Regardless of language, the universal response to seeing mountains is always the same; "Wow!” Mountains stop us in our tracks. We lose all sense of place and time and get lost trying to take it all in. Their peaks and valleys carved delicately over millennia by glaciers, tectonic plates, and weather patterns. How do you capture some of nature’s finest work while maintaining the integrity and power of that moment? They are a challenge to summit and a challenge to capture because mountains tell a lot of stories.
Best Time to Shoot? Try Sunrise or Sunset
The indirect lighting of dawn and dusk will make a great shot for several reasons. For one, the shadows during these times of day are longer, which helps accentuate the mountain's jagged edges, ridges, and mountain peaks. Additionally, the color of the sky during these times of day adds a lot of excitement to your picture.
This evening photo of The Grand Tetons was a perfect way to play with light. I situated myself West of the Tetons so that the sun set behind the mountain range. As a result, rays of sunlight shone through the valley, creating a very dramatic effect.
Research your mountain range beforehand to see in which direction the sun will rise and set. Then pick which angles you want to shoot. Navigating around mountain ranges can take several hours, so plan accordingly. Play with nature’s lighting and no two pictures of any mountain range will ever be the same.
Don't Let a Cloudy Day Rain on Your Parade
Clouds can bring a lot of drama to your mountain pictures, especially if you wait until the golden hours of sunrise or sunset.
In this shot taken in Glacier National Park, the setting sun turned a cloudy, gray evening sky into a fiery orange backdrop.
Slightly Over Expose Photos in Post Production
This technique helps especially when there is no direct lighting on the mountains you are photographing or if there is too much backlighting. Slightly over-exposing your photograph will help you manually accentuate the mountains features later on in post-production (I use Photoshop or Lightroom).
This photo was taken at Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park. The sun was setting behind the mountain peak to my right but because it was still the afternoon, I wanted to ensure that I would be able to capture this mountain’s features, specifically the Glacial striations, the marks on the mountain that show how the glacier is receding.
Know Your Cloud Formations
Because mountains are so massive, they can create their own weather patterns. It creates an image that feels like the mountain is so tall that it is piercing through the sky.
In this photo taken in Glacier National Park from the Going-to-the-Sun-Road, the “Orographic Effect” looks like a sheet of clouds tumbling down the side of the mountain. This happens when moisture in the air collides with a mountain range, forcing it to move upwards. As the air rises up the mountain, it cools and rolls down the other side.
Put Wildlife in the Foreground
When taking photos of wildlife, it can be really tempting to take a shot where the wildlife dominates the frame. That’s fine, but if you’re in a beautiful setting, be sure to pull back a little and capture the habitat they’re in. It brings a little bit more context and story to your photograph. Plus, mountains are an amazing backdrop!
Frame the Mountain With Flora in the Foreground
Using plants in the foreground to frame a mountain can give the photo seasonality. Fall foliage, like this photo shot in Denali National Park & Preserve, tells a story of the rare meteorological phenomenon that I encountered on my day venturing into the park. For one, it is very rare to see Mt. Denali in its entirety. Only 30% of the park’s visitors ever see the entire mountain due to cloud coverage. The second rare event: it snowed on the tundra earlier than usual in the Fall season.
Use People or Man-Made Objects for Scale
Give your photograph some perspective by capturing humans or man-made objects to help show just how larger than life mountains are.
Here on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, a ferry crossing the lake with the French Alps in the background helps show just how massive and powerful the Alps are. Makes you feel small in the grand scheme of things.
Discover how you can take better photographs of mountains.