Mountain landscape photography can be challenging but very rewarding when you get to a nice location.
It is well known the best time for landscape photography is at sunrise and sunset. The light is simply at its best at these times with soft golden light. In mountain landscape photography, you can shoot all day. There are two reasons why you can and should shoot mountain landscape photos at all times of the day.
First a practical issue. Hiking into the mountains before dark or going back after dark can be dangerous. If you climb high up you have to be very careful to avoid an accident in the dark on your way back. Of this reason, you will be better of shooting during daytime allowing time for the hike.
The second reason you can do mountain landscape photography all day is because the mountain is your subject. In most situations even with the sun high in the sky you can move around and change your vantage point so the sun is hidden or partly hidden by the mountain peaks. Take you time and look around for good spots from where you can compose you photos.
Almost everyone can photograph mountains. There are mountains everywhere, so you don’t have to go to the Rocky Mountains in the US or the Alps in Europe to shoot great mountain landscapes.
Being surrounded by majestic high mountains can be very exciting. You are away from people so you can enjoy the silence in addition to the photography. If you have the physics, you can conquer one of the peaks for an incredible view.
Be careful with the great vistas - they might not be photogenic
#1 Photographing great views
No doubt you will be overwhelmed when you stand there on top of a mountain and look at the view. Don’t be tempted to take up your camera right away and photograph this beautiful vista. It will not work in an image.
Consider your composition. Simply shooting out in the distance is rarely a good idea no matter how beautiful the view is. The view might be spectacular but the image won’t be any good. You will have no subject for the eyes to focus on. No subject or details is a boring image.
You should try to find something interesting in the foreground. Your best bet is to lay down on the ground and look for a rock or maybe some flowers as your foreground. If there are no good foreground available, an interesting sky with clouds might be an alternative to the foreground.
Prepare for challenging light conditions
#2 Quality of light
Light is important in mountain landscape photography. You must look for the quality and direction of the available light and use it to your best. Try to shoot when the sun hits any of the peaks. Or you can wait until or move yourself into a position, so the sun is partly hidden behind a peak. This can make for an interesting rim light around the mountain or beautiful sunbeams.
There are many great Smartphone apps that can tell you when the sun is going to shine on or hide behind a given mountain. Both PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris are great apps for this.
#3 High contrast scenes
In the mountains, you have to handle scenes with high contrast. Mountains are dark, and the peaks will create a lot of shadows. You might get into situations where the dynamic range is too high for your camera sensor. This is even more important if you include some of the bright sky.
To balance the exposure you can use a graduated neutral density (Grad ND) filter. Graduated ND filters are best when the horizon line is straight. Therefore in mountain landscape photography these filters are rarely a good option because of the uneven horizon line made by the mountains. So what do you do?
The best bet is to bracket your shots and expose for both highlights and shadows. With this approach, you need to merge the exposures in an image software. The latest version of Adobe Lightroom has a built-in High Dynamic Range (HDR) function that is great for this.
The shadows, if you can handle them correctly, give you a lot of opportunities for great compositions using contrast as a composing element.
Which filters to use for mountain landscape photography
#4 Graduated ND filter
As I already mentioned grad ND filters are not the best option when doing mountain landscape photography. These filters are best for straight horizons.
#5 Polarizer filter
A polarizing filter can be a good option to emphasize the blue color of the sky. When using a polarizing filter, there are two things you must be aware of.
First, the sun has to be at a 90-degree angle to the camera lens to have any effect.
Second, polarizing filters do not work well with wide angle lenses. They tend to create annoying dark and light shades over the sky area. The image will look strange and unevenly lit. With high peaks, it is likely you will use a wide angle lens for mountain photography. Therefore, the use of polarizer also limits itself.
Try different lenses
#6 Use a wide angle lens
A wide angle lens is probably the best option in many situations when doing mountain landscape photography. You might need to use a wide angle lens if you want to include the mountain peaks in your photo. The wide angle lens is also the best option if you want to include a foreground in your composition.
Be aware the wide angle lens might distort your image if you get to close to the mountain and you angle your camera upwards.
#7 Use a telephoto lens
It is not so obvious to use a telephoto lens when making mountain landscape photos. But you should give the telephoto a chance. You can get some interesting effects by zooming into smaller parts of the mountain. Mountains often have interesting patterns that can make for nice compositions.
How to compose mountain images
To exaggerate the size of the mountains by going low and shoot upwards. Try to include an interesting foreground for an even better composition. Often there are small ponds or lakes up in the mountains. You can use them as foreground elements, or you can use the water to photograph reflections of the mountains. If the wind is calm photographing reflections can be very rewarding.
#9 Use scale to show the size
A way to show scale is to position a person or something else with known size in the image. A person in the image will show how big the mountain is and how small people are in the landscape.
Only the mountain without anything to relate to might not look so impressing to someone looking at you image. It is difficult to convey the feeling of the grandeur to someone who was not there. Using scale is one way of dealing with this.
#10 Atmospheric perspective
Another way to show scale when photographing mountain landscapes is by using atmospheric perspective, also called aerial perspective. Mountains farther away tend to have less contrast and color than the mountains nearest to you. The mountains will look layered behind each other.
The effect is more effective if you use a telephoto lens. Aerial perspective works better if there are fog and mist in the air.
#11 Camera orientation
When you photograph mountain landscapes, you should try both landscape and portrait camera orientation. Not surprisingly most landscape photos are shot in - guess what? Yes, with the camera in landscape orientation. When shooting mountains, you should try to shoot in portrait mode as well. The high mountain peaks are very good subjects for a vertical composition.
Creative ideas when photographing in the mountains
#12 Look for clouds
If there are low clouds on the sky, try to photograph while the clouds cover the top of a peak. If the clouds are moving try to use a long shutter speed to get the blurred effect of the moving clouds.
With the right weather conditions, you can be lucky enough to see fog swirling around a mountain peak. Everything that moves makes for an interesting effect with long shutter speeds.
#13 Panorama images
Photographing mountains is a great opportunity to shoot panoramas. If you are in a narrow valley with mountains around it can be difficult to get it all in one frame, even with a wide angle lens. This is where you practice your skills in panorama photography.
Shoot several images covering the entire scene and stitch them in your image editor. Most panoramas are shot horizontally but why not try a vertical panorama. It is hard to find any better subject for a vertical panorama than a mountain peak.
Mountain landscape at different time of the year
#14 Winter in the mountains
Photographing mountains with snow in winter can make for some great photos. Look for shadows and pattern of light. In winter, the sun is low in the sky so you will for sure experience strong shadows on the mountain sides. These scenes with strong contrast are great for Black and White photography.
Be careful with the exposure in bright snow. You will need to use exposure compensation. In most situations when photographing in snow, +2 stops is enough to avoid underexposed photos
Prepare yourself for mountain landscape photography
#15 Be aware of your gear
Since you are hiking, don’t bring too much gear and don’t forget a flashlight. Be prepared for all kinds of weather. Mountains can be unpredictable so bring some extra warm clothes if you go into the mountains in winter.
Mobile phones might be out of signal if you hike far into the mountains. Always tell someone at home where you plan to go and when you expect to be back.