Artistic photography takes time (scouting for shots, composition, lighting, framing, adjusting settings, etc.). Even if part of hiking is taking time out to contemplate nature, it is more than anything a physical activity: you have to keep moving forward! It’s not easy to efficiently reconcile both. So you need to set priorities by being clear about your objective (so you won’t annoy the people you’re hiking with…I know what I’m talking about here). Nevertheless, I have some practical tips to share with you as well as some simple reflexes to save you time during your hikes (after all, you’re going to want to reach the summit too!).
Some basic rules on proper composition
…Since your “subjects” are not going to be moving a lot (lakes and mountains are completely stationary (…) your main margin for maneuverability will involve framing, that is to say what will and what won’t be in the field of view. Next you’ll want to think about how you will create a structure from what will appear in your shot and where you’ll place the elements of the photograph (for example, at what height do you want that range of mountain peaks to appear? Where do you want that tree to appear in your image? Where should you put that person?). To prevent images from being too static, use the “1/3 rule”, which will give you a kind of “unbalanced equilibrium”. The principle is simple: the image is divided into 3 parts by height and by the length of your shot (2 horizontal lines and 2 vertical lines form 9 rectangles). Use the lines of your landscape (straight lines: horizon, mountain crests; curves: paths, streams…) and put them onto the composition lines of your image. That way, from this structure, you can achieve a sense of balance or lack of balance, static or dynamic energy, frontal quality or depth…Beyond the framework of the photo, they act as pathways that guide the movement of the eye. They direct the viewer. It is also recommended to place prominent elements where these lines intersect (people, rocks, trees, chalet, etc.), on these lines. This will contribute to the dynamism of your photo and will mitigate the tepid, overly rigid centering of your landscape (of course that can also be a particular graphic approach to your picture too!).
For landscape photography, often you’ll need to make space perceptible, and especially to lend depth to your image in order to create a dynamic quality. But in the mountains, other than some artificially traced path, there aren’t too many occasions where you’ll find a perfect linear perspective. You can play with scales (a tiny little tree will signify how far away it is…) and with a point of view where several planes come together: the 1st prominent plane will captivate the viewer and will “bring in the eye” to the second plane and then into the background or off into the far distance.
In black and white?
Photography in black and white is particularly compelling with landscapes because it will concentrate the gaze onto contrasting light. It is also ideal for highlighting the surface of rocks and the cumulus clouds. Personally, I use it when the sky isn’t that compelling. I never photograph directly in black and white. I work in post-production and adjust the tones to my liking and play with the red, green, blue, yellow filters…
All, in one picture!
When I go out hiking, I love the vast spaces that the mountains provide, and it’s really frustrating to come back with just photographic fragments of scenes that had such wide visual impact. So how can you truly do justice to the immensity of a mountain landscape in a mere photograph? There’s nothing easy about transposing a physical sensation you experience in the moment into an equivalent visual sensation in a format where space is so…restricted! First, go to the (Ultra) Wide-Angle (in 10 and 15 mm) to be able to capture as many of the elements in the widest possible field of view. You can also create a panoramic format by fusing several images together (software: Lightroom, photomerge function on Photoshop Canon PhotoStitch…). When you’re taking the shot, set the focus manually so there won’t be any change in the image clarity, take between 5 and 10 linear shots (generally horizontal for a landscape) by pivoting on a fixed axis (a tripod with a 3D head is ideal). Each one straddles the other by 1/4 approximately so the software can find stitching points where it can link them together. Go a little wider so you can work better with the composition afterward in post-production. Avoid planes that are too close together because the software might not be able to understand them (it might create a photographic aberration or it might be impossible to create the panoramic shot). Once you’ve gotten a start in this type of pictorial approach, you’ll be addicted before you know it!
Long exposure is a classic technique in nature photography, and in my opinion it should be used in moderation so your pictures don’t become too kitsch! Have many rushing river water scenes have we all seen before?. In my opinion, you’re better off reserving that technique for special occasions. On the other hand, it’s very effective for smoothing out the surface of an Alpine lake, especially if a light wind is creating a rippled effect. Since the exposure has to be long (because of the low lighting or because of the longer recording time), the use of a tripod is indispensable to be absolutely sure the camera doesn’t move at all (you will also want to be just as sure to keep the ISO as low as possible so you don’t sacrifice image quality). Carbon tripods are lighter and more durable than aluminum tripods, but of course they are also more expensive. Still, there are some small models if you really need one.
What material do you need to take along?
The first thing I bring is a series of filters (those little disks you can add to your lens). There are different ones that have different effects, but in my opinion, the most interesting ones are the gray filter (for long exposures),the polarizing filter (to accentuate contrasts: sky, clouds, atmosphere) and the greyscale filter (to reduce the contrast of light between shadow and bright areas; this is very useful when you’re hiking in the middle of a sunny day!). I assemble my tripod when I know I’m going to go near a mountain lake, a waterfall, or a river, or when I’m going to camp out. It has a 3D MHXPRO-3W ball joint, so it’s ideal for taking perfectly level panoramic shots. Next, I load everything in my Offroad 30L backpack, where I can safely store my reflex in the side pocket.
Co-editor of the Trace Ta Route (Track Your Route) photo blog.
I am a lover of art and mountain hiking, so I’m always stirred by vast landscapes and also those reclusive spots no one can see, which seem deserted for all intents and purposes. I am especially tuned into the Sublime, the aesthetic power of emptiness and silence. I’m influenced by the works of Caspar David Friedrich, Edward Hopper, Luc Tuymans, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andres Serrano, Eric Poitevin, Michelangelo Antonioni, Gus Van Sant…