dolomites.
If you find it difficult to understand how to convey emotion in your mountain photography, there are a couple of guidelines that will help.
Start by changing the position of the horizon. A low angle or high horizon will make a strong, dramatic, or even menacing impression. Placing the horizon below the centre of the frame will make your landscape feel a lot more airy, lonely, or fresh.
Left and right also have a deeper meaning. A subject to the right tells of something more in the future, while a subject that hugs the left of the frame makes for more pressing matters.
Be aware that subject placement and the psychological effects are largely dependent on the target audience and have a strong cultural bias. We read from left to right, but in parts of the world where it’s the other way around, your image can invoke very different emotions.
The important part to take home is to know that your choices have impact. The next step is to ask yourself what you feel as the creator of your work.
12. Simple Compositions Go a Long Way
If you intentionally leave an area of your image blank, then everything outside of that area will command twice the attention. Use this for an intimate shot of a beautiful mountain shrouded in mist.
A graduated filter can help to simplify the top part of the image, but I like to do this in post-processing. I just drag a graduated filter in from top to bottom in Lightroom or Camera Raw and work its settings.
Be aware that darkening a part of the image will also increase contrast and therefore saturation. If you want your sky to be simple, take out contrast and decrease the saturation.
We call those empty spaces in art “negative space”. Negative space does not contain any detail or subject that adds to the composition.
It can be either really dark or extremely bright, as long as this area doesn’t ask for attention.
A clear blue sky is an excellent example of an area that’s without detail, but so is a misty grey area. The more negative space there is in an image, the more your subject will stand out.
Detail of the Lauterbrunnen valley in Switzerland. Wedged between thick clouds; the Spissbachfall on the right.
The atmosphere was this moody all day but certainly reached its peak by the time most tourists where having supper.
Chasing Mystical Atmospheres in the Mountains
Here’s a short summary of the tips we discussed in this article:
- Whenever you can, be open about how your own images make you feel.
- Simple is often better than chaotic – keep your mountain images empty.
- The best weather for mountain photography is often the worst for a walk.
- Use a long lens or a teleconverter for swirling clouds in the peaks from high up.
- Or use a wide-angle lens tilted downwards to capture a sweeping foreground.
- Learn to use Focus Stacking techniques for sharp and engaging images.
As you might have gathered from this article, it’s a good idea to go camping for truly stunning mountain photography.
You’re always on time for the best light, you get to see remote places and you might even encounter the sea of clouds. Plus your overnight adventure in the mountains is one you’ll not soon forget.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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