I’ve always been fascinated by the mountains and the sweeping views they provide to the ones putting in the work and climbing to the top. For landscape photographers like me, they provide endless photo opportunities and inspiration. In this article, I share five tips to help you make your next mountain trip a success.
Do Virtual Scouting
The most rewarding views for me are the ones that aren’t famous on Instagram yet. I’m looking for the lesser photographed areas on my trips into the mountains. But if you can’t find any photos of a view online, how can you tell it’s worth photographing? After all, mountain photography can involve a lot of work and effort, so it’s nice to get a reward at the end.
Virtual scouting using Google Earth can be a great help to assess the potential a view might hold for photography. Below, you see an example. The first image shows the virtual view from the Gaishorn mountain in Austria. I used the browser version of Google Earth, flying around the Vilsalpsee while looking for potential photo spots. With Hochvogel mountain in the distance and Rauhorn in the middle ground, this view intrigued me. So, I decided to give it a try.
If you use the Google Earth app, you have even more possibilities. You can, for example, simulate the light at different times of day. It will tell you if a mountain face or valley is already in the shade when you plan to photograph it. But even with the best virtual scouting, finding a proper foreground will still be up to you once you reach the photo location. So plan in enough time for it.
Also, don’t be disappointed if you don’t get a photo. First and foremost, enjoy the hike and the views. For me, it’s already rewarding to be out in the mountains. Just know that you’ll eventually be rewarded if you repeatedly put in the work.
Get to the Top
While having the mountains looming over you and your camera might be imposing, looking down across ridges and valleys to endless layers of mountains is even more impressive. Photos taken from the top invoke a sense of longing. Such views are often much harder to find and access, making them special.
So, don’t shy away from a strenuous hike. Reaching the peak will already give you a sense of achievement that makes the effort worth it. And if you are also lucky with the light, it’s the icing on the cake.
The first tip was about pre-visualizing the view you intend to photograph once you reach your destination. But don’t get too attached to the result of such a virtual scouting. It increases your chances of success because you already know that there is potential. But the same as when heading to popular photo spots of which you’ve seen photos before, look around and be open to noticing other points of interest in the landscape.
During the virtual scouting I shared in the feature video, I dismissed the view in the next photo. The features of the landscape in this direction didn’t look very spectacular compared to the view south. But as I walked around the peak of the Gaishorn and saw these boulders lined up at the edge of the mountain and the warm sidelight hitting the slopes, I instantly made it my main subject.
Every time I head up a mountain and don’t bring the long lens, I regret it. It’s always tempting to get rid of another one or two kilos of gear as you pack your backpack. But especially on clear days, having a long lens with you on the mountain opens up many possibilities. While haze and light rays in the distance will be hard to notice in a wide angle photo, you can make those your main subject with a zoom lens.
I took the photo below at 200mm. The haze provides a sense of depth, while the light rays open up the otherwise dark foreground. As usual, I debated bringing my zoom lens before starting the hike. But thankfully, I had learned my lesson during previous photo tours.
Use the Golden Hour
The best time to take photos in the mountains is during golden hour. With mountain photography, it’s a lot about light and shadows. While I love a warm alpine glow after sunset or before sunrise, most mountain scenes look best in golden light. The shadows cast by the light can add structure and dimension to a photo and direct it to the viewer.
Direct light also helps separate the peaks of a mountain vista. Without it, layers of mountains quickly merge into a singular mass. It means you shouldn’t just arrive at your viewpoint an hour before sunset. Better make it two hours, so you are ready once the sun starts casting the mountains in magical light.
Although the mountains can get crowded, it’s still one of the few places to find solitude. Especially early in the morning or late in the afternoon, the peaks become more and more deserted. And there’s nothing like having such views for yourself.
But I also want to leave you with a word of caution: know your limits. Since you’ll have to do part of your hikes in the dark to photograph sunrise or sunset, you should feel comfortable in alpine terrain. Also, don’t only research the views. Get an understanding of the difficulty of a hike. Some trails are steep and rocky, making them dangerous for inexperienced hikers.