Mountain landscape photography can be hugely satisfying. It can also be extremely frustrating, especially if you don't feel like your photos are improving over time. And with so many people taking photos in the hills, how do you make yours stand out? There is no getting past the fact if you are serious about improving your photography, you have to put in the work. However, this is more to do with working smarter rather than harder; you can make huge progress just by making some simple changes.
Here are ten practical ways in which you can take your mountain landscape photography to the next level:
1. Streamline your camera gear
By its very nature, mountain landscape photography often requires a heavy backpack. You are probably going to be carrying a fair amount of gear just for keeping safe and warm on the hill. The last thing you want is to double your pack weight with photographic gear.
First things first. If you are serious about landscape photography, you will need either a DSLR or advanced mirrorless camera. These produce significantly higher quality images than compact or 'bridge' cameras. Full frame mirrorless cameras are ideal for mountain photography. They are generally smaller and less heavy than DSLRs whilst offering the same level of image quality.
Are you taking a bag full of lenses with you on the hill? Think hard about what you actually need for the kind of images you are aiming for. In general, zoom lenses are more practical than prime lenses. Whilst prime (fixed focal length) lenses offer slightly superior optics, they also only allow the minimum of flexibility for your composition. Due to the steep and often hazardous nature of mountain terrain, you simply can't 'zoom with your feet' much of the time! A good choice is to invest in a high quality wide angle zoom (such a 16-35mm f4) and standard zoom (such as a 24-70mm f2.8). This will give you maximum flexibility for your composition, and it will mean as few lens changes as possible.
If you are going to be shooting at dawn or dusk then a tripod is essential. If possible invest in a carbon fibre tripod - these generally weigh less than metal ones, which is a huge benefit for mountain photography. There are plenty on the market which are lightweight, can be folded away small, and provide stability for your camera without emptying your bank account.
2. Speed up your shooting
Producing good mountain imagery is as much about efficiency as it is technical knowledge or having expensive gear. Often the most memorable scenes and conditions last only briefly. Being able to react as quickly as possible when something amazing happens is crucial.
A good tip is to keep your standard zoom, or even telephoto zoom lens attached to your camera whilst you are walking, as opposed to your wide-angle lens. Fleeting moments of magic are often best captured using longer focal lengths - for example a ray of 'Alpenglow' hitting a distant summit. Images captured using a wide angle lens, on the other hand, are often best carefully composed and shot using a tripod (more on this below).
Consider where you are keeping your camera stored as you are walking - is it quickly accessible in a shoulder bag, or is it a slow process to remove it from inside your rucksack? Make sure any camera accessories are likewise easily reached. To speed up using the camera when it's on a tripod, consider buying an 'L- bracket' for mounting it on the tripod head. These allow you to switch the camera from landscape to portrait orientation as quickly as possible, without changing the camera's position in relation to the ground. This means you can concentrate on capturing the moment, rather than wasting precious time fine-tuning your composition and re-adjusting the tripod head to make sure it is level.
There are numerous other ways to speed up how you shoot in the mountains. Remember, sometimes the best conditions only last a few seconds - so make sure you are ready.
3. Seek out strong lines and symmetry
The 'rules' of composition for photography are complex, but there are some fundamentals which I shall mention here. In general, it is wise to aim for simplicity in your images. If you are shooting a scene with a wide-angle lens, think carefully about the foreground. Is it cluttered, or it is simple? A cluttered foreground will usually just weaken the overall composition, rather than strengthen it. However, using strong, 'leading lines' in the foreground helps to draw the viewer's eye into the image.
In some locations it will be hard to find strong lines in a foreground. In these instances, searching for foreground elements which mirror the shape or tone of the background is a good way to go. Symmetry in the image will help the viewer form a visual connection between the foreground and background. The foreground often makes, or breaks, images shot on wide-angle lenses - make sure it is carefully considered, and not just included for the sake of it. Rocky summit plateaus or boulder fields can be extremely complex and cluttered environments, so it can worth spending a considerable length of time seeking out the strongest foreground possible.
4. Embrace 'bad' weather… and buy an umbrella
No, really. Learning to embrace challenging weather can be the thing that elevates your photography from good to excellent. Many of us strive for drama in our mountain images, and the most dramatic scenes often unfold in unsettled conditions. Some of the best opportunities appear in brief gaps between heavy showers, or immediately before or after a downpour. These moments can provide exceptional light or conditions, such as rainbows or the sun shining through the edge of a squall. During the winter months, windy weather after fresh snowfall can produce remarkable spindrift conditions. If you get bursts of sunlight coming through the spindrift, there may be opportunities for striking images.
Of course, a big challenge is simply keeping the lens clear or rain or snow. One of the most useful tips in the game is to take an umbrella with you out on the hill. An umbrella is incredibly useful for keeping the rain off your lens - and that can mean the difference between getting that winning image or not. Another tip for keeping rain droplets off the lens is to keep a UV filter attached to the lens whilst composing your image, only removing it as briefly as possible to take the shot. There are of course limits to how far you should embrace bad weather for photography. If the forecast is for blanket hill fog, continuous torrential rain and storm force winds, you're probably best going to the pub instead.
5. Set an earlier alarm
Without question, some of the most interesting light happens around sunrise and sunset. If you only spend the middle part of the day up in the mountains with your camera, you will be missing many of the best opportunities. Spending as much time as possible up on the tops at dawn and dusk is an essential component of high-end mountain photography.
The best photographers will usually try to arrive with plenty of time to spare - to find an interesting composition, to try and anticipate how they will need to shoot, and to move to Plan B if necessary. Bear in mind that there can be exceptional light in the hour or so before sunrise and after sunset, so always factor that into your plans. Camping or bivvying close to your chosen location is perhaps the best way to increase your chances of getting the images you want. You'll be able to sleep longer, and won't have to walk for several hours before you even start shooting. Be as patient as you can in waiting for the best light, and don't give up at the first sign that it's not going to be what you hoped for. Accept that you may need to return on multiple occasions before everything comes right. The more time you spend up on the mountains with your camera, the more luck you will get.
6. Do your homework!
The more knowledge you have about light, ground conditions and the weather, the higher your chances are of producing some really top quality images.
Learn as much as you can about mountain weather, and try to have the clearest possible idea of what the weather is forecast to do on your chosen day. Check multiple forecasts to see how far they agree with one another, and re-check them to see if things change. In the winter, keep up to date with snow and avalanche conditions - not only to keep yourself safe, but to have a clear idea as to how much snow you'll find and what kind of snow it will be.
Make sure you know where and when the light will fall on the landscape you aim to photograph. The Photographer's Ephemeris app is highly useful for this. It can be productive to keep notes on which landscapes have potential for each time of year, as this will be highly dependent on the sun's position in the sky. Research what makes interesting phenomena (such as cloud inversions) likely so you are best able to predict when they may happen. Lastly, keep an eye out for unusual weather or unseasonal conditions in the forecast, as these can produce some memorable images.
The Photographer's Ephemeris - for year round information on where and when the light will fall
Mountain Weather Information Service - for highly accurate UK mountain weather forecasts
Scottish Avalanche Information Service - for daily updates on Scottish snow conditions
Ground Conditions in UK Mountain Areas Facebook group - regular posts showing weather/snow conditions from throughout the UK
The UKC Conditions page is another good source of up-to-date info on ground conditions throughout the year, perhaps most usefully in winter. Though the info is climbing-oriented, it's often possible to extrapolate from this. The forums on UKH/UKC can also be very useful in that regard, especially Hilltalk and Winter Climbing
7. Study the work of other photographers
This can be such an important part of developing your own photography. Take time to really study the work of some top mountain landscape photographers. What makes their images special? Try to identify what the winning 'element' is that gives that star quality to their photos. It may be they have developed their own distinct style, have a mastery of composition, or always seem to capture remarkable conditions or light. Most top photographers will also have a good grasp of image processing, alongside using advanced techniques in the field such as focus stacking or stitching multiple images to create panoramas. If these are things you still need to learn, embrace the challenge! There are endless videos, books, magazines and workshops out there to help you.
Analysing other photographers' work can be an intimidating experience, and discouraging if you allow it, but it can really make you learn a lot about your own photography. It can inspire you to take things up a notch.
8. Start using a photography notebook
Pretty much all mountain landscape photographers spend numerous days on the hill when the forecast is wrong, things don't go according to plan, and they come away with no images. Similarly, many of the same people will spend a lot of time on the hill simply for walking, climbing or scrambling rather than specifically for photography.
Start taking a notebook with you out on the hill. Take notes when you come across a scene that you like the look of, but would look better in different conditions. If possible note the grid reference so you'll be able to return to a precise viewpoint, in the dark if necessary. Try to record what the scene made you feel at the time, and your thoughts on the kind of weather or light that would be required to create an image you would like to shoot. It can be a good idea to transfer these notes to a more permanent notebook at home - this can become an invaluable book of inspiration when you are planning your next trip, or are struggling for motivation. It will assist in making the decision process faster when it comes to deciding where to go for any given weather forecast. Having distinct goals and pre-visualising images can help maintain direction and progression in your photography.
9. Seek out unusual viewpoints
The 'honeypot effect' is quite prevalent in mountain photography in the UK. We tend to see an endless stream of images taken from almost identical viewpoints, and it is easy to understand why. These viewpoints are usually easily accessible and look out over some of our most iconic scenery.
However, the more you shoot images from the most common viewpoints, the harder it will be for your images to stand out amongst the crowd. Instead, try to seek out unusual viewpoints of familiar landscapes - this can really help to get your work noticed if you manage to produce some good images. A blend of familiarity and imagination can work wonders in landscape photography. People often like to see places they recognise in a photo, and your work can really stand out if you show them somewhere they know from an unfamiliar angle.
Searching for unfamiliar and/or remote locations can also be a great way to produce some really interesting work. There are countless areas in the UK you almost never see high quality images from. Even in some of our finest mountain landscapes, the vast majority of photos come from the same handful of locations. Consider your skill set - if you are someone who wild-camps or bivvies, why not try heading to some far more remote locations for photography? A fine example would be Fisherfield in the northwest Highlands— an area bursting with opportunities, but one that really demands both leg work and imagination.
10. Include people for scale in your images
Have a look through your mountain landscape images. If some of them feel like they just needed that extra 'something' then ask yourself what it was. Sometimes the simple inclusion of a person in the landscape can be the answer.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting an Instagram-style 'person-stretching-their-arms-to-the-sky' in the middle of the frame approach. A more subtle inclusion of a figure, especially if they appear tiny amongst the surrounding landscape, can help introduce a sense of scale to your images. Not only this, but it helps the viewer of the image to form an emotional connection with the scene. There are numerous ways in which the inclusion of a figure can set the tone of an image. This will depend on the weather and conditions in which the photo is shot, and where and how large the figure appears. For example, an image showing a distant mountaineer crossing the Cairngorm plateau beneath a storm cloud can really portray a sense of isolation. Without the figure there however, the image may appear featureless. Walking in a group is ideal for this, as you'll have somebody to call on if you feel the need to include a person in your photos. That having been said, it is fairly common for top mountain photographers to resort to self-portraits if it will make the image.
More pro tips...
Stay as hill-fit as possible in between trips to the mountains. The more energy you have after a long walk-in, the more motivated and productive you will be when it comes to shooting images.
Don't underestimate the low-light capabilities of your camera. If the light is changing quickly and you'll miss it by taking time to get the tripod out, increase the ISO setting in your camera and shoot handheld. Don't miss a good opportunity!
Take more warm layers than you think you'll need for any given day. The longer you can 'sit it out' waiting for good light, the higher your chances of producing some top quality images.
In cold and damp conditions, condensation on the lens can be a real issue. Take a couple of flexible hand-warmers and an elastic band with you and wrap this around the lens - it really helps to reduce condensation build-up.
Take a spare battery or two, as cold conditions drain them more quickly
Filters - a UV filter, polariser and a single graduated neutral density filter will cover the vast majority of situations.
About James Roddie
James Roddie is an award-winning professional photographer and writer specialising in the wild places and wildlife of the Scottish Highlands. He is an active hillwalker, climber and caver based near Inverness.
James runs outdoor photography workshops throughout the Scottish Highlands, and is a regular contributor to some of the UK's most prominent outdoors publications.
For more of his images and writing see www.jamesroddie.com