Words and images by Robin Whalley of Lenscraft - www.lenscraft.co.uk
I like to think there are two ways to capture great mountain shots:
- On the mountain
- Off the mountain
On The Mountain
This can be a tricky one in winter as you need to ensure you remain safe at all times. Walking in snow is one thing but mountains tend to also be covered with ice and have erratic weather conditions. Before you set off, know your ability, wear the right clothing and take the right walking equipment including phone, compass and map. You should also carry a whistle which can be used to attract attention if you need help.
Now for the fun bit; camera equipment. Whilst I like to travel light in the mountains there is some equipment that I just wouldn’t be without:
- UV filters for the front of my lens. Not only does it protect the lens from the elements but it will cut the levels of UV which often high in the mountains, especially in sunny conditions.
- If it’s sunny and there’s snow around I also like to use a polarising filter. The polariser is a great tool to help control glare and light reflection from the snow. Take care not to over polarise a blue sky in the mountains though.
- The ND Grad filter is essential for reducing the contrast difference between the sky and ground. If I am travelling light I tend to just carry a 2 stop and 3 stop (0.6 and 0.9) wrapped in a filter cloth and placed in my pocket.
- Lens choice for shooting in the mountains is wide angle. A longer lens can also be useful for picking out details but a zoom will probably allow you to capture the best the mountain has to offer.
- When using longer lenses you need a tripod that can support their weight.
I find that when shooting from the mountain side or summit the best approach to composition is to emphasise distance and height. I use a wide angle lens and include something to act as foreground interest. Lenses wider than 24mm can be used successfully but the feeling of distance and height tends to diminish the wider you go.
The need to include foreground interest as well as keep the distant hills in good focus probably means you need to stop your lens down to quite a small aperture, perhaps f/16.0 or smaller. If you are also using filters, for example a polariser you might find slow shutter speeds a problem. I used to use a walking pole and place the camera lens through the hand loop to support it, giving me a few extra stops of stability. Now I use a monopod which doubles as a walking pole and which I have used successful with shots with over 0.5 second exposure.
My objective when shooting from the mountain is to allow the viewer to gain a sense of the place, almost as if they feel they are there with me. As well as using a wide angle lens, I often use a panoramic composition. I feel this is useful to help the viewer appreciate the scale of the location but again doesn’t emphasise the dramatic height of the mountain.
If you are shooting in snowy conditions you should also watch out for the cameras light meter being fooled into underexposing the scene. Check your histogram regularly after shots and use your cameras exposure compensation adjustment if necessary to increase the exposure.
Off The Mountain
This option is far more accessible to most people and can provide equally if not more impressive images. When people think of dramatic mountain scenery, it’s often shots taken of the mountain from a normal altitude that they think of.
When shooting off the mountain the best lens is a long telephoto, probably in excess of 100mm. This may seem counter intuitive but wide angle lenses seldom give the most drama. They will emphasise the foreground but diminish the background, almost making it shrink into the horizon. The telephoto lens in contrast will emphasise the size of the mountain and allow you to focus in on the rugged details. Here is an example of the same mountain shot first with a wide angle lens and then with a telephoto. To me the telephoto gives a much more dramatic and impressive feel.
Shot with a 16mm wide angle, equivalent to 25mm on a full frame camera.
Shot at 46mm, equivalent to 74mm on a full frame camera.
In summary, decide on your approach, on or off mountain then use the right equipment to give a composition that will best connect the viewer with the scene.