7 Tips for Landscape Photography in the Mountains

Long exposure photograph of a mountain stream
This is an example of problem #7. When I tried cropping off the pine trees at the top, the scene didn't feel complete. (Click to enlarge)

As many of you know, I moved from Florida (a coastal state that is as flat as a pancake) to Idaho (an intermountain state that is full of beautiful mountains) a few months ago.  Since then, I have faced immense photographic challenges that I had not anticipated.  I thought I'd write up a little tutorial on some of the challenges that photographers face when shooting in the mountains to help everyone who faces this challenge.

Tip #1: Don't hold your breath for the golden hour

In most places, the golden hour (just before sunset or after sunrise) is one of the best times to shoot landscape photography.  The warm light spread across the landscape is beautiful and makes just about any scene look fantastic.  When shooting near tall mountains, however, the golden hour is often completely missing or at least lessened.

This last weekend when shooting at Goat Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, I got set with my tripod, camera, and lens to shoot a particular snow-filled mountain right around the golden hour.  I was surprised when twilight “blue hour” lighting started showing up without having a golden hour at all!  The problem was that the golden hour light was completely blocked by a mountain ridge behind me.  My shot was ruined!

Tip #2: Overcome contrast with a grad ND

Usually, the light from the sky hits the landscape fairly evenly.  However, in the mountains, a ridge can be totally in the shadow and then have the bright sky right above it.  For photography, this means that either the sky has to be blown out, or you must lose shadow detail in the mountains because the dynamic range is too low on most cameras.

This is why a graduated neutral density filter is absolutely essential for landscape photography in the mountains.  Having one on this last trip allowed me to darken the sky while still retaining detail in the mountains underneath.

Mormon Row barn in Grand Teton National Park
I promised you guys pictures of my photo adventure to Grand Teton National Park two weeks ago and never delivered, so here's one shot from that trip. It illustrates the effect of a graduated neutral density filter on the sky above the mountain.

Tip #3: Watch out for unnatural shadows

Since the mountains in front of me would be in a shadow without the sun to my back, I would often set up facing away from the sun.  The problem that this created was that all the pine trees around me would cast distracting shadows on the ground in the picture.  I found this very tough to deal with, so I set up right at the edge of  a creek or a lake for many of the shots to lessen the amount that the shadows showed up in the picture.

Sunrise at Goat Lake in the Sawtooth Wilderness of Idaho
Sunrise. I had to Photoshop the life out of this photo to get rid of the unnatural shadows strewn about by the sun coming through the trees.

Tip #4: Hiking in your gear is painful

I guess it's time to buy a travel tripod.  I really like the stability of a full-weight tripod for night photography, so I decided to just deal with the weight and bring in my Induro A-413 tripod in on the hike.  That's 11lbs (almost 5 kilos) with the ballhead attached.  I will never do that again!  The hike was incredibly steep, rocky, and long.  About 3 miles into it, I would have done anything to get that heavy tripod and ballhead off my back!  I guess I should have listened to my own advice from my article on being outdoors with your photo gear.

Wide vista on a mountain ridge in wyoming
An example of #5. It's almost impossible to take this kind of picture and make it feel complete. You need a more structured composition.

Tip #5: A sweeping vista isn't always a beautiful photo

There were times while hiking along the trail that the trees would open up to a giant vista where I could see forever.  The views of the pine trees and mountain tops in the distance were breathtaking, but the pictures of the scene simply didn't cut it.  The reason is that there was no balance or clear focal point in the scene.  Just because it's beautiful, doesn't mean it's going to be a beautiful photo.

Another common problem that is found with sweeping vista shots in the mountains is that the atmosphere often produces a blue haze over the mountains in the distance.  This can be lessened somewhat with a polarizing filter or a yellow filter, but it's impossible to remove completely.

Tip #6: Search diligently for a good foreground element

One of the major challenges I had in setting up to take pictures in the mountain this last week was that I couldn't find anything in the foreground that could clearly capture the viewer's attention to give the shot a sense of depth.  I have written about foreground elements in landscape photography before, because I know how important it is to making a good composition.

The trouble with doing this in the mountains is that the scenes are so busy.  There are trees, bushes, rocks, roots, dirt, and streams everywhere you look, so it can be difficult to set up the shot so one item is the focal point in the foreground.

Tip #7: You have to go VERY wide to capture the entire scene

A good landscape photo has a composition that makes the viewer feel that they are seeing the entire scene.  If the viewer feels that they are missing something in the photo, it will distract them from enjoying the scene.

This can be a serious challenge for landscape photography in the mountains, because the pine trees are incredibly tall.  Often, I found that cutting off a few pine trees half way up made the photo feel incomplete and the composition didn't work as well.  For many of my shots, this meant that I had no other choice other than to shoot in vertical orientation.

A landscape photo of Goat Lake in Idaho
This shot is actually a panorama/vertorama of 10 photos taken at 15mm. This is just an illustration of how tough it can be to capture the entire scene.

16 thoughts on “7 Tips for Landscape Photography in the Mountains”

    1. Wrong. Yes Yes Yes, take that ND with you, and get it right on a single frame. My very best images have utilized ND Grads, sometimes stacking more than one on my filter holder.

  1. Not a problem. When you use filters, particularly a GND, you’re locking in your exposures in different areas of the image. For example, if you have a tree sticking up from in the foreground to the top of your picture, the top of that tree is going to be quite a bit darker than the bottom. When you take different exposures of the same scene, then you can combine them in Photoshop and get more natural, even results.

  2. A friend just sent me a link to this site. I have many sites that I check, email me & so on but thought, “HOW COOL & UNCONVENTIONAL OF THE OTHER SITES I’VE READ THAT RICK DISAGREED BUT GAVE AN ACCEPTABLE ALTERNATIVE TO A GNDF. THEN FUTHER MORE BRUNO COMES ALONG WITH YET, ANOTHER ALTERNATIVE!”. It’d be great to know why each one of you’d choose your option, along with what scenarios in which that option works best. Ex. Marko says use GNDF at sunset landscapes where there’s lil or no obstruction in the image such as a tree… Rick says bracket & blend when the landscape scene does not provide a wide open view. (tips on bracketing & blending, plz)… Bruno says HDR works best with architectural landscape. (list the best sites to find hdr instructions)Thanks to all three of yall, as this really has me thinking about preparation before shooting landscape shots & knowing beforehand which option works best, specially since fall colors will hit KY soon. I love learning new techniques & would appreciate it very much if I could learn all three choices:)

  3. These are GREAT suggestions (including) the alternative to GND – I use both. I came from the mountains of Alaska/Colorado/Wyoming to Iowa. WOW – what a shock to find almost nothing readily photographable as landscapes go. But I learned, thru using time tested techniques in landscape photography, to find those golden nuggets. You have to be creative – and alway get there early and often and you’ll do just fine. Its fun. :o)

  4. I have long argued against people being locked in to “the Golden Hour”. I do a lot of photography down in deep, narrow valleys. There is no light before 9am and by 3pm it’s gone. Each area has its own best time.

  5. I agree with these issues 100%. I live in Colorado Springs and have struggled with all of these issues you mentioned. The mountains are beautiful, but often very difficult to produce beautiful photographs. When I’m on a hike, what I see 99% of the time is brown rocks, gray peaks, plain blue sky, and a mountainside filled with evergreens. Throw in some beetle kill for fun, and an already mundane photograph can be truly bad. I read somewhere that it’s hard to take a bad photograph in Colorado. Not true at all. It’s quite easy in fact.

    I think mountain landscape photography is one of the most challenging areas of photography. What I try to do is look for *anything* that has some color besides blue, green, brown, and gray. Oranges, reds, and purples are what I’m after.

    As for tip #6, I try to find foreground water that can pull light down from the sky into the foreground. That helps. I notice that a large number of photos from famous mountain landscape photographers have some kind of foreground water.

  6. We are planning a trip to RMNP. We’ve been there several times before and have been disappointed with some of our pictures (sky, snow and clouds too bright or trees, meadows, etc. too dark). This article, with the example photographs, was exactly what I was looking for to help on this trip. Thank you!

    Tip #1 is a real help. I’ve been thinking how to balance photography with other vacation activities thinking about the “golden hour”. It didn’t occur to me that this is probably less relevant in the mountains.

    I did get a graduated neutral density filter to help balance the exposure, understanding its limitations in the mountains. I have tried blending exposures but I think I need a better tripod ($$$) and a remote shutter release as I sometimes have problems matching the elements of the bracketed exposures exactly. I am hoping maybe a combination of both will get me better exposure.

    Thanks again.

  7. josefina santiago

    your photos are excellent!!!i am just an aspirant and i want to know more about photography i only search the web then BOOM!!i found your website…but i dont know if im already registered…

  8. Read and listened to the IP network for a while, getting ready to go out for a shoot and thought I’d spend a few minutes reading before I go. Came across this article from 2011, still as interesting today, 4 years further on. Thanks Jim.

  9. I am a new photographer and will be taking a trip to Glacier National Park this summer. It will be my first time in the mountains, and I want to get some great landscape photos. Can someone recommend if I should be getting an ultra wide angle lens, or would a 24 mm prime be better? I also have a kit lens that gets to 16 mm, f4.0 I think.

    1. @Marci – You’ll definitely want a wider lens than a 24mm prime. Also, check the lens finder. Click recommended gear at the top of the page, then go to lens finder. It would be really helpful.

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