There is no place I would rather be shooting on any given day then in the mountains. Any mountains will do! From the soaring peaks of the Rocky Mountains, to the rounded ridges of the Appalachians, being in the mountains is more than just about photography, it’s about a state of mind. I am often asked where my favorite location to shoot is? I usually fumble over this question. I don’t really have one particular place I like to be, but in general I will take the mountains anytime of the year and always be happy and content exploring these wild places.
Mountains have much more to offer than just mountain vistas of course! Where there are mountains you are sure to find waterfalls, wildlife, wildflowers, rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and much more. With such an abundance of natural wonders at hand, you might think that shooting in the mountains and coming away with great images is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. Well think again. Mountain photography can be down right difficult and in some situations deadly. This post is aimed at helping you achieve better landscape images while in the mountains, so lets dig in with a few helpful tips to get you on your way!
1. Get High: No, I am not suggesting you toke up before heading out into the mountains, but if you feel that helps fuel your creative spirits then by all means light those spliffs!! What I am suggesting is that you drive, hike or climb high to gain a perspective that allows you to take in an amazing amount of scenery. Now, not all mountains are created equally. In the Rocky Mountains for instance, getting into the high country allows you to explore the alpine and tundra zones which are often free of trees and can offer meadows filled with wildflowers, reflecting tarns (small pools of water) and much more. Be prepared for the altitude, especially if you are flat lander like myself and arrive in the mountains to acclimate for several days at lower elevations before venturing any higher to stave off the effects of elevation sickness. Once high up, you will want to be on location when the light is at it’s best. That is usually in the mornings and evenings. Focus your photography around the golden hour leading up to sunset and into twilight as well as dawn leading into sunrise. Camping will be an attractive option to allow you to be on location when the light is at it’s best without the worry of traveling long distances back into town for lodging.
Study maps ahead of time to get a feel for the topography of the area scouting out potential mountain peaks, lakes, ponds and so forth before you ever leave the comfort of your couch at home. Knowing when the sun will rise and set is also of great importance, but not nearly as important as the angle of the light. In the mountains, it is not uncommon for another mountain to totally block the light all morning or afternoon resulting in images without any dramatic light. To figure out where I want to set up my camera, I use the Photographers Ephemeris. This is an incredible tool available for your smart phone or tablet. The Photographer Ephemeris uses Google earth, allowing you to set your way-point, date, year and then literally see where the sun will be rising and setting. This makes a huge difference in planning your shots! That being said, there is simply no substitute for feet on the ground. You will need to schedule your time away to allow you to spend several days at each location scouting the best views, watching the light and searching out compositions.
2. Mornings are best for mountain mirrors: Morning are often the best times for still reflections in bodies of water. Especially large bodies of water likes lakes and ponds that are subject to more surface wind. Arrive well before dawn to take advantage of the best light the morning has to offer. If the sky has clouds, go wide. If not, or there is mist coming off the water, consider using your telephoto lens to isolate intimate scenes along the shore.
If there is wind, look for an area sheltered by rocks, logs and other debris. You can usually find these on the edge of the shoreline and they will often times be free of wind resulting in mirror reflections. If you are going wide, be careful with those circular polarizing filters. Not only can the CPL remove the reflection from the water, but it can also create uneven tonalities in the sky and reflections. Back off of the CPL or remove it altogether.
I like to come prepared with chest waders to allow me to get into the water and access vantage points not reachable from the shoreline. Go in the water with your camera and lens mounted on the tripod, and leave your bag on Terra Firma just in case you take a dunk. Go slowly while wading into the water and use your tripod to gauge the waters depth as well as to survey the floor for any debris that could trip you up.
3. Include wildlife in your grand landscapes: Where there are mountains, there is wildlife. Use this to your advantage to create images that showcase the wildlife in the context of it’s environment. Look to the work of Art Wolfe and Frans Lanting for inspiration in this arena. No one does it better than these two amazing guys when it comes to incorporating wildlife into the big picture.
In most cases you will need to get relatively close to your subject with a moderate to wide-angle lens in order to capture an image with the subject against the mountain scenery. Use caution when approaching, and if the animal seems intimidated or skittish, back off immediately. There are certain parks where the wildlife is accustomed to the human presence and not as timid. A few places that immediately come to mind are Glacier NP for Mountain Goats and Rams, Shenandoah NP for shooting deer and fawns, Cades Cove of Great Smoky Mountains NP for bear and turkeys, the Moose River Plains of the Adirondacks for loons and water fowl, and Machias Seal Island of the coast of Maine for photographing Puffins, Razorbills and Arctic Terns to name only a few.
Because you will almost always want the wildlife in your images to be sharp, consider shooting at a high ISO of 400 or greater and small aperture of F8 or F11 to gain the fastest shutter speed possible to arrest motion.
4. Shoot for bad weather: Bad weather = great photography. I like to be on location when storms are either coming in or moving out. The light does not always break, but when it does it can be simply amazing. Study the weather forecast of an area when planning your trips to be on location during the right season for the most dramatic storm action. For instance, in the southern Rocky Mountains the monsoon season usually lasts over the summer and into early fall providing the photographer with amazing storm light. But not always, and each summer the monsoon season is a little bit different that the last. In the Appalachian mountains, spring and winter often bring the chance to capture amazing storm light.
Use caution when shooting in storms and take shelter if there is lightning present or threatening in the forecast. Remember, a lightning strike can occur anywhere up to 10 miles from the thunderheads you are shooting in the distance.
5. Find an amazing foreground: You know my style, I like to go wide. In order for this compositional approach to work, you will need to find an amazing foreground. Note I said amazing. Not just any rock or log will do. The foreground of the image needs to immediately impress the viewer and hopefully drawl then deep into the picture space. I usually find that I am only matter of a few feet to a several inches away from the foreground using my ultra wide-angle lens. This technique goes a long way to allowing the viewer to literally feel as if they can step right into the image space. Make sure to set your focus point precisely and use the proper aperture to achieve maximum depth-of-field from immediate foreground to infinity. I use Live View to focus and usually set my focus point at twice the distance of the nearest object to the lens. So for instance, if the clump of flowers I am shooting is two feet away, I set my focus between 4 and 5 feet into the frame. then stop down to the appropriate aperture or bracket my focus for maximum sharpness from near to far.
Also take advantage of strong lines and power shapes in the foreground to serve as lead in lines for your compositions. Just make sure those leading lines or power shapes don’t push the viewers out of the frame. Make sure they compliment other important areas of the frame by pushing the viewers eye to the intended target.
That’s it for now. Summer is the perfect season to be out in the mountains, so please get of the computer and get out there and explore. Good luck and best of light!!