How to Take Mountain Photographs

Travel photographer Simon Kirwan shares some tips for budding mountain snappers! Check out The Lightbox for more amazing mountain shots from his travels to the Himalayas, the Alps, and even North Wales!

Ice-clad rock formations on Yr Elen, on the descent from Carnedd Llewellyn Mountains are by nature photogenic, but it is not always easy to capture their scenic grandeur in a photograph. The first requirement is to use decent equipment - simple point-and-shoot cameras, either using film or digital, can yield good results, but for most purposes, a good quality 35mm camera with a selection of lenses is necessary.

I use a 24mm or 50mm lens on an Olympus OM1 (still going strong after 27 years!), or a 35mm-80mm zoom on a Canon EOS300, usually at its widest setting. Wide angle lenses are necessary to include the large physical area occupied by mountain scenes, and impart a sense of scale and space. It is a good idea to include some foreground detail like figures or buildings to emphasise the scale of the scene.

I generally shoot film, and get Kodak Picture CD processing, which gives me the best of both digital and traditional worlds, in that I get a set of prints, negatives for archival, and a set of superb Kodak scans suitable for use on my web site with little adjustment. These can also be used to produce photo-quality prints from the PC.

The primary consideration affecting the quality of any photograph is lighting, even more so when shooting landscapes. The lighting on a particular scene can change dramatically depending on several factors - the weather, time of day, season of the year, and location of the scene.

Traversing the ridge between Carnedd Dafydd and Carnedd Llewellyn on a perfect winters day in JanuaryGenerally speaking, lighting for mountain photography is better early or late in the day, and from autumn through to spring, when the sun is low in the sky, producing side-lighting which emphasises the shape of the mountain. During the middle of the day, and particularly in summer, the sun tends to be very overhead, and produces lighting which flattens the contours of the landscape.

Sunlight on a crisp winters day, with snow on the peaks, often produces the most satisfying results - the air is cold and clear, intensifying the blue of the sky, and definition of the landscape is at its most pronounced. In summer, heat produces a dust and photochemical haze in the atmosphere, reducing definition, and causing the sky to appear grey and colourless, even in bright sunshine.

It is also important to remember that the light moves around the points of the compass from dawn to dusk, rising in the east, passing through south in the middle of the day, and setting in the west.

Sun breaks through at Glyder Fawr summit Light illuminates different facets of a mountain at differing times of day, so that an east-facing mountain will receive light in the morning, west-facing will be lit in the afternoon, and south-facing will receive light all day. Often a shot from a desired viewpoint must be timed to suit the timing when the light will be at its most advantageous - side-lighting generally yields better results than flat over-the-shoulder lighting.

Finally, don't leave the camera behind because the weather is bad - often the best results occur when the light suddenly breaks through clouds after rain, glinting off wet rock. Cloud formations often provide interest and drama to otherwise mediocre views, so don't just wait for a perfect summer's day, get out there and start shooting!

© Simon Kirwan - The Lightbox 2001
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