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Mountain photography can be tricky, how do you avoid having those stunning views look flat and dull when you get home and look at the photos? Travel photographer Simon Kirwan shares some tips for budding mountain snappers! Check out his website, The LightBOX for more amazing mountain photography from his travels to the Himalayas, the Alps, and even North Wales!

Come back for more! This is the first in an occasional series of articles on travel photography that Simon is writing for travel-quest.

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Recommended Books

Galen Rowell's Inner Game of Outdoor Photography is based on articles the author has written for "Outdoor Photographer" magazine. In the book he explains artful composition as well as offering technical advice on such things as pushing film to extremes; and when and how to use flash. Backed up with advice on such things as travelling light and packing your camera gear.

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For those on a more limited budget we suggest Photographing Landscapes by John Hedgecoe. This well illustrated book provides practical tips designed to help you to enhance the quality of your landscape photograpy by improving your picture-taking technique.

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Mountain photography – how to take good pictures when out in the hills

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 35 mm camera with a selection of lenses is necessary.

I use a 24 mm or 50 mm lens on an Olympus OM1 (still going strong after 27 years!), or a 35 mm–80 mm 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.

Generally 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.

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 summers day, get out there and start shooting!

Simon Kirwan is a professional travel photographer, web developer and writer, whose work has appeared in the Rough Guide, Ultrafit magazine and many other publications. After almost twenty years in advertising photography, working for clients like adidas, Liverpool FC, Kelloggs, Littlewoods and Great Universal Stores, Simon now divides his time between photography, travelling, mountain walking, and developing web sites. Five years ago, Simon set up The LightBOX, one of the UK's first homegrown photo gallery web sites, and many of the UK's top advertising photographers displayed portfolios of images on its pages. The LightBOX has featured in The Guardian, and The Guardian book Photo Sources on the Web, and is now one of the premier UK travel and mountain photography sites, featuring images from Africa; the Nepal Himalaya & Mount Everest; the French Alps & Mont Blanc; the Polish Tatras; Mallorca & Gran Canaria; Wales & Snowdonia; with new galleries being added all the time.

© Simon Kirwan – The LightBOX 2001/2
This article also appears on Simon Kirwan's site at The LightBOX. Reproduced with permission.