Trey WallaceComment

How to Photograph Mountains

Trey WallaceComment
How to Photograph Mountains
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.
— John Muir

The mountain before you is gigantic. The setting sun ignites the sheer rock summits with a neon orange and red glow. Gargantuan glaciers seep out of the valleys and crevices on each face. Excitedly, you snap a photo of this life-changing site. To your dismay, your camera screen displays the most uninspiring interpretation of the scene possible. What appears as a stunningly huge mountain to your naked eyes looks like an anthill to your camera. You can't share this with others--they will not be impressed enough. Let's be honest, with mountains, size matters. You want your viewers to be as amazed by your photos as you are in this moment, staring at the mountain.

Mountains are big. Really, really, really big. And you can't pose them like you can that soon-to-be-bride that is paying you thousands of dollars to do your magic. Mountains do not give a crap about you. This can make them extremely hard to photograph. Consequently, being a mountain photographer requires a totally different skillset and approach than other types of photography. Here's a few tips that will help you more effectively capture that mountain's majesty. 

 

Use a longer focal length.


Wide angle lenses extend depth perception in a way that far away objects look even farther away than they do in real life. Conversely, longer lenses shorten depth perception and make the distances between things look much smaller, therefore enlarging distant objects relative to closer objects. You don't have to capture the ENTIRE mountain range. Instead, use a longer lens and capture aspects of the mountain that will give a better representation of its scale. 

 
 View from Tunnel View Point in Yosemite shot on a 35mm lens. Looks... decent. But not  breathtaking.

View from Tunnel View Point in Yosemite shot on a 35mm lens. Looks... decent. But not breathtaking.

 
 
 Same location but with an 85mm lens. This closer view gives the viewer a much greater appreciation for the sense of scale. While we don't get to appreciate the entire panoramic view, we get to actually  feel small. 

Same location but with an 85mm lens. This closer view gives the viewer a much greater appreciation for the sense of scale. While we don't get to appreciate the entire panoramic view, we get to actually feel small. 

 
 

Shoot portrait orientation every now and then. 

The increased vertical space lets you further emphasize the height of mountains. Remember that height is your most important dimension when shooting mountains. 

 Torres del Paine. 150mm lens. 

Torres del Paine. 150mm lens. 

 Mont Blanc. 85mm lens. Spot the hikers?

Mont Blanc. 85mm lens. Spot the hikers?

 

Always have a subject.

Not every beautiful scene translates into a beautiful photos (cough cough sunset photos). Every photo needs a subject--something to focus the viewers attention. Just pointing your camera toward a pretty scene won't make interesting photographs. Wether it's a person, animal, tree, glacier--it doesn't matter. But using your mountains to frame something not only makes a photo more purposeful, it gives much more depth and scale to the landscape. 

 Iguazu Falls, Argentina. 70mm lens. Without birds, this image would appear relatively flat. They emphasize the height of this incredible waterfall. 

Iguazu Falls, Argentina. 70mm lens. Without birds, this image would appear relatively flat. They emphasize the height of this incredible waterfall. 

 Muir Woods. 85mm lens. My lovely girlfriend makes these trees seem so much more powerful. Without her, it would be difficult to tell how large they are. 

Muir Woods. 85mm lens. My lovely girlfriend makes these trees seem so much more powerful. Without her, it would be difficult to tell how large they are. 

 

Rough textures show scale.

Without texture, it's impossible to see distances. Forrest and rocky surfaces help us mentally build a grid that we can see shrink into the distance. 

 Mont Blanc. 35mm. The enormous cracks in the glacier fade into the distance. The mighty towers of the massif shrink away relative to the imposing giant on the righthand side. Textures in this image take the place of a person to scale things. 

Mont Blanc. 35mm. The enormous cracks in the glacier fade into the distance. The mighty towers of the massif shrink away relative to the imposing giant on the righthand side. Textures in this image take the place of a person to scale things. 

 

If you're standing on top of it, you can't photograph it.

While a long hike (or short gondola ride) to the highest summit may be an incredible experience by itself, you won't be able to capture the mountain beneath you. Additionally, being in the highest vantage point means you will be looking down on the surrounding landscape. This makes it extremely hard to show anything as being enormous. Instead, consider finding a viewpoint adjacent to the mountain you want to shoot, high enough above the ground that you can get away from other people, cars, etc. but low enough that you can still look up into the mountain. 

 

Send me your epic photos. 

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