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Capture the Mountains!

written by: A. Jitesh•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/19/2011

Learn tips on how to get great looking photographs of mountains. This article touches on the essential camera equipment you should have, as well as the photography skills you'll need to know, like composition, to visually enhance photos of mountains and hills.

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    Tips for Photographing Mountains

    Any person with a love for nature has surely made a trip to the mountains. Because they are so grand, one would think photographing mountains should be relatively easy. But from my experience - for all their size, beauty and grandeur - mountains remain one of the trickiest landscapes to photograph. Now, why might that be? And how does an amateur photographer with a basic digital camera tackle this problem?

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    The Unique Challenges of Mountain Photography

    Photography is painting with light. So, it only makes sense that the quality of light plays the one most important factor in a good, well-exposed photograph, and mountain photography is no exception. At high altitudes, sunlight is not evenly distributed. There are regions of bright and shadow. There's more UV radiation around, often causing a bluish tinge in photographs, and the climate can change from sunny to hazy to rainy/snowy in a matter of minutes. Needless to say, ambient light situation varies vastly with the dynamically changing atmospheric conditions.

    It's these very challenges which make photographing mountains an interesting task, and also the reason why many amateur photographers return quite disappointed from their hill expedition, often resigning to the fact that beautiful photos need hi-fi professional equipment.

    Though professional equipment surely produces fantastic images, taking certain precautions can help produce really good mountain landscapes even from the most basic digital cameras. Here are tips on how to shoot the best pictures of mountains...

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    1. Shoot During the Magic Hours – Dawn or Dusk

    We all know that the best light is in the mornings and evenings, when sunlight is slanting and won't produce harsh shadows on the subject. This is more so in mountains. During midday, the sun can get really bright and landscapes taken then tend to look flat or overexposed.

    Another point to remember is that during the early morning or in the evening, the air is clearer. Midday heat produces a kind of haze that makes even bright blue skies appear dull and grey. The Himalayan Mountains, where I mostly shoot, are very dusty and the dust is more prominent during the daytime, when human activity is also higher.

    (Click on any image to enlarge)

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    The Himalayan foothills shot at dawnA similar shot just after sunsetGrey, boring sky obtained on a mid-day shot
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    2. Use a Filter

    A neutral density (ND) or graduated neutral density (Grad ND) filter helps in high contrast situations, where the sky is quite bright and the foreground dark. Using this filter helps in getting a better exposed foreground and not-so-blown-out skies. Do try it out and see the difference for yourself.

    A polarizer filter helps cut through the haze and helps get crisp images with saturated blue skies that look amazing. Rotate the filter until you're satisfied with the result. A must-have for your photography kit.

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    3. Use a Tripod

    Another accessory which is a must, a tripod serves a couple of useful purposes with mountain photography. First, it's indispensable for getting the long exposures during pre-dawn and dusk hours. The second benefit of using a tripod is that you can use it to capture photographs with unique angles, which may not be possible with a camera hand-held. A different perspective from the usual adds that much more to your image, making it appear magical.

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    4. Consider Your Viewpoint and Composition

    The second most important aspect of a photograph (after light) is the viewpoint/composition. Zooming in too much or only shooting the mountain tends to make the image look boring and lifeless. Try to include some foreground object, to lend a sense of proportion, and make the mountain look looming, large and grand. This adds drama to the photo and makes it come alive.

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    Too much of a close-up gives a bland imageAdding a foreground adds life to the image
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    5. Change Aperture Settings

    A general rule with landscape photography is to have both the foreground and the background sharply in focus. So it's better to set your camera to the highest f-stop possible, which can be f/8 to f/22, depending on the camera you use.

    For more information on this, please read this article on understanding f-stop and aperture.

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    6. Brave Out Not-So-Friendly Weather...the Hills will Reward You for it!

    Though I wont recommend braving a blizzard or an avalanche to get your prized mountain photo, the person who ventures out in the hills (needless to say, with adequate protection for self and camera equipment) on a rainy or overcast day will surely be rewarded by the hills with beautiful photos. Overcast and cloudy skies make for very pleasing images, especially in the backdrop of snow-covered peaks!

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    Overcast skies look photogenic!Cloudy weather gives perfect light
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    7. Don't Forget Night Shots

    And lastly, my favourite tip for mountain photography. For a totally unique photo, try to get a really long exposure (a minute or more) late at night, when the human eye can see nothing but blackness. You'll be amazed how beautiful the mountains look then. A precaution to be taken here is that very long exposures (typically more than 15 seconds) using a 50mm or longer lens can cause motion trails of the moon, making it less sharp. Play around with expsoure time so that the moon trails look artistic rather than out of focus!

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    15 sec expsoure in near darkness
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    Try these simple, yet helpful, tips and techniques and see for yourself that your mountain photos will speak a whole new language! And don't forget to share your photos with Bright Hub's digital photography community! Enjoy the hills!