Jagged peaks, precipitous drops, deep and sweeping valleys: mountains are unquestionably some of the most photogenic subjects on the planet. It shows, too – check out any photo magazine or website, and you are likely to find not just one or two but dozens of images of mountains.
But while mountains look amazing, capturing amazing shots of mountains – the kind that do justice to their grandeur and power – can be tough. Fortunately, you’re not on your own!
Below, we share plenty of advice to elevate your mountain photography from zero to hero, including my thoughts on gear, weather, lighting, and so much more. We also delve into mountain lake photography – so that you can combine two of nature’s most gorgeous elements to produce pro-level landscape photos.
And since each tip comes from direct experience in the field, you can be confident that it’s worth your time!
Ready to get better results the next time you go chasing after mountains? Let’s dive right in.
1. Take advantage of the light
Lighting may be the single most important aspect of a successful mountain photo. While backlight and front light can work under some circumstances, mountains thrive in sidelight. Light from the side brings out the shadows and details in ridges, cliffs, and rolling slopes. It provides contrast and drama.
Images of big landscapes, like mountains, rely on natural light for illumination, so you’re really at the whim of the weather. Cloudy days can flatten the light, while midday sun will drown out shadows and turn pleasing contrast into an eye-squinting mass of whites and blacks. Successful images can arise from these challenging scenarios, but low-angle sidelight – that is, golden-hour landscape lighting – makes our lives as photographers so much easier.
2. Place your horizon carefully
Your horizon is one of the most important parts of the photo. Think about the rule of thirds and – unless you have a very good reason to do so! – avoid putting your horizon in the middle of the frame.
If the scene has an interesting foreground and/or an uninteresting sky (i.e., white clouds or a pure, flat blue) place your horizon line high in the frame.
Alternatively, if you’re faced with interesting cloud formations and/or a relatively featureless foreground, you could place your horizon line lower to show more of the sky.
3. Fill the frame
Mountains, by nature, are huge. You don’t have to get the entire thing in the frame. It’s just as acceptable to fill the frame with a certain element that draws your attention. This will make the mountain the background in your images.
Yes, it can be tempting to try and get a huge vista in the frame. But if you take a moment to look for smaller details that could make an interesting photo, you might find something unexpected.
4. Show scale with smaller elements
Again, mountains tend to be huge, but when you shoot with an ultra-wide-angle lens, you wind up pushing the perspective back. And this makes it difficult to give your viewers a true sense of just how large things are within your frame.
You can combat this by including an element that shows the scale of things in the scene. Buildings, people, and animals all work well.
5. Include people in the landscape
As with the previous point, putting people in your mountain landscape photography can convey just how big the mountains are.
It does more than that, however! By including a human element, you are adding something that your viewers can relate to.
6. Don’t forget about color
Bright colors attract the eye. This is particularly true in images of mountains. Sunset and sunrise, colorful foregrounds, and bright blue alpine skies will help catch and hold the gaze of a viewer.
This goes very tidily with the very first mountain photography tip (on using the light!). Good light very often equates to good color. The better the light quality, the more vivid the colors of the scene become. Get one and you often get the other.
None of this is to say that an image has to have bright colors to be successful. Low-saturation images can be moody and brooding. Stormy skies and winter scenes are two examples where colors may not be rich but don’t hurt the final image. Such photos thrive on the drama of the scene rather than the colors.
In black-and-white images, color is completely absent but can depict the mountains beautifully. In such images, contrast and mood play an even more important role.
A note on black-and-white mountain photography: when factors like light and color are not in your favor, a black-and-white conversion can often be a great tool. I’ve made numerous images on flat-light days that converted well to black and white, though the color image was dull and muted.
7. Try a panorama
When you are photographing mountains, don’t be afraid to take a sequence of shots that you can stitch together as a panorama.
Mountain ranges tend to suit the panorama format especially well because there is just so much to see!
8. Fill your foreground
This may be standard landscape photography advice, but it still applies when shooting mountains. If you’re using a wide-angle lens, you will have plenty of space in your foreground – and you’ll need to fill it with something interesting.
So pick a foreground subject and get up close to it. This could be flowers, an interesting rock formation, or something simple like a sign.
Then take a shot that combines the interesting foreground and a beautiful mountain background, like this:
9. Include a human element
By human element, I don’t mean people. Instead, I advise you to find something human-made that will show your viewers how the people that live nearby incorporate the mountain into their lives.
On their own, mountains are impressive. But as part of our world, they are also part of our lives. If you can show this in your images, you might be able to convey an interesting narrative.
10. Try juxtaposition
Juxtaposition refers to contrasting elements placed in relation to one another. In photography, that contrast can be visual – light versus dark contrast, bright versus muted colors, warm versus cool colors – as well conceptual, in terms of contrasting subject matter.
And in my experience, all of these are important parts of mountain photography!
Juxtaposed color tones combine in interesting ways. Mountain scenes, particularly from places like the Rockies, Cascades, or Alaska, tend to be dominated by cool tones: blue skies, green tundra and forest, glacial streams, and clear blue lakes. These cool-colored scenes often look better when warm tones, like yellow, red, or pink, are integrated into the scene. Often that warm tone is best presented as a flash of color – a setting sun, a wildflower, or the bright jacket of a hiker – rather than as an equal to the cool tones.
(When both cool and warm tones are heavily featured in a scene, your brain will have a hard time sorting out which to pay attention to and the pleasing juxtaposition will become a tangle of clashing color.)
For me, though, subject juxtaposition is where a landscape image comes alive. When it comes to mountains, there is so much potential for subject-based contrast.
Some contrasting mountain shots, like the image below of the rainbow over the desert mountains of Big Bend National Park, have obvious subject juxtapositions (rain versus the dry desert rock). But the same image also has visual contrasts in shapes and texture (the jagged rocks and smooth curve of the rainbow, for example). All of these combine nicely to provide interest.
11. Use a different focal point
In your mountain landscape photography, the mountain does not need to be the focal point of your image. Instead, you can find a different focal point and use the mountain as environmental information.
Of course, you can still take a photograph of the sweeping vista. But once that is done, look smaller – and see if there are other subjects to be found in the scene.
12. Incorporate mountain lakes
There’s something incredibly alluring about lake and river reflections in landscape photography, especially when surrounded by majestic snow-capped mountains that glow hot from the light of the setting sun. So whenever you can, try to include a mountain lake – with a gorgeous reflection – in your shots!
A few quick tips for amazing mountain lake photography:
Wait for the wind to stop
If you’re out on a gale-force windy day, don’t expect any serene lake shots. You need that water to be perfectly still for good reflections. A mild, occasional wind is fine, just stick around and wait for it to die down. You only need a few minutes. Bring a camp chair and thermos, then sit while you wait for the perfect moment. It’ll come.
Use a polarizer (and shoot two versions)
If you shoot lake scenes without a polarizer you’ll get a lovely mirror-like reflection, but you might be missing out on some interesting details under the water in the foreground. I like to take at least two shots with my polarizer in different positions. One shot will give me the maximum reflection, while the other shot will reduce that reflection to reveal the details under the water. I can then easily blend the two exposures in Photoshop to get the best mixture of reflection and water detail.
Adjust your angle
I like to pick the most interesting point of my mountain range, and then find a spot in my foreground that reflects that interesting point. I often need to get the camera down closer to the ground to achieve this, sometimes adjusting the tripod to its lowest point. At times, though, you might not need to get so low and maybe just step back a few feet to place your reflection where you need it to be.
You can’t change where the mountain is, but you can change your position relative to it to capture an interesting foreground and reflection.
Star reflections are incredible
If you’re shooting on a calm, clear night, then you get the chance to capture the Milky Way or star trails in your lake reflection. Place a colossal mountain range in the center of that, and you’ve got yourself a killer shot!
13. Use your GND filters
To help you get good exposure while in the field, don’t forget to pack your graduated neutral density filters. These will allow you to even out your exposures at the time of capture, making it easier to process your images when you get back home.
14. Shoot from different angles
When you’re just starting out with mountain photography, it’s easy to get stuck in the habit of shooting from the same perspective over and over again – but whenever possible, I encourage you to mix it up!
While you can photograph mountains from an infinite number of angles and perspectives, I’d like to focus on three broad approaches: low-angle, mid-mountain, and high-angle shooting. Note that each of these greatly impacts not just the appearance of the final image but also its mood and feel.
Photographs made from a valley bottom looking up will make the mountains appear large and imposing. These low-angle shots provide space for an interesting foreground, and many classic landscapes have been captured from this perspective. Though effective, there are drawbacks to shooting from the valley bottom. The low perspective means that the view is limited; there are no seas of mountain peaks spreading to the horizon. Lighting is often difficult. The bottom of the valley is the last place to gain sunlight in the morning and the first to lose it in the evening, so balancing that light can make the exposure tricky. By the time the landscape is evenly lit, the sweet light of dawn or dusk will be long past.
Mid-mountain shots can be spectacular, providing views both below and above. This perspective is one of my favorites, allowing for a lot of depth in the landscape while maintaining the size and drama of the mountains.
However, capturing great high-angle mountain photos is tough. Images made from the summit of peaks tend to make the surrounding landscape look small. I’ve taken photographs from peaks in which all the mountains look like rocky waves rather than towering summits. You can make up for this by adding a human to the shot, which provides scale, plus it removes the focus from the mountains and places it on the human experience within them. The human element will change your image, making it less of a landscape and more of a portrait or action shot, but the approach can be very effective.
15. Wait for the light
This tip cannot be understated. If you want the best-looking mountain landscape photography images that you can produce, wait for the light to be at its best. If you get on location early and find the composition that you want, don’t be afraid to stay until the light shifts – even if it takes a couple of hours.
Yes, I know it can seem boring, and it’s hard to justify the effort, but please, trust me. It is very much worth the time and effort.
16. Use longer lenses
When you are packing for your trip into the mountains, don’t forget to take your longer lenses with you. Standard-length primes can be great for panoramas, but telephoto lenses can help you pick out smaller details in your scenes.
In other words:
There is a lot of room in landscape photography for lenses aside from the wide angles that dominate the genre.
17. Plan for the light
With the technology available to us, it’s easier than ever to know exactly which direction the light is going to come from on any given day of the year.
So once you know when and where you are going, do your research and figure out where the sun is going to rise or set. Then plan your shots based on that!
18. Plan for the weather
Like planning for the light, it’s also a good idea to plan for the weather. Knowing the weather will help you determine if you need to pack any extra gear like rain covers and waterproof clothing.
Of course, it’s also in the best interest of personal safety to have an idea of when snow or rain might appear. This is even more important if you intend to be on the mountain, especially after golden hour.
19. Don’t avoid bad weather
While planning for bad weather is good, you don’t always need to stay indoors. Many times, the most interesting photos will come in the worst weather.
In fact, some of the best light I have ever seen has been during a break in a storm; these breaks allow just enough light to make things look like a fairytale.
And if you lock yourself away when the weather is bad, you’ll never get to experience such moments.
20. Be safe
Above all, strive for safety. Mountain landscape photography can be incredibly rewarding, but don’t risk your personal well-being for a great shot.
Watch where you’re going, take weather-appropriate clothing, be aware of the forecast, and tell somebody where you are going to be. And if you’re going to stay out until after blue hour, make sure you know exactly how to get back.
Mountain landscape photography: final words
I hope this article has inspired you to get out and create your own mountain photography.
The next time you’re out shooting mountains, remember these tips – and have fun!
Have you photographed mountains before? Do you have any tips of your own? Share them in the comments below!
Mountain photography FAQ
All lenses have their uses. Wide-angle lenses are the most popular, but standard and telephoto lenses can work, too.
It entirely depends on where the light is hitting the mountain. The golden hours are best as long as the sun isn’t behind your mountain.
You include an element that is easy for the viewer to identify, such as a person. This will give your images a sense of scale.
Wide-angle lenses distort perspective, and this can push everything back in the frame. Use a standard focal length (35mm to 50mm) for a perspective close to the human eye’s. To include more in the frame, consider shooting in a panoramic format.