Mountain landscapes offer some of the most breathtaking scenery that nature has to offer with their soaring peaks, sweeping valleys, and dramatic vistas. Whether you’re an experienced travel photographer or just starting out, capturing the beauty and majesty of mountains can be a rewarding and inspiring experience. In this article, we’ll explore some of the key techniques and strategies for taking stunning mountain landscape photographs. From understanding lighting and weather conditions to mastering composition techniques and choosing the right camera gear, we’ll cover everything you need to know to take your mountain photography to the next level. So let’s get started and discover the art of mountain landscape photography.
Planning and preparation
There are many ways to look for new locations to explore. Although it’s very satisfying to discover a new location on OS or Google maps, remember that popular locations are popular for a reason! It’s often because they have the best views. The beauty of mountain landscape photography is there is you will never see the same view twice, this is thanks to the weather. This also allows for unique shots when the conditions are just right.
Another aspect to consider for landscape photography is that you don’t always have to climb the highest mountains for the best photos, it’s often quite the opposite. For example, the shot below which is within my Photo4me portfolio has sold three times, and believe it or not it was taken in the car part at the start of a route up Moel Famau!
Most importantly, make time to get out there! you’re certainly not going to find any mountains in your living room!
Seasons and weather
Seasons provide a huge amount of variety, especially for mountain landscape photography. In summer the lush greens and colourful heather and in winter the white snow-topped mountains provide a contrast against the dark rocky mountains.
Make sure you check the weather forecast, I like to use the Clear Outside app, which provides additional insights such as fog and additional details on the type of cloud cover. However, also be prepared for the conditions to be unpredictable.
Carefully consider your clothing choice, weather conditions can change rapidly and it’s best to plan for the worst-case conditions to ensure you’re well prepared. Being soaked through on the side of a mountain while being battered by the wind isn’t the best formula for taking great photos!
If you’re comfortable, warm and dry it will be far easier to focus on photography and identifying great compositions. It will also make for a far more enjoyable adventure.
Also, don’t rely on solely your phone for navigation if you’re in remote areas. There is a high likelihood that you will have poor mobile network coverage and therefore reduced functionality. Familiarise yourself with the location beforehand, bring physical maps and if travelling alone make sure someone knows where you are. Of course, if you’re only venturing a few meters from your car, this doesn’t apply!
Lighting and weather conditions
For mountain landscape photography lighting can make or break a photo. Fully overcast conditions can be extremely difficult. Especially if you’re to come away with photos which are unique and special, both in terms of colour also contrast and shadows. However, clear sky sunny days can also prove challenging due to the harsh light.
So if overcast or sunny conditions are not optimal, then what is?!
Well, it’s often “bad” weather that can create some of the most magical photographs. When I say “bad” I don’t mean conditions where it’s raining all day and fully overcast. I’m talking about changeable conditions, where the sun shines through low-level clouds putting localised light on the mountainsides. or even conditions with short rain showers can work wonders for capturing a rainbow or light rays coming through the clouds.
Some of my favourite conditions are shown in the timelapse videos below:
Although you may not be able to control the weather and lighting, you can control the time of day you head out. Heading out a “golden hour” just after sunrise or before sunset increases your chances of being out when the sky looks like it’s on fire, and the scenery is lit up.
For the best sunset or sunrise look out for conditions with local cloud cover and a gap at the horizon just as the sun is rising or setting. This is almost certain to light up the sky with dramatic oranges, reds or pinks.
Spring or Autumn is a great time of year to head out for sunrise as the time of day is reasonable (not too early). Checking the Sunrise and sunset times for the UK or anywhere else in the world throughout the year can be a great way to plan trips. Personally, I much prefer to head out for sunrise as it’s quieter and there is no need to venture back in the dark.
If you’re not a morning person and don’t fancy being in the mountains at sunset before dark, then try and get out either earlier or later in the day. The sun will be lower in the sky, which helps with casting shadows and increasing contrast.
A top tip regarding foggy conditions is not to give up! If you’re under the fog, look to move to higher ground in the hope that you can rise above it, e.g. climb higher in the valley or nearby mountain. This is especially important for cloud or temperature inversions where a cold layer of air is trapped at ground level, overlaid by warm air. If there is sufficient moisture in the air it creates a low blanket of clouds and mist on the ground. Although you may not be able to rise above it, it’s worth the risk for an opportunity for once-in-a-lifetime conditions for photography.
Camera gear required
Mountain landscape photography doesn’t require a special camera body, wherever you’re comfortable using will work. A bonus would be to have a weather-sealed body and something relatively lightweight, however, this is not a requirement. DLSR/Mirrorless full-frame and crop sensor cameras can be used without issues. Unless you’re a professional, in my opinion, you’re unlikely to notice the slight improvement in the dynamic range, image quality and resolution of a full-frame sensor camera vs a crop sensor camera. The lighter-weight crop sensor camera body does have an advantage with regard to weight, size and long-range focal length capability. DSLR Full frame sensor camera bodies and lenses are typically larger and heavier than crop sensor camera bodies, as they need to cover the larger sensor.
There are three main groups of lenses typically used for landscape photography
- Typically 11-16mm for crop sensor cameras and for full frame 14-24mm.
- If used correctly these allow the foreground to be disproportionately bigger. For small foregrounds, you will need to get very close. If used incorrectly these can show a vast scene with no real focal point!
- Standard zoom:
- Typically 16-55mm for crop sensor cameras and for full frame 24-70mm.
- Can’t rely on a specific “lens characteristic” like with a wide angle or telephoto zoom lens. To use this focal length effectively you will rely on a good scene, lighting and a great composition.
- Telephoto zoom
- Typically 55-300mm for crop sensor cameras and for full frame 70-200mm or 100-400mm.
- These are a great lens choice for mountain landscape photography, especially for layers, and perspective compression. Back away then zooming into the scene for the background to appear a lot bigger and closer to the foreground.
- ND filters
- These are a great way to block light to the sensor and therefore slow down shutter speeds. Our post A Comprehensive Guide To Seascape Photography contains tips on how to use ND filters for long-exposure photography.
- These are a great way to cut down on glare and reflections.
- For low-light and long-exposure photography a tripod is a must. Most photos are at high apertures; letting less light into the sensor and ensuring the whole scene is in focus. This leads to longer shutter speeds to get the correct exposure. If you’re looking to keep you’re ISO low then a tripod is an essential way to ensure sharp photos.
- Regarding tripod types for mountain landscape photography, there is a balance between portability/weight and tripod stability. A lightweight tripod is unlikely to remain stable on a mountainside. However, hanging your bag from the tripod can be a great way to keep it still in strong winds.
Mountain landscape composition techniques
A great aspect of mountain landscape photography is that the scenery does most of the work in terms of creating a great composition. That being said, there are a few key tips which can help your photos capture the scene in the best way possible.
Don’t forget the main composition rules: Rule of thirds, leading lines, patterns
When it comes to capturing stunning mountain landscapes, utilizing basic composition rules can greatly enhance the visual impact of your photographs. The rule of thirds is a fundamental principle to keep in mind. Imagine dividing your frame into a 3×3 grid with two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. Positioning your main subject, such as a snowy peak or a solitary tree, along these lines or at their intersections can create a balanced and visually appealing composition. This simple technique draws the viewer’s attention to the subject while simultaneously incorporating the vastness of the surrounding mountains. However, remember, rules are often made to be broken! don’t feel like this needs to be applied to every photo you take.
Another powerful composition tool is the use of leading lines. Mountains often present natural lines that can guide the viewer’s gaze through the image, creating a sense of depth and dimension. Utilize paths, rivers, or ridges that meander through the landscape to draw attention towards the focal point of your photograph. By strategically placing these leading lines, you can enhance the viewer’s perception of distance and scale, ultimately adding a dynamic element to your mountain landscape photography. Try to ensure that your leading lines direct the viewer’s eye into the frame, and not out the side of the image. Focal points placed along converging diagonal lines or an S shape can work very effectively.
What is more, keep an eye out for captivating patterns in the mountain scenery. Patterns, such as repeating shapes or textures, can provide a sense of rhythm and visual interest. This could be a series of peaks, a row of trees, or the intricate details of rock formations. Experiment with different angles and perspectives to emphasize the patterns and capture their unique beauty in the mountain landscape. Patterns can also be brought out with postprocessing techniques.
Incorporate the sky and the clouds
Whilst it is particularly nice to go on a photography trip when then the sun is shining and the skies are blue (especially if you are travelling or on holiday), it is certainly not the best weather for mountain landscape photography. A cloudless, blue sky tends to render mountain photographs appear flat and lacking in depth. To bring out the best in your mountain landscape shots, it’s often recommended to shoot in partly cloudy (even stormy) conditions.
Partly cloudy skies offer ideal lighting for mountain photography. Especially when you have a mix of different cloud types at varying levels. These clouds introduce depth and dimension to your images by partially covering the peaks and adding an atmospheric quality.
In particular, storm clouds brewing over the mountains can result in extraordinary shots. The dramatic contrast between light and shadow, intensified by the clouds, can produce stunning effects. The shadows cast by the clouds onto the mountain peaks contribute to the creation of additional depth and texture, elevating the overall composition of your image.
For optimal composition in mountain landscape photography, it is often recommended to allocate one-third of the frame to the sky while reserving the remaining two-thirds for the background and foreground, particularly the lower portion.
Balancing foreground and background elements: What to use as a foreground?
Balancing foreground and background elements is crucial in mountain landscape photography as it helps create a sense of depth and visual interest in your images. Choosing the right foreground elements can greatly enhance the overall composition and provide a point of interest that leads the viewer’s eye into the scene.
One popular option for foreground elements in mountain photography is natural features such as rocks, flowers, or trees. But in addition to natural elements, you can also consider using man-made objects as foreground elements. This could include paths, fences, or structures like cabins or huts. Incorporating these elements can help convey a sense of human presence in the vast mountain landscape, adding a narrative and context to your photograph.
Another option is to include a person in the frame, this is a great way to show a sense of scale. To allow them to stand out either ensure the background behind them is clear, for example, sky or a lake, or ensure the clothes are colours which stand out against the scene.
Ultimately, the choice of foreground elements will depend on the specific location and the story you want to tell through your photographs. Experiment with different elements, compositions, and perspectives to find the right balance between the foreground and background.
Layers play a vital role in mountain landscape photography, adding depth, dimension, and visual interest to your compositions.
When composing your shot, it’s important to identify and utilize the various layers present in the mountain landscape. Start by observing the foreground, middle ground, and background elements. The foreground can include objects like rocks, streams, or vegetation that are closest to the camera. It sets the stage and helps establish a sense of scale within the frame. The middle ground can encompass rolling hills, trees, or smaller peaks, while the background typically showcases the towering mountains themselves. However, mountains could also be in the middle ground, whilst the background could showcase dramatic clouds hovering over the mountainous landscape.
To create effective layers, seek out elements that add interest and depth to each layer. Look for leading lines, such as rivers or paths, that guide the viewer’s eye from the foreground towards the middle ground and finally to the majestic peaks in the background. Incorporate different textures, colours, and shapes in each layer to create a visually compelling composition. For example, colourful flowers in the foreground, followed by a dense forest in the middle ground, and finally, the rugged mountain range in the background can produce a striking layered effect.
Additionally, keep an eye out for contrasting elements in each layer. Contrasts in colour, texture, or light can further emphasize the separation between the layers, enhancing the overall composition. For example, the warm tones of a sunrise or sunset on the mountains can contrast beautifully with the cool colours of a river or lake in the foreground.
Balance in mountain landscapes
Creating balance or symmetry in mountain landscape photos can result in visually pleasing and harmonious compositions. It helps to create a sense of equilibrium and order, drawing the viewer’s eye and conveying a sense of serenity amidst the grandeur of the mountains.
One way to achieve balance in your mountain landscape photos is by paying attention to the placement of key elements within the frame. For example, if there is a prominent mountain peak on one side of the image, you can look for a complementary element on the other side to create a symmetrical balance. It could be a smaller peak, a tree, or even a reflection in the water. This symmetrical arrangement creates a sense of equilibrium and can be particularly effective when shooting reflections in lakes or ponds, as the reflected image adds an additional layer of symmetry.
Another technique to consider is balancing visual weight within the frame. Mountains often have a dominant presence, and if they occupy a significant portion of the image, it’s important to balance their weight with other elements in the scene. Look for foreground or middle-ground elements that can counterbalance the visual dominance of the mountains. For example, you can position a cluster of trees or a vast green meadow in the foreground to balance out the weight of the mountains in the background. This technique helps distribute visual interest and creates a harmonious composition.
Fill the frame with information
To create impactful mountain landscape photos, it’s essential to fill the frame with information that tells a story and engages the viewer. Every element within the frame should serve a purpose and contribute to the overall narrative, guiding the viewer’s eye through the image and immersing them in the scene.
Start by considering the foreground, middle ground, and background as distinct storytelling elements. The foreground can introduce the viewer to the scene, providing context and setting the stage for the story that unfolds. It could be a pathway leading towards the mountains, a collection of rocks that reveal the ruggedness of the terrain, or a delicate flower in the foreground that adds a sense of fragility. By carefully selecting and positioning these elements, you can guide the viewer’s eye towards the main subject while simultaneously conveying a deeper story.
Tips and tricks for mountain landscape photography
To further build upon the advice on the use of various lens types and compositions, here are ways to add additional enhancements.
If you’re unable to get both the foreground and sky correctly exposed then exposure bracketing is a great way to cover an increased dynamic range. Most cameras have this function built in. Where you can set the f/stop values to over-expose and under-expose, together with the number of shots. If you’re on a tripod and your camera doesn’t have this functionality you can use exposure compensation manually instead. These images can then be combined in Adobe Lightroom as an HDR image, giving greater control over both the shadows and highlights.
However, when post-processing HDR images take care to raise the shadows artificially high. With mountain landscape photography it can look strange if the shadows are brighter than the sky, for example.
Panoramic shots: The guide included within A Comprehensive Guide To Seascape Photography for taking and post-processing panoramic images can be applied to mountain landscape photography. One key difference is that a straight horizon is often difficult to find, therefore make use of your camera’s virtual horizon feature if available. Also on the uneven ground consider a tripod with a built-in levelling bubble, this will help considerably with set-up.
Post-processing is always very subjective to how the individual would like to portray the image as they remember it at the time the shutter was released. That being said, most want to keep their images looking natural. To ensure natural-looking images it’s important to only make small subtle changes to the image.
Mountain landscape photography is a challenging yet rewarding pursuit for any photographer looking to capture the beauty and majesty of these natural wonders. By taking the time to plan and prepare, understanding the importance of lighting and weather conditions, mastering composition techniques, and choosing the right camera gear, you can create stunning images that showcase the grandeur of the mountains. With the tips and techniques in this article in mind, you’re now ready to hit the trails and capture the breathtaking beauty of mountain landscapes. So grab your gear and start exploring – you never know what amazing images you might find!