I’ve been photographing in mountain regions in different parts of the world for the past 10 years. These adventurous experiences have contributed to my tool box of what to consider and how to prepare when heading into the mountains. There is no better teacher than direct experience, but here are some tips so you can start ahead of the game.
Some of my favorite images were taken in inclement weather with little to no visibility, when all of a sudden, the clouds break and an amazing landscape reveals itself. You'll have to be prepared to sit around and wait it out.
Before heading out for the day, check the weather and make sure to pack a rain jacket or shell, layers, gloves, snacks, water, compass, and a lighter. You’re in the mountains so conditions can change fast and it’s good to be prepared. Here's a list of items I take with me on my alpine photography adventures:
Sounds simple, right? It's a bit of an art but it'll become second nature. My best advice – have your camera out and ready. If it’s not, then it should at least be easily accessible. The environment will be constantly moving around you as you make your way and the perfect angle for a shot might sneak up on you.
Keep the strap of your camera over one shoulder and across your chest then tuck the lens under the crook of your arm. If you’re wearing a windbreaker or a jacket you can zip it up so it stays protected and won’t swinging around while you're on the move. Best of all if it starts raining, then you’re covered!
If I'm backpacking and have a big pack, I don’t bring a camera bag. I put my lenses in soft cases at accessible points of my big backpack (side entry zippers) and then have one body and one lens in hand.
Sunrise and sunset are the best yet most challenging times to shoot in the mountains. At these times, you can find more dramatic lighting and color but they'll be changing by the second. The afternoon can also work depending on the landscape and what you're shooting.
When deciding between sunset or sunrise, I usually go with sunset as the softer light lasts longer. The mountains retain a very subtle light long after the sun has set. This means you can shoot spectacular images for a longer period of time, as opposed to in the morning, when the light can change from too soft to very harsh in under 15 minutes.
It’s all about the depth in mountain landscapes. Having objects or subjects in the foreground who lead into the background can help to show the environment and its scale as well as give the viewer a sense of place and beauty. If you don’t have a telephoto lens or are faced with a challenge of a landscape with little depth – throw in foreground items like leaves, trees, rocks or a person. These help with the layering of depth and help frame the subject of the photo.
If you can find a saddle or can position yourself on a ridge - that’s a good thing. It will give you access to longer windows of light and therefore more depth. If you’re stuck down low in the valley it makes for more challenging lighting situations with an undesirable shadow to highlight ratio. If you find yourself in a valley the whole time you may just have to wait for dusk to balance out the sky and valley ratios. When in doubt, you can backlight it by shooting directly into the sun and illuminating something from behind. It can make for more interesting/dynamic light. When backlighting I usually expose 2/3 - 1 full stop for proper exposure in the foreground. Play around, experiment and have fun with backlighting.
Remember, alpine terrain can be unstable at the best of times. Don't travel to any places off-limits to the public (there's a reason it's off limits!) and keep an eye on the weather. If you’re on a high ridge and you see lightning – go down!
The comfort and weight of your gear on the mountain is important. The easier and quicker everything is when you’re in the mountains the better. It increases your chances of getting the shot as it comes into your sights. You’ll be tired and on the move in unpredictable weather, navigating unstable terrain. Less is more and improvising to a degree is encouraged.
At the end of the day, you have to decide whether you are in the mountains to play or to take photographs. It’s possible to do both but you will most likely be leaning towards one or the other. Alpine shooting isn’t easy. You have to be patient and put in time and effort to get the shots. But the most important thing is to get out there, even when you're cold and tired. The dedication will show.
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Professional photographer and winner of our 2009 Travel Photography Scholarship to Antarctica, Anna Zhu shares advice from her career.