Perhaps nothing is more breathtaking than a mountain. Snowy peaks in the winter, flowery slopes in the summer, a mountain looks majestic no matter what the season. So why do some mountain photos look, well, un-majestic?
The trouble with mountains is precisely that they are majestic. We are used to feeling awed in the presence of a mountain - their size makes us feel small, overwhelmed and sometimes insignificant. The fresh air makes us feel invigorated. The smells make us feel like we're a part of the landscape and in tune with the seasons. But a photograph of the mountains lacks all these external stimuli. Unless your photo is printed at, say, 24,000"x48,000", your viewer isn't going to have that feeling of being overwhelmed by size. And unless your image is scratch-n-sniff, you won't be able to recreate any of the smells, either. And the fresh air, well, I suppose you could have your viewer look at the picture while standing in front of a mountain, but that would kind of defeat the purpose, wouldn't it?
So how do you make a mountain photo look as majestic as the mountain itself? You have to know the tricks.
[ Top image Monch view from Wengernalp trail by Flickr user Ed Coyle Photography]
Little Butterflies by Flickr user Nathan Van Arsdale
When viewing an object in a photograph, it's very difficult to gauge scale unless there is something in the image itself that suggests it. Without this quality, an image of the Sutter Buttes ("the world's smallest mountain range") is going to look pretty much the same as an image of Mount McKinley in terms of how big the viewer perceives it to be. To give the viewer a sense of scale, it's useful to give him something to compare the mountain to - and that object is usually going to be in the foreground.
As for what to put in the foreground, that's up to you. But remember that an object your viewer is familiar with is going to give him a better sense of scale. A tree, for example, or a mountain cabin, or even a person. Rocks will do, too, but because rocks can vary in size from small to huge this will only give your viewer a rough idea of scale.
Dolomiti - Sassolungo dall'Alpe di Siusi by Flickr user gigi 62
With mountain photography you use the same rules about light that you use pretty much everywhere else - in general, the sun at midday is going to result in a poor photo. But that's not because your mountainous subjects are going to suffer from raccoon eyes the way your human photos do, it's because the quality of the light at that time of day is going to make your mountain look two-dimensional, especially if the sun is lighting it from in front. This is because those shadows that create texture and dimension will be much shorter at that time of day, and without those shadows your mountain is going to lack detail. Without detail, your mountain will also lack majesty.
I'll bet you can guess what I'm going to say next: if possible, take your photos during the magic hour, or at the very least not much past early to mid morning and not much before mid to late afternoon. Look for scenery that is lit from either side instead of scenery that is lit from the front. Now of course there is one caveat that I probably ought to let you in on - sometimes in the mountains, there is no magic hour. This is because the sun has to get all the way past that mountain range before showing its face, and by then all those special magic hour qualities are already gone.
Dynamic Serenity by Flickr user papalars
When you photograph a mountain in its entirety, you are capturing an image of a large object at a distance - which often means you'll have to contend with haze. To combat this, you'll need to carry a polarizing filter with you. A good polarizer is almost a must when photographing mountains, because not only will it reduce that haze, it will also make those already beautiful colors (pine trees, wildflowers) more saturated and it will make your skies more dramatic.
The thing about travel, of course, is that you can't always predict what time you'll arrive or leave a beautiful location and you certainly can't know what the weather is going to be like once you get there. If you find yourself on that once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Olympic Mountains and it's an overcast day, you can still get a great shot of the mountains with a graduated neutral density filter. A graduated ND filter will block a certain number of stops of light from the sky, while simultaneously allowing you to expose the rest of the shot correctly - thus preventing the sky from looking completely white.
But wait, graduated ND filters are useful in the mountains for other reasons, too. Because of the scale of a mountain range, you may frequently encounter situations where a large part of the mountain is in shadow and the sky behind it is completely bright (and blown-out). A graduated ND filter can help in this situation, too
Reflections in Sixty Lake Basin by Flickr user Jonohey
Remember too that serious photographers are always ready to shoot in any kind of weather. Fog? Rain? Snow? These aren't reasons to sit in your hotel room watching Shark Week while you hope the weather clears. These are opportunities. A fog shrouded mountain can make an amazing photo. So can a storm moving in over the mountain range, or a rainbow between two peaks. If you stay inside you're going to miss those opportunities.
It's not all about nature...
A pristine, unspoiled mountain is a beautiful thing, but don't think you have to crop out every sign of human visitation in order to get a good photo. A person in the foreground can help provide that sense of scale we were talking about earlier - so can a rugged building or a crazy person trying to scale El Capitan without a safety harness. A trail winding its way towards a mountain range can also help with that three-dimensional quality by helping to lead your viewer's eye into the image.
Barn and the Fence by Flickr user mattsantomarco
Sometimes you just can't get everything into the shot. Even with a wide angle lens, you may find you're cutting out important parts of the scenery - the tops of the pine trees, for example or the sides of that alpine lake. In this situation it's useful to have a tripod along so you can take a panoramic shot of the landscape. Remember that that doesn't necessarily mean just stringing together a series of horizontal images. You can also stack images to make a panoramic shot out of images that are stitched together both horizontally and vertically.
Icefields Parkway 30 Exposure HDR VertoPano by Flickr user ecstaticist
The lighting in the mountains can sometimes be difficult, and if you do find yourself out in bad light, consider setting up that tripod and bracketing your shots - one for the highlights, one for the shadows, and one in between. Then try combining those shots in HDR software and see what you get. You might be amazed.
I've reached the end of the world by Flickr user Stuck in Customs
If you follow these basic tips, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to get great photos in the mountains regardless of bad light or poor scratch-n-sniff technology. Just remember to pack light and shoot as many frames as you can - eventually those mountain shots will look less like two-dimensional prints and more like those majestic mountains themselves.
[Also be amazed with some outstanding images of mountains]
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