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.
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.
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.
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.