Taking pictures in the mountains is probably the most daunting task in landscape photography. It is difficult to get good results because you will face a lot of extra troubles. Here I will summarize the most important points, but keep in mind that mountains can be wildly different from each other. For the landscape photographer it is not the same, for example, if the mountaintops are full of trees or bare; in the first case to get a successful panorama will be nearly impossible.
1: Weight weight weight
This i perhaps the most important point, often overlooked by folks used to take pictures in more “easy” places. Unless you plan to photograph only in the proximity of your car, you will have to keep the weight at the minimum. This does not mean buying expensive, especially designed new gear (sorry guys, you will have to find another excuse to justify the next purchase to your wife). This means thinking before leaving home and “study the terrain” to choose the right tools for the job.
The only exception to the no-new-purchases rule is the tripod. Most of us when we choose a tripod buy the most stable, and this often means an hefty one. For the sake of your back, and to be able to enjoy the hike, you will better served by one of the many light-but-still-stable tripods out there, like the Gitzo carbon line (expensive), a Benro Flat series (stable, light, cheap and it folds flat) or even a wooden one, like the Berlebach’s models.
With “messy” I’m not referring to the obvious presence of dust & dirt in a mountain environment, but to the fact that thanks to the sheer amount of branches, plants, weeds etc. will be difficult to “crop” a clear, nice, minimalistic framing. Taking beautiful pictures of places like a desert or the sea, by comparison, is a breeze. In the mountains you will find, no matter what, some distracting element in your frame. Sometimes you will be able to cut it off, either figuratively or literally (things like a straw or a blade of grass, for example).
Oftentimes you will have to modify the framing again and again…till you get it right. In the worst possible outcome you will discover some “unwanted presence” only at home, when you will be looking at your freshly minted pictures on the 21″ or 30″ screen of you home computer, instead of squinting at them on the 3″ display of the camera.
3: No gold light
Yep, usually during the best hours for photography – dawn and sunset – the surrounding mountains will block the sunlight, so your subject will simply be unlit or in deep shades, not coated with a golden glow. Still, depending on the location of the subject, in some place it may be convenient to shoot at gold light hours. Maybe the light will not be so warm (but with a bit of post-processing…), but the shadows will be long, dark and fascinating all the same. As usual with mountain landscape photography you will have to know the subject!
4: In the woods
Taking pictures in the woods has advantages and disadvantages. For one, you will have to worry less about the light; often the best days are the one with an overcast sky. On the other hand, a sunny day can be pretty interesting too, even if more often than not you will have to merge multiple shots – making an HDR – to avoid blowing the highlights.
Technically, shooting panoramas is trivial nowadays, thanks to excellent software and digital cameras. But if your view is obstructed by trees or weeds all the technique in this world will not give you a picture. So it is paramount, again, to know the subject, ideally scouting the location in advance. Sometimes Google Maps and the like work like a charm for this – just remember to enable the isometric (altitude) curves. And do not discount automatically the various “panoramic points”; yes, a ton of people take pictures from them, but they will most likely not have your fantasy nor your expertise.
I’m not a fan of the genre, so I’ll keep it short, but is probably one of the most fruitful (photographic) manners to spend time in the woods. Without walking too much you will be able to meet a lot of opportunities for beautiful images.
7: Lens & Cameras
This will depends on: a) the knowledge you have of the subject / place; b) your stylistic preferences; c) the quality level you need. This days, for the average (even professional) user this will mean a DSLR or a mirrorless with 2-3 lenses and a tripod. Obviously if you’ve got an Hasselblad and a PhaseOne back be my guest! But then: why are you reading this post?
Use of a tripod is mandatory, not optional; especially in the woods the light is pretty thin, and you will often want to close the aperture to extend the depth of field. Cranking the Iso will not do the trick, and moreover the tripod will be essential to compose a “clean” picture in the visually messy mountain environment and to make multiple aligned shots – to merge in a panorama or in a HDR image to compensate for excessive contrasts.
I tend to stick with one of those kits:
a) 24mm or 35mm shift + 85mm or 105mm
b) 20mm + 35mm shift + 60mm + 180mm or 100-300mm.
I usually carry the “b kit” if I don’t know the place I’m going too well, to cover all my bases. At the opposite side of the spectrum, when I know the place I’m going well enough, I often wind up carrying specific piece of equipment / lenses; this because I have a clear idea of the kind of pictures I’ll going to shoot.
Stitching is really easy now, so I strongly suggest you give it a try. Landscape photographies often thrive on the detail, so a better quality is always welcome. The only caveat here is not to shoot for the sake of a big, detailed picture. You have to visualize the resulting image in your head, then shoot its “sections”, not the other way around. Otherwise you will end up with a series of wonderfully detailed, boring images – been there, done that.
9: Bad weather
Bad weather is often the best backdrop for your pictures. But it is bad for you and for your cameras. So, first thing first, be sure to be safe, warm, dry and well hydrated; only then think to take pictures. You will have to protect your cameras and lenses too. The simplest and cheapest solution is to buy some transparent plastic bag; you can use whatever bag you like, as long it is watertight, but given how cheap the photographic ones are it doesn’t make sense to skimp on a few bucks. I’ve bought Optex branded bags, and they are really well made, with a nice cord that you can tighten around the lens-hood.
Another good idea is to keep a few packets of silica gel in the bag / rucksack compartment in which you keep your camera and lenses, this to absorb moisture. And, especially if it is cold, don’t forget extra batteries! For multi-days hikes I use a solar power charger. It is not fast, but you can hung it on the backpack and it will charge its internal battery / accumulator as you walk; then, in the evening, when you stop to camp, you will connect the camera batteries to the accumulator and let them charge.
The “creative” problems you will have to face will not be the same in the various seasons.
- The winter is probably the most easy, photographically speaking. The landscape is less messy, and if there is snow is pretty easy to spot beautiful, streamlined compositions.
- The spring is, at the opposite, the messiest season: there will be an awful lot of things growing at the same time, and they will ruin your frame if you’re not careful.
- In the summer most of the vegetation will often turn yellow because the lack of rain. The trick here will be – as always – be able to capture the essence of the season.
- Autumn is the most photographed season ever in the mountains, and for good reasons. The colors of the leaves make for wonderful pictures, but for the same motive will be difficult not to shot trite photos.
Bonus point: Hiking gear
Just a few sparse recommendations.
Use a normal, hiking rucksack, to carry your gear. Actually I use a leg bag, or a modified Lowepro waist pack (click to see the post), to carry the lenses so I can have a fast access to them.
I keep the camera mounted on the tripod, and I carry the tripod on my shoulders “locked” between my neck and the top of the rucksack frame (and old A.L.I.C.E. “large” military backpack).
Wear comfortable hiking or trial shoes. To enjoy the hike your feet will have to remain dry and rested!
Take always with you a compass. Aside for orientation purposes you’ll need it to understand how the light will fall on your subjects.
For safety reasons carry always:
- Extra clothing. The weather in the mountains can turn in a moment, even only at a local level.
- Led flashlight.
- First aid kit. A few band-aids, a disinfectant, a gauze and an elastic bandage will do; a small tube of Krazy Glue / SuperAttack (both a kind of cyanoacrylate-based glue) is awesome to keep wounds closed and to repair gear.
- Lighter. Yeah, I know that you don’t smoke, but what if you got lost and have to light a fire to warm you?
- Knife. Not a Rambo-like sword, just preferably in one piece, technically full tang, with a sharp blade maybe 3″/3,5″ (7/8cm) long.
- Extra food. Walking requires a lot of energy, and carrying all those extra photographic gear will make you hungry.
- Cellphone and / or PTT radio (“walkie-talkie”).
- Whistle. Way more efficient than screaming to attract attention in an emergency situation.
A few meters of American Tape (the gray, tough one) rolled on a stick or a pencil are perfect to fix broken gear in a pinch. I use it also as a band-aid, with a piece of gauze underneath, if the slash is too large for a normal sized band-aid.
Finally, a small screwdriver – or a multitool – that fits the screws on your tripod will be often invaluable. The vibrations of the car tends to loosen the screws, so the tripod legs have the habit to come out at the worst possible moments! Usually the best tripods are shipped with a small screwdriver for this purpose.
And now good pictures to everyone!