Correct lighting: the most important element in mountain photography

Part 2 of A Simple Guide to Photographing Big Mountains is presented here.

A Basic Guide to Photographing Big Mountains, Part 1
The Right Light in Part 2
Part 3: Writing Advice

  1. Star Pictures
    Adding People to the Scene in Part 5

Photographs might succeed or fail based on the lighting. It is the most crucial component in any photography, and this is also true for mountain photography. Although getting amazing light in the mountains might be challenging, having a strategy and understanding what to look for can greatly increase your chances of returning with a strong portfolio shot.

The first thing you should consider when it comes to lighting is the best sort of light for your subject and when that light will be at its optimum. Depending on what you’re shooting, there are several responses to this question. Some peaks are illuminated by dawn, some by sunset. Some summits don’t always get the best morning or evening light.

Utilizing tools like The Photographer’s Ephemeris makes determining the direction in which the sun rises or sets simple. You may use the program to locate a specific spot anywhere in the globe, and it will overlay the directions of the dawn, sunset, full and new moons on a map. Finding out if you need to get up early or stay up late is simple with this method.

Argentinian Patagonia’s Lago De Los Tres and Fitzroy, Los Glaciers National Park
17-40mm Canon 5d Mark II lens, 1/4 sec. @ f/16, ISO 50

It Alters Rapidly
Mountainous regions, particularly those with high or low longitudes, have short periods of light. I’ve often been taken aback by how quickly the light can change. In the highlands, both the weather and the light are subject to rapid fluctuation. The sun often seems to be unable to break through clouds. Nine times out of ten, nothing will occur, and you will be let down when you return home. I’ve seen photographers hang about with their equipment still in their bags because they don’t think there would be a sunset. Those photographers miss the snap when the sun finally comes out because they are too busy rushing to bring their camera outside for the little window of opportunity. I can only advise you to put up your camera and wait it out.

Torres del Paine, Los Cuernos, and Chilean Patagonia
1/25th at f/10, ISO 125, Canon 5d Mark II 70-200mm lens

I was certain that dawn on this particular morning in the Canadian Rockies was a dud. I sat down on a rock and rested my tired eyes, feeling let down. A few minutes later, I caught a glimpse of the mountain peaks and noted that the center of the range seemed to be a bit brighter. When I woke up, I rushed to get my camera. The peaks above Moraine Lake were beautifully lighted by a strip of light in a short amount of time. Before the light faded, I immediately worked with my camera to get as many frames as I could. The light vanished almost as fast as it appeared. I was relieved that my setup was ready since I would have missed this incredible moment otherwise.

Canadian Rockies, Alberta, Canada’s Moraine Lake
1/10th at f/16, ISO 50, Canon 5d Mark II 17-40mm Lens

Even if a mountain is in a prime location for a sunrise or a sunset, you should still consider the rest of the day. Though the mountain is often in a location for sunset, it is possible to obtain an excellent sight during dawn. The sun behind the mountain, for instance, may shine on the clouds in the sky. Or sometimes, under the correct climatic circumstances, a “godbeam” may be produced. That is what occurred in Ama Dablam in Nepal one morning. Even though I knew Ama Dablam wouldn’t get direct sunshine, I nevertheless came up early and was greeted with this unusual circumstance.

Everest Region, Himalaya, Nepal, Ama Dablam
24-105mm Canon 5d Mark III lens, 1/250 sec. @ f/6.3, ISO 50

Picture the Scene
While light from a high peak is wonderful, there are times when it is worth waiting for light to hit a different part of the scene because it may help the picture come to life. It is crucial to picture how the light will spread over the scene when you arrive at a spot. This will allow you to capture the sun as it sweeps across the sky in a variety of compositions. I knew these grasses would make a fantastic foreground when I arrived at this spot in Rainier National Park. I waited for the sun to rise high enough to highlight them as they would seem flat otherwise. The landscape sprang to life and I was able to get this picture as soon as the light lit up the grasses.

Washington, Mount Rainier, Rainier National Park
17-40mm Canon 5d Mark II lens, 1/60 sec. @ f/18, ISO 50

I am always on the lookout for a vibrant, colorful, and spectacular dawn or sunset. You sometimes get them, but not often. Even if the clouds don’t line up and chance isn’t on your side, you can still create a beautiful picture. The earth’s shadow is one benefit in the mountains. On clear nights, the opposite of the sunrise or sunset will appear in the sky as the earth’s shadow. This shadow is a faint pink band over a blue ring of sky. Normally, it occurs 15 minutes before dawn or 15 minutes after dusk. At higher altitudes, this phenomena is more obvious. It is an excellent technique to give your images a gentle, pastel feel.

Canon 5d Mark III 70-200mm Lens, 1 second at f/16, ISO 100 Grand Teton, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The blue hour is often the final opportunity to leave with a nice shot when clouds and fog cover the scene and block the sun. The period of time between dawn and sunset known as the “blue hour” is when there is just enough light in the sky to illuminate the surroundings. Sometimes the clouds and fog will begin to disperse as the temperature changes before it becomes too dark or too bright. The light is unusually blue at this hour, and your photograph will be saturated with blue tones, which may give the landscape a unique appearance. Almost every sunset was shrouded by clouds when I hiked across the Nepalese Himalayas; as a result, I spent most evenings photographing the blue hour as the fog lifted.

Everest Region, Himalaya, Nepal, Ama Dablam
30-second exposure at f/7.1, ISO 100, Canon 5d Mark III 24-105mm lens

Optimal Lighting
Shooting through a sunrise or a sunset is one of the first lessons I ever learnt. It may often be difficult to see and capture the greatest photograph due to preconceived notions about when the “best” light is. The most vibrant light isn’t necessarily the greatest; often the most dramatic and effective light is the gentle light. When I used film as my camera, I could only take so many pictures, so I would take the majority of my pictures when the light was at its best and very few pictures before and after. However, after development, I discovered that I preferred the later (or earlier) light. With the advent of digital photography, we now have the option to take as many photos as we want and decide afterwards which frames work best. Take advantage of this and capture photographs across the various light phases; you may be surprised by the results.

Below are two examples of related photos I took in Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash one morning. I distinctly recall thinking after shooting the first picture that I had already captured the desired photograph of the vibrant clouds and starting to pack up to go have some breakfast. The clouds and light had significantly shifted on the trip back to the camp. I pulled out my camera once again and created the second picture. When I arrived home, I saw that the second picture was far more dramatic and engrossing. It served as a helpful reminder to me that my assumptions are not always accurate.

Canon 5d Mark II 70-200mm Lens, Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru, 1/50th at f/5.0, ISO 50

Light is often the element that unites a shot. In most cases, a picture consists of a primary element (light, color, texture, etc.) that contrasts with a secondary element (a mountain, a person, a lake, etc.). This is only a realization that light is often a secondary topic in a photograph; it does not imply that light is optional. Having said that, there are instances in which the main subject of a photograph might be light. When there is a rainbow or a very vibrant sunset, for instance, the unusual light becomes the primary subject, while the surrounds serve as the supporting cast. Using space to establish emphasis is the greatest technique to make something the primary focus of a picture.

I was given the opportunity to see amazing lighting while at Grand Teton. The most intense beam of light I have ever seen appeared when the sun peaked through the clouds as I hurriedly rushed to get to a certain area. I rapidly took in the surroundings, noting that the Grand Teton was veiled by clouds and that there was a cute small grove of aspens, but I soon came to the conclusion that the light beam was the most crucial component. I designed the panorama to highlight the light beam, making the white mountains and yellow trees a supporting cast for the magnificent light.

Canon 5d Mark III 70-200mm Lens, 1/25th at f/14 ISO 400 Teton Godbeam, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Despite all the planning and preparation, wonderful light may occasionally be seen with just patience and a lot of time. I am fortunate to be able to stay longer at destinations than the majority of people, but if it is at all feasible, I would advise you to schedule a few more days at each location to increase your chances of capturing excellent light. It will take place eventually! It might take up to eight days to see a spectacular dawn, as it did here at Cerro Torre in Argentina. Occasionally, it occurs immediately.

Argentine Patagonia, Cerro Torre, Los Glaciers National Park
70-200mm Canon 5d Mark II lens, 2 seconds at f/16, ISO 50