No matter what the season mountains are, by virtue of their beauty, incredibly photogenic. Throw in a myriad of trees and a lake, and you've got picture perfect landscapes! However, photographing mountains can be tricky depending on the season and the effect you're going for. The polarizer filter is the one filter in particular that will be a common theme in each scenario below. It's a must have filter for landscape photography, and as you'll see, for a different reason in almost every season!
Summer is a great time to be outdoors taking photos of mountains. The trees and grass are plush green, and if you can photograph on a cloudy day, the clouds will help to diffuse the bright sunlight that summer brings. Though the days are longer during these often coveted months, the light in the middle of the day can be so overbearing it makes it difficult, or even boring, to work with it. However, those late evenings and early mornings of summer can provide not only beautiful lighting, but times during the day when most people aren't at their regular job and can find the time to venture out for a shoot.
With summer mountain photography, the polarizer filter is a must have in your camera bag. Not only does it add a rich blue to the sky and more definition between the sky and clouds you're shooting, but it can liven up green landscape along the mountainside. You can achieve this effect with a circular polarizer. Play with the polarizer filtering on both the sky and the landscape and see what you come up with.
Fall/Autumn is arguably the best season for photography. You still have some warm days from summer, yet the mountains can see early snow, and the foliage can be remarkable in many areas of the world. Add the mirror effect of a lake and the reflection of color is breathtaking. The above image was captured in Maroon Bells, Aspen, Colorado and is a great example where the circular polarizer filter can do one of two things. It can brighten the blue of the sky or it can cut the reflection from the lake. Naturally, the reflection in the lake is what makes this image, so the photographer chose to use the polarizer on the sky. Good move!
If, however, the image was without a lake and just sported a beautiful mountain-scape with an exposure that worked the sky in just fine, you might choose to use the polarizer on the foliage, which would enhance its colors and reduce glare. Maybe there's little to no sky to contend with and the filter is better used on the mountains. It's a call you'll need to make depending on what Mother Nature is offering you in any given moment. This is why the circular polarizer is such a great tool to have in your bag. Being able to turn the filter to the exact point that captures the image in the way you want is key to having a farmable image.
Snowcapped mountains, whether in person or in a photograph, have a way of putting things in perspective. Somehow their imagery is more commanding than mountains of other seasons. Stoic and grandeur come to mind. Photographing snow-capped mountains can be the most rewarding, but also the most difficult because you're dealing with glare, and if the sun is out and you're at high altitude, I mean a lot of glare! But, that's why we have our friend the polarizer to step in and assist.
Capturing snow in any situation, on a mountain or otherwise, you're going to contend with reflection and light that doesn't fit the usual exposure rules. The polarizer filter will cut the glare and brighten the skies. If there's not so much glare due to cloud coverage, like in this image, consider turning the polarizing filter on the mountains. You'll gain more detail in the nooks and crannies because you won't be competing with reflection. Certainly if there were a lake in the scene, the reflection in the water would be desirable. So, once again, it's your call as the photographer analyzing the situation and the results you want on the screen. For more help on taking better photos in the snow, see my article on getting the most from a snowy scene.
Layer Your Image For More Details
Spring has sprung and you can now grab hold of your camera without wearing those cumbersome gloves! Flowers of all colors are popping up, giving you lots of lens candy to make you and your camera happy. In many places the mountains might still be boasting snow on their peaks, giving interesting contrast to the growth happening in the valley below.
Photographing mountains in the spring is probably the easiest time of year. The light and the colors are agreeable to making beautiful landscapes. Spring is a good time to practice different perspectives and lighting. Try laying low on the ground and shooting up to the mountain to give it that extra height and presence. Venture out in the evening for the end of the day sunsets that give depth to the scene, like in this image. Speaking of depth, practice with depth of field. Although you'll mostly want a greater depth of field, keeping your f-stops on the higher numbers, there may be a case where you want to go shallow with depth of field (small f-numbers) to make either the mountains or the foreground in sharper focus.
Spring is a time for growth and with that makes it a good time to grow your photography skills and talent. Be adventurous and make an effort to understand what you're experimenting with and the results you get.
In all of these seasons, the images shown are true landscape images that display a breadth to them. There will be several times when you may want to move in closer to a mountain and capture the more intimate parts of it, such as the wildlife that roams it or the trees and streams that grow and run off it. Or include interesting foreground subjects to your image. Don't feel like the grandeur must always fit from a distance. If possible, get close up, too. In this image, there's some polarizing to the river to cut glare in order to see the details beneath the surface, while leaving enough glare for effect. Keeping the mountain peak in the background gives perspective.
Closing Remarks on the Polarizer Filter
In the same example, the reflection from the surface of water does have some glare to it. The front part of a polarizer rotates and changes the amount of polarized light. By rotating the front glass, you can slowly get to the point of the effect you want. Where you stop the filter's rotation is up to you and the lighting. Just be careful not to get the sky too unrealistically dark.
You'll also see that the effect of the polarizer depends on the sun's position in relation to what you're photographing. If possible, keep the sun at a right angle to your camera. An old trick by photographers is to hold your arms out to the side while facing the sun. The polarizer works best in the places where your fingers point. A 90-degree angle to the sun is ideal since this is the location of the most polarized light in the sky. If you're like many, you learn by doing and once you're out there in the field, keep this rule in mind and it will make sense when you look through the lens and turn the filter! Leave a comment to let me know how it goes!
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