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Mountain Photography + Tips & Advice

I wanted to share some of my favourite mountain photos, and I thought while I'm at it, I'd also compile some tips for mountain photography, for anyone who'd like to improve their own images from and of the peaks.


This first photo is one I haven’t shared before. It’s a multi-shot panorama of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve in the highlands of Iceland, shortly after sunrise.


Sunrise photo of Landmannalaugar in iceland
Landmannalaugar Sunrise

My Influences

I wasn't always big on mountains, but ancient, weather-beaten, rugged, craggy-faced, and grey; I find myself drawn to them more in middle-age than ever before. And they’re addictive. Sunrise from above the wider landscape is a peaceful, inspirational, and warming experience, and the adventures around those moments are challenging and rewarding in equal measure. My progression from casual shooter to keen hiker & photographer was primarily driven by my own escalating experiences of mountain regions, whilst at the same time discovering the work of others who have captured the grandeur of wilderness areas beyond my moderate capabilities. So firstly, I just wanted to mention three photographers whose mountain photography has inspired me over the years, and who make for great further reading on the subject.


Ansel Adams

I'm not going to dwell on Ansel Adams as he's very well known, and pretty much every landscape photographer will cite him as an influence. He worked mainly in Yosemite NP, California in the mid-20th century, and produced some of the most iconic photos of the day, inspiring countless photographers and environmentalists since.


Alan Hinkes

Hinkes was the first (and currently only) British mountaineer to conquer all 14 peaks over 8,000 meters, and did so whilst also lugging a camera up those iconic routes. He is now an author, speaker, and photographer, sharing the backstories to his adventures with others. Seeing his photos from the top of such hostile places really inspired me to spend more time in the mountains, and to try to experience more of those seldom witnessed views from around the world.


Colin Prior

If the Himalayas are the poster-boy of the mountain ranges, then the Karakorum are very much the hipsters' choice. And Colin Prior liked them before they were cool. After discovering Alan Hinkes' work a few years ago, I became fascinated with the Karakorum, which in turn led me Colin Prior and in particular, his book "The Karakoram: Ice Mountains of Pakistan". Personally I think the peaks of the Karakorum (which include the world's second-highest mountain, K2) are more rugged, more dramatic, and more remote than the Himalayas, with deep valleys, vast glaciers, and towering, steep ridges. I have Prior's Karakorum book, and I find it inspirational and awe-inspiring.


mountains and glaciers of east greenland, photographed out of a plane window
East Greenland From The Air. Many of these peaks will never have been climbed.

10 Tips for Mountain Photography

To be honest, I could have called the blog post "10 Tips for Mountain Photography", but I do try (to the detriment of SEO) to avoid blog posts that sound too click-baity. Anyway, here we go. There are no golden rules in photography, but if you're looking to elevate your photos from casual snaps to wall art prints, hopefully this advice will help you get the most out of your time in the mountains.


1. Do Your Research

Scout locations ahead of travelling to the mountains to ensure that you know where you're going, how long it will take, and that you'll get the views and experience you are looking for. In addition, researching ahead of time allows you to set realistic expectations for the trip. By visualising the landscapes and vistas you hope to encounter, you can customise your itinerary to align with your priorities. Take advantage of all the usual sources for planning routes and viewpoints. Google Maps can render the landscape in 3D. And apps such as Photographer's Ephemeris and PhotoPills will help with factors such as sunrise, moonrise, etc. You don't have to have every photo you will take in mind, in fact I would recommend that you don't, as it will blinker your creativity when you're there. But it really helps maximise your output if you know where you want to head, how to get there, and when you need to set off. These factors can also effect what camera kit or hiking gear you will need with you, and what you can leave at home.


In the Dolomites in 2019, we pre-booked a night at a mountain hut which enabled us to walk out to this view at sunrise the next morning...


a panorama image taken of Marmolada from Piz Boe at sunrise
Piz Boe Panorama

2. Work Smart - Take Advantage of Lifts & Cable Cars

For some people, 'conquering the mountain' is the primary challenge - or at least part of the fun. If that's the case then by all means have at it. But if you're in it primarily for the photos, and you want bang for your buck, you can get to a lot of mountaintops, mountainsides, and scenic viewpoints by taking some form of mountain transport, such as a cable car. This is especially true in central Europe, and other areas with well established ski resorts and all of the infrastructure that brings. Typically I enjoy a combination of these two approaches. I like to feel like I've earned a photo by putting in the effort, and I've done my fair share of 4am hikes. Plus the more difficult-to-access viewpoints are often much less seen & photographed, resulting in more original images. But other times it feels pointless to spend the time and energy of a long hike if it's not necessary. Last year I visited the Dolomites in Italy with the absolute minimum of hiking involved, and came away with some nice photos, too.


Mountain view from Lagazoui in the Dolomites
Lagazoui View

3. The Best Views Aren't Always From The Top of the Mountain

I can't say I'm particularly driven by 'summit fever' to reach the top of any mountain, if it's not going to improve my viewpoint. A great example of this is Snowdon. I think I've been up there 5 times now, but only summited Snowdon twice. I think the best views are from different angles around the Horseshoe and Crib Goch, rather than from the highest point. And this can often be the case with mountain photography. Sometimes looking down on the world below is a great vantage point. But other times you can better convey the grandeur and scale of a mountain, by shooting it from below, half-way up, or from across a valley, rather looking than down on it. There are plenty of mountains which look fantastic from ground level, without any hiking required. Shoot the mountains you enjoy, from whichever viewpoint you want.


Ryolite hillsides in Landmannalaugar, Iceland
Landmannalaugar Hills

4. Get Out Early, Stay Out Late

It's a classic, but perhaps a shift in mindset if transitioning from a casual hiker to a keen landscape photographer. Starting your day in the early hours of the morning allows you to capture the beauty of a sunrise and the warm glow on the mountains, before most people are out of bed.


A ridgeline in the Italian Dolomites at dawn
Dolomite Rock

Similarly, starting later in the day and extending into the evening provides the opportunity to capture the colours of sunset. If you're a regular mountain goer, but you haven't tried photographing the views from sunset or sunrise, I can only recommend you give it a try and see the difference the soft light makes to your photos. The transition from day to night (and vice-versa) provides unique lighting conditions that can add drama and atmosphere to your images. It's also a very peaceful, tranquil experience being out at that time.

Additionally, staying out later still lets you experience the "blue hour"; a brief period before dawn or after dusk when the sky turns deep blue, creating a balanced exposure, and a cool colour palette.


Sognefjord in Norway - Photographed at Blue Hour
Sognefjord Portrait - Photographed at Blue Hour

5. Incorporate Foregrounds with Wide-Angle Lenses

This isn't something I'm very good at, so my personal examples are thin on the ground. But if you're using a wide-angle lens (or a smartphone) it's futile to try and capture the view in front of you as you see it, as these focal lengths have a distorting effect on the scene, rendering it differently to our eyes. Objects in the centre of the image (eg a mountain/range) will be squashed smaller, whilst most of the picture will be filled with the sky and foreground. In most cases, it has the opposite effect you're looking for. When photographing with a wide-angle lens or smartphone, you need 2-3 subjects in the image. Ideally;

  • something in the foreground (eg a rock or a plant),

  • something in the middle-distance (eg a lake or a waterfall),

  • and something in the background; (probably your mountain).

If the only point of interest in your image is distant (ie the mountain), you should either;

  • use a longer focal length,

  • or find a different perspective to combine the mountain with 1-2 other features, to make an image that flows with interest, and fills the space from back to front.


Medicine Lake in British Columbia, in early winter snow
Medicine Lake Reflections

6. Consider Longer Focal Lengths Too

It's natural to think that you would default to a wide-angle lens for landscape photography, because the scenery in the mountains is so huge. But that's not the only way. I love to photograph with mid-to-telephoto lenses. Something in the 50-200mm range, or longer. These focal lengths allow you to do a few things that wide-angle (and smartphone) lenses can't.


Mountain in Landmannalaugar, Iceland
Folds of Colour

One obvious benefit is that you can zoom in to fill the image with a mountain that would be impossible (or a considerable undertaking) to get closer to. I think of these as 'Mountain Portraits'. I've taken many of them over the years, and I use the perspective of a longer lens to capture the character of the mountain close-up. You can bring out textures and patterns that might be overlooked with wider focal lengths, from more intricate details such as rock formations, glaciers, or plant-life.


a pointy mountin in Lofoten, Norway, covered in snow
Pointy Boy, Norway

In contrast to wide-angle lenses, which exaggerate the distance between elements of the scene, telephoto lenses minimise those distances, creating a flattening effect. The perspective can compress the view of the mountains, making them appear closer together, emphasising the scale. This compression effect can also help in capturing the layers of mountains in the distance, or to create a slightly less literal view.


Mountain ridgelines in the Dolomites, before sunrise
Dawn on Lagazuoi

I can't cover all the ways in which a longer focal length can be used for mountain photography, but one last example is in capturing smaller scenes from within the larger landscape. It is often said that a good photo is defined as much by what is excluded from the image as what is included. The ability to focus on specific areas of the wider mountain scenery can help illustrate a character or narrative of the landscape more concisely than the wider view, with all the distractions that brings. Zooming in can create compositions that highlight the interplay of light and shadow on the terrain, or more subtle features of the scene. Choosing to exclude the sun, for example, can result in a photo with less dynamic range and lower contrast, which often creates a more relaxing, pastel-toned image. They key is to choose the right tool for the effect you want, so your image makes the point you want to make.


sunrise in the grose valley, Blue Mountains National Park
Grose Valley Light Rays

7. Use Weather & Clouds

Blue skies make great conditions for hiking, but poor conditions for photography. Harsh light creates hard, contrasty shadows, and can result in quite flat-looking images. Whilst clouds and weather phenomena don't always make for more enjoyable hiking, they can work wonders for photos; telling a story, creating drama, and casting interesting light.

the summit of the eiger in Switzerland
Misty Eiger Summit

Provided it's safe to do so, try to get out when the weather is changeable (often the case in the mountains), and take advantage of the atmosphere that rain, rainbows, snow, and low cloud can create.


mountains rise above a dawn cloud-inversion
Dawn Mountains

If the area you're shooting in is well known for a particular type of weather, then try to capture that in your photo, to weave more narrative into your images.


Leura, Blue Mountains
Above the Clouds

With all that said, if you're somewhere like Colorado - known for it's consistent blue sky days, try leaning into those less-than-ideal photography conditions and using them to represent the reality of the geography, rather than only putting the hiking boots on when the weather forecast is to your liking.


8. Chase the Light, Shoot the Light

Related to the point above, the way that light changes in the mountains makes all the difference to the way that the landscape looks, what appears to be emphasised, and where the viewer's attention is drawn.


light is cast down the Grose Valley in the Blue Mountains, Australia
Grose Valley Light

In particular, moments of light through the clouds often make for engaging photos.


Clouds straddle The North Face of the Eiger, Switzerland
The North Face of the Eiger

Both the photos above and below were taken during conditions of mixed rolling cloud and breaking sun. They captured brief moments where the light was just right.


light hits this mountain in the dolomites
Misty Dolomite Mountain

9. Get The Gear!

Despite my techie instincts, I'm not really one for sinking much of my time and energy into photography gear, and it's not something I cover in my blogs much either. Camera equipment is important, but I find it a little dull to read/write about. But as far as outdoor gear goes, that's another matter. I love the stuff! As with photography gear, there's no minimum standard you need to give it a go, but the better kit you have, the easier you make things for yourself. The more comfortable and enjoyable the experience, the more options and opportunities become available to you. As someone with very little natural inclination for getting cold, wet, and muddy, knowing that I will stay warm and dry, carry less weight, and have the right tools for the job makes the outdoors a much more appealing place to be.


Sunrise from Seceda in the Dolomites
Seceda Sunrise

Although with outdoor gear, you generally get what you pay for, you don’t necessarily have to splash the cash. Plenty of optimistic people have bought kit for one trip, never used it since, and found their circumstances have changed, so there are always bargains to be had if you buy second-hand. As with lenses, I’ve bought plenty of kit used, from merino layers to backpacks, supporting the circular economy and saving money in the process. I could probably do a whole blog post on hiking gear (this post goes into more detail when combining photography with hiking), but here are three key lessons I've learned that will make your time in the mountains more enjoyable...


Get A Comfy, Efficient Rucksack

For a long time, options for camera backpacks were limited, and the martket was dominated by the likes of Lowepro and ThinkTank. Then F-Stop Gear raised the bar. Now there are a few other specialist camera rucksack brands available, for the on-trend landscape photographer. Personally I think the best backpacks out there are made by proper outdoor companies, that have been making them for years, and have a wealth of experience to build on. I'm a big fan of Osprey, and I love their line of "3D Suspended Mesh" rucksacks, which keep a layer of air between your rucksack and your back, and also sit with the weight on your hips, rather than hanging off your shoulders. The key motivation behind using a 'proper' hiking rucksack is that they do a better job of distributing the load, making it easier and more comfortable to carry for longer. Which in turn means my days are more enjoyable, and I have more energy for photography either along the way, or at the start & end of the day.

I have a large (65 litre) Osprey Atmos AG backpack for multi-day trips, and a smaller (36 litre) Osprey Stratos backback for day hikes. I keep all my camera gear in the snappily-named Lowepro GearUp Creator Box XL II, which is just large enough to carry a camera body with a medium telephoto (70-200mm f/4, or 100-500mm f/5.6), and a wide/mid-range lens (24-120mm f/4), plus a few other essentials such as lens cloth, spare batteries, filters, etc. That camera bag insert can be used with either Osprey rucksack, or if I'm expecting significant rain, I put it in an Overboard Backpack, which is less comfortable, but totally reliable for keeping kit dry. Essentially the key to my strategy is having a camera bag insert that I can put into the best rucksack for the task at hand. The dream is that one day, the likes of Osprey will come out with an all-in-one photography-friendly backpack off-the-shelf. Until then, I think the modular approach seems to work best for me.


Dress In Layers

It's an old adage, but it's true. Don't buy a big warm, insulated waterproof jacket. What if it's raining but it's not cold? What if it's cold, but you don't want the breathability issues of a waterproof? Take layers for warmth, and layers for waterproofing, and employ each as appropriate. If you just have one or two layers, you're committed to a narrow band of temperature & exertion. Whereas by combining several layers, you can warm up and cool down by adjusting as needed.

Be bold; start cold. If you're walking uphill, remove layers before you get hot, to avoid sweating into them, which then becomes cold once you reduce exertion.

I'll usually have a fleece and/or down insulating layer in my bag as I walk, so I can layer-up once I stop for photos. But they're generally a bad choice for walking in, due to their excessive warmth and lack of breathability.

When researching waterproofs look into Hydrostatic Head ratings, and Moisture Vapour Transmission Rate (MVTR). Personally I look for a rating of 20,000 in each.


Embrace wool

At any point in time I'm usually wearing as much wool as possible. Often the holy trinity of jumper, socks, slippers. And in the mountains wool is invaluable. Its combination of warmth, moisture-wicking capabilities, odour-resistance, and light weight make it a great material for mountain environs. It's also very comfortable, it's a natural material, and crucially it still insulates even when wet, unlike other materials such as cotton, which can leave you dangerously cold when saturated. Depending where I'm going, I wear as much wool as possible, including socks, underwear, long-johns, base-layer, t-shirt, mid-layer, jumper, hat, gloves.



10. Respect The Environment

This goes both ways: In terms of adhering to the principles of Leave No Trace, and also as it pertains to safety. Don't take risks. Let people know your plans, and check in with others regularly.


Monte Antelao in the dolomites
Monte Antelao

I like to think of myself as a man of science, but I admire the meaning of elves in modern Icelandic folklore, which have come to reinforce a cultural attitude of environmental reverence and care. Whether Icelanders truly believe in elves is up for debate, but I love what they have come to represent. Their 'existence' serves as a shorthand for respecting nature and the environment, and in doing so emphasises the idea of living in harmony with the natural world and recognising that unseen forces inhabit it. As well as treating nature respectfully for its own sake, the ideas also encourage responsible wilderness behaviour; suggesting that over-confidence, disrespect, or disregard for natures cues can prompt these invisible trouble-makers to bring you back to earth with a bump... or worse.


This last photo is from the Laugavegur Trail, in Iceland. We had no run-ins with the elves on that trip, so I guess we were well behaved.


mountains, volcanos and glaciers on the Laugavegur Trail, Iceland
Laugavegur Trail, Iceland

I hope that you found something useful in there. If not in the text then I hope you liked the photos, at least. If you have any questions or comments, please get in touch. And if you don’t currently have any trips booked, what are you waiting for? Enjoy the mountains!


-

George

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Red Deer Roaring, photographed in black and white

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