It seems naturally human to feel a gravitation towards the mountains that define our landscapes around the world. They have inspired the most ambitious of explorers. They have been the source of fantastic literary and cinematic stories. They have influenced world religions. And they have captured the imagination of landscape photographers as we, in turn, try to capture their mystery and beauty. Despite how these mountains can make us feel, capturing that feeling in a photographic image is anything but easy. Improving your image compositions is the best way to help capture those feelings. Here are my top 5 composition tips for mountain photography.
Tip #1. Use Rule of Thirds for Photographing Mountains
The Rule of Thirds is a classic photography composition tip; it is simple yet can enhance your compositions dramatically. The rule suggests that a visually pleasing composition can be produced by aligning key focal points of your image along the 1/3 lines of the image and/or at the intersection of these lines depending on the size of your focal point. You can visualize these 1/3 lines by breaking up your image into (6) quadrants, where each quadrant is of equal size. Picture the lines of a tic-tac-toe board placed on your image.
Fortunately, you don’t have to imagine where these 1/3 lines are when composing an image in the field as odds are your digital camera can display these lines in your viewfinder or on your display screen for you. If your DSLR or mirrorless camera does not already display these 1/3 lines, navigate to your camera settings to turn on gridlines. Each camera manufacturer is different so please be sure to reference your DSLR or mirrorless camera’s user manual.
The landscape photo below, taken of Mount Hood in Oregon, is a great example. Mount Hood, the main focal point of this image, aligns nicely with the left 1/3 line of the image.
Despite being simple, there can still be some challenges with mastering this photography composition rule. The biggest challenge being aligning multiple focal points along different 1/3 lines. An example of this, in the context of mountain photography composition, could be aligning a mountain peak on the left and a setting sun on the right. To overcome this challenge, I recommend a couple of different techniques:
- Change your Focal Length: Although changing your focal length can dramatically alter your overall composition, it more importantly changes your angle of view (extents of the scene that you can see) and this can be advantageous when trying to align key focal points as those focal points will either move inward or outward towards the 1/3 lines.
- Look for an Alternative Perspective: Change the position of yourself and the camera to find a different vantage. If you’re using a tripod, I recommend taking your camera off of the tripod. Look through the viewfinder, stand up, crouch down, look at the display screen and pan around, scope the scene with your naked eye and try to visualize where the 1/3 lines come together. You’ll be surprised by what composition(s) you may find and how you are able to take full advantage of the rule of thirds.
Tip #2: Include Form and Textures in your Mountain Photography
For mountain photography, it seems second nature (pun intended) for photographers to grab their wide angle lens and set out to capture the entirety of a mountain scene. This makes sense though because capturing the entire landscape can give real magnitude to the mountain(s) as it stretches out of the surrounding landscape and into the sky. But if you want to capture truly unique and sharp images that capture the form and texture of distinct mountain scenes, then a telephoto lens is your secret weapon.
Take the image below of Cerro Torre in Patagonia for example. This striking mountain rises above a glacial lake, surrounded by other peaks on all sides. The scene is surreal but what makes this scene extraordinary is the jagged form and texture of Cerro Torre itself. A wide angle image of this scene simply would not have been able to capture the details of the mountain in this way.
The challenge with capturing sharp images with a telephoto lens is keeping the camera steady! Telephoto lenses can be heavy and make your camera setup unbalanced. Using a tripod is an obvious solution. But if you find yourself in the backcountry or otherwise miles away from your car and could not or did not want to carry extra pounds in the form of a tripod, a quick tip for handheld shooting is using a shutter speed that is at least 1/focal length. Meaning that if you are shooting at 200mm focal length, you would want the shutter speed to be at least 1/200 of a second (1/200s) or quicker. This is not a hard and fast rule but a great rule of thumb that will help you capture sharp form and textures of mountains when shooting handheld.
Tip #3. Include foreground object in your mountain photos
Similar to using a telephoto lens to capture form and texture in tip #2, including foreground objects in your mountain photography compositions may sound a little unintuitive. BUT this composition tip is my favorite for taking breathtaking images. Including a foreground object helps bring the viewer’s eyes upwards through the image. It initially attracts their attention and helps to complement the main focal point of the image; it creates balance. Take the image of The Sharktooth in Rocky Mountain National Park as an example. The formidable crack in the ice of the frozen lake initially grabs your attention and then draws your eyes upwards towards the mountain, the main focal point. The mountain is breathtaking on its own but imagine this same image without a foreground object…the frozen lake would appear somewhat lifeless and not aid in drawing the viewer’s eyes upwards.
Despite being my favorite photography composition tip, it is not easy to master and comes with two big challenges:
- Finding a foreground object that is unique and complement the main focal point of the image without being too distracting. It is commonplace for photographers to describe an image as being “busy” when there are too many distracting elements. To overcome this challenge requires the vision to look at everything from what’s right in front or below you all the way up to your mountain peak. If you have identified the focal point (mountain) you would like to capture, the key is to move around. Just like in tip #1, moving around can not only offer you a different composition but it can also allow you to find interesting foreground objects. Venture down the path less traveled and look high and low. Objects with patterns, such as a flower, or those with texture, such as moss on a rock, are oftentimes good foreground objects.
- Creating an image that is in sharp focus all the way from the foreground object through the midground and up to your main focal point in the background. Depending on where your foreground object is in relation to your focal point, a small aperture (large f number) can help as this creates a greater depth of field but more than likely it is not enough to get the entire scene in focus. To overcome this requires using a technique called focus stacking. Essentially, the technique involves capturing a series of the same photo composition at the same exposure but with different focus locations. Choosing where to focus throughout your composition requires a specific focus setting on your DSLR or mirrorless camera known as single point focus. Typically this technique requires 4-5 images depending on the depth of your scene. These photos are then “stacked” in a post-processing software such as Photoshop to create one composite image that is entirely in focus. A sturdy tripod is required for this technique. There are lots of great tutorials on the internet to help you with this technique.
Tip #4. Use reflections for photographing mountains
Another classic composition tip in mountain photography is using reflections. Reflections can help to create depth in your image by reflecting seasonal colors and, in some cases, a mirror-like finish that will be sure to catch your viewer’s attention. The image below taken in Vestrahorn, Iceland is a great example of using reflection in your mountain photography composition.
The challenge with this tip is capturing the water in a way that produces a smooth reflection. Having the correct vantage is one thing but finding water that still is another. Most still water such as ponds and lakes despite being “still” are usually not still enough to create pure reflections. That’s because things like wind, bugs, and fish cause ripples (even if super small) in the water that distort the reflection. Overcoming this challenge requires using a long shutter speed to smooth out those imperfections in the water’s surface. A long shutter speed or long exposure takes an image over several to tens of seconds. This effectively averages out all of the water surface imperfections and creates a smooth one. Shooting with longer shutter speeds causes additional challenges such as correctly exposing your image. Because your shutter is open much longer than a typical shot, your camera is letting in more light, causing the image to potentially be overexposed. When photographing mountains, small apertures such as f11 are typically used which can help to balance the camera exposure but if shooting during broad daylight, this may not be enough. This is when using a neutral density (ND) photography filter can come in handy. ND filters are essentially sunglasses for your camera; they allow you to use a longer shutter speed while still keeping the image properly exposed. There is a spectrum of ND filter densities for different lighting conditions and subject matter.
Tip #5. Add seasonal colors in your Mountain Photography
Like real estate, mountain photography is all about location, location, location. And timing. Seasonal colors in foliage is a great example. Capturing seasonal colors requires you to be at the right place at the right time. Doing so requires research and potentially months of planning but the reward can be priceless. Assuming you have been able to find yourself in the right place at the time, taking advantage of those colors to improve your composition is key. Similar to using a foreground object, colors can help guide the viewer’s eyes throughout your image. Take the two pictures below as examples: the first of Maroon Bells and the second of a nearby mountain in Colorado. During autumn, the mountains that flank Maroon Bells on either side are host to some of the most vivid colors produced by the Aspen leaves. These colors bring your eyes from the edges of the photo inward towards the center where Maroon Bells ascends into the sky. The second mountain landscape, which is rather rocky and barren, has a magnificent grove of Aspens that descend through the valley like a flowing river. Capturing how these Aspens “flow” through the valley helps to guide the viewer’s eyes through the image and gives an overall well-balanced composition that complement the rocky mountain top.
Aside from the challenge of being in the right place at the right time, the biggest challenge with this composition tip is using those colors to your advantage. When you do find yourself with seasonal colors, look for ways that can help draw the viewers’ eyes into and throughout the image. Look for lines of color that complement the surrounding mountains, again giving reference to the valley of Aspen trees. No matter whether it is spring, summer, autumn, or winter, look for seasonal colors in the scene. Contrasting colors such as blooming red flowers in a green grassy field or colors that otherwise contrast the surrounding landscape are good ideas.
Just as the mountains have captured us, using these composition tips can help you capture them. Although these tips were spoken about individually, consider how you can use them together. The greatest compositions do not consider these tips as separate but rather as a collection of tools. You are building your greatest work of art, using only one tool will not get you there but using them together will.