Landscape and nature photographers are forever at the whim of the weather, and this couldn’t be more true than when you have a mountain expedition planned, as the higher the altitude, the more extreme the weather becomes.
It’s no slim feat clambering up a mountainside with all your photography gear, so if you’re not met with ideal weather, it’s tempting to turn around in a grump and head home. But there are ways in which you can use this perceived handicap to your advantage.
By knowing your gear and thinking creatively, you can get some truly stunning mountain shots, not in spite of the weather but because of it, and today, we’ll be showing you how it’s done!
1. Get Above The Fog And Shoot Down
A dull blanket of fog is one of the most common hurdles we shutterbugs face when shooting at altitude, especially if the mountain in question is situated in a particularly turbulent climate.
Not only can it completely wash out the mountain views, it can even keep you from seeing two feet ahead of you, leaving you feeling like a fool for even bringing your camera, but don’t despair!
Yes, sometimes fog is all-encompassing, but most of the time, it’s not completely infallible, and once you get some distance between you and it, it can be an incredible atmospheric prop. The question is… how do you create this distance?
Sadly, there are no guarantees here, but, mountain height permitting, we recommend trying to ascend above the fog then shooting down into it.
You’ll capture a mesmeric false floor of spectral activity, with dark shapes piercing through in places and the dauntless mountains prevailing above. Alternatively, shoot straight dead straight if you’ve got the view for it.
Do be careful when ascending in fog, though. It’s all too easy to lose your footing or get lost, and no shot, no matter how beautiful, is worth risking your life for.
2. Lean Into The Drama
Bad weather may pose a practical challenge to photographers, but it can also provide some of the most striking backdrops for hyper-dramatic shots.
The black bellies of storm clouds, for instance, or even just the mottling of normal clouds is about as atmospheric and enticing a background as you’ll find for mountain photography.
Granted, the light isn’t as intriguing as it could be, but when there’s no need to obsess over light, you can turn your attention to different aspects of shot sculpting.
We suppose what we’re saying here is that sometimes it’s best to go with the flow and lean into the weather rather than try to fight it.
If you’re dealing with a completely flat, white day, you’ll be relying on your subject to provide the drama instead, but, thankfully, that shouldn’t be such a problem for mountains against such a bleak backdrop.
3. Wait For Sunset
Any photographer worth their salt knows that the best sunset shots are defined by the natural imperfections of the scene. Rarely, if ever, do pristine blue-sky sundowns create a truly engaging image.
There needs to be some sort of conflict, some sort of obstruction, and poor weather provides such obstacles. The more there is for the light to interact with on or above the mountain range, the more revelatory and dramatic the scene will be.
Again, though, there’s a matter of safety to consider here. You don’t want to be caught up a mountain in the dark, so it’s best to attempt this at lower altitudes and make a quick escape as soon as you’re happy with your efforts.
4. Focus On The Impact
The weather doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, it interacts with the world around us, and the way in which the world responds can be utterly fascinating if captured just so.
For example, if you’re with other people, photograph their struggle as they bear the brunt of the weather.
It’s a great idea to focus on people or activities anyway to imbue your mountain photography with a greater sense of perspective, but in this scenario, the visceral, moodiness of the scene will take the artistry of your shot to the next level.
If you’re not with anyone, and wildlife is rather scant, don’t rule out yourself as a subject, and if that’s not an option due to the ferocity of the weather, minimize your scope to the macroscopic.
Instead of trying to picture broad mountain landscapes, look for the little things, the microcosms, the beads of water on a blade of grass or an ear of lichen, the mountain’s reflections in the undulant puddles forming on the ground… whatever you can find.
5. Shoot Snow In Manual Mode
Unaided, most cameras will perceive snow as gray (see also “How To Photograph Snowflakes“), which can make for a dreary shot, but if you set your camera to manual mode and overexpose by 1 ½ – 2 stops, you can get that lovely, crisp whiteness that forms such a lovely contrast against the dark mountain rock.
Shoot in black and white to add even more starkness to the scene, but if you can find a pop of color somewhere, that may also garner exquisite results.
6. Capture The Contrast Of Light And Immense Shadow
Blazing sun and blue skies can be just as boring as a flat whitewash, the problem being that there’s just not enough variation in light, and thus, no semblance of conflict.
Unless you find a remarkable subject to add something to a scene, you run the risk of taking a big heaping pile of bland shots the likes of which you can find on literally anyone’s Facebook or Instagram account.
Another option – and our go-to – is to bide your time, wait for the sun to hit a more acute angle in the sky, then capture the literal night and day difference between the brightness of the sun and the gargantuan shadows the lit mountains cast on their neighbors.
It’s a high contrast, high drama visual rife with temporal and of course photic intrigue. Mountains are the largest subjects one can work with, and this directly uses their dimensions as the key structural element of the shot.
7. Shoot The Storm
The one thing more evocative and impressive than high quality mountain landscape work is high quality mountain landscape work during a thunderstorm.
Using a super long exposure, a tripod, a weather radar app, and some other choice bits of gear, if you’re patient enough, you’ll be able to catch the exact moment those forks of lightning flash down from the clouds above.
That said, it’s always risky shooting storms outside, especially at altitude. The trick is to constantly monitor the position of the storm and ensure you’re on the outside of it as opposed to within it.
8. Use The Weather To Create Seasonal Contrast
Some mountains are teeming with plant life, and as the seasons shift, so does the color palette of these high rises.
In bright sun, all of this color gets a little washed out, but if you time a bad weather trip up a mountain with the deep, varied colors of fall, there’ll be no shortage of high drama scenes to shoot.
The more vivid the colors and the more contrast between dark and light clouds there is in the sky, the better.
9. Capture The Dynamics Of The Wind With Long Exposures
The wind doesn’t just ruffle our hair and leave us with rosy red noses, it also buffets mountainside grasses, rustles the woodlands, and shifts the clouds in the sky.
While photography is all about bringing the world to stand still, you can capture the dynamics of this vast, encompassing motion by using a long exposure.
The subtle blurring of the moving parts adds intrigue to the image, while simultaneously speaking to the permanence and immovability of the mountains.
It’s an awesome contrast that can yield incredibly arresting results when executed well, especially if you catch a bit of color in the shot during sunup or sundown.
10. Make The Most Of Sun Rays
A bleak day can be stifling, but at one point or another, the sun is likely to break through a chink in the cloudish armor and send a gilded beam or two crashing down into the mountains, and you need to be ready to capture them.
The scarcity of light in such a scene is what makes this sudden localized influx of brightness an incredibly evocative addition to the landscape, beautifying the ancillary aspects of the shot almost to the point where they become more interesting than the mountainous subjects.
There you have it — The weather can be a real smudge on the lens at times, but if you think outside the box and find creative solutions to the problems it poses, you may just be rewarded with the best shot you’ve ever taken.
You’ll need lots of patience, and preparing for anything before you head out is paramount if you want you and your equipment to stay safe and ready for action.
But get those essentials on lock, and you give yourself the best chance of finding beauty in the brutality of the weather during mountain photography(see also: The Best Mountain Photography Locations).