Photographing mountains is like photographing the history of the planet. Mountains wear their history from the inside out and back again. They are great repositories of natural history, archeology, geology, and climate change. They house a good majority of the planet’s fresh water reserves, influence the weather, and determine which side gets the water and which side doesn’t. They are natural obstacles in our path, yet goals to be scaled. Mountains play important roles in our lives, and they are wondrous subjects to photograph.
No matter where you point your camera on a mountain, from great distances or up close, the subject diversity is amazing. For those who enjoy the scenic view, mountains offer spectacular landscapes, clouds dancing around the pinnacle or low around the base, or dark with forests and rocks and patches of white snow. For those who like the closeup perspective, the geology alone can captivate a photographer for years.
Mountains are exciting to photograph today because they are associated with wilderness. Anywhere you go in the world where there are mountains, you may still find wild streams, uncultivated trees, wild animals, and natural areas. The reason for this is that it is very difficult to tame a mountain, to build buildings and to develop them. Hundreds of years ago, the prairies and the plains of North America were also wild places but today these have been almost completely taken over by agriculture and cities, and the wildest places we have left anywhere in the world are in the mountains. The elk, bear, wolf, and many birds and other animals used to range the prairies and low lands of the planet, but now humans have pushed them into the mountains, their last sanctuary.
Mountains are big rocks. Most people think of mountains as tall craggy spires, but mountains come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes like the sharp pointing peaks of the Cascade and Rocky Mountains or the rounded and strange formations in the Garden of the Gods, Colorado. Mountains come in red, green, white with snow, dark in silhouette, golden with trees, and all colors in between.
Where the sedimentary layers are exposed, you can find a wide range of patterns and textures. Understanding the geological forces behind what you are seeing helps you recognize photographic opportunities representative of those forces of nature like the basalt formations, earthquakes, earth shifts, and more.
Mountains Expose Their Age
The shape of the mountain is based upon its age and wear and tear from wind, rain, and glaciers. Older mountains have been exposed to the weather for a longer period of time so the sharp points have been rounded and the highest points worn down. The Ozark and Appalachian mountains are considered the oldest mountain ranges in North America. Only a few thousand feet high, they have been ground down into rounded “hills” over time.
Contrast that with the newer mountain ranges of the West, the Rockies, Cascades, Sierra Nevadas, and the Alaska and Brooks ranges. The Olympic Mountains of Washington State are rising approximately one centimeter a year. The volcanic action of Mt. St. Helens, also in Washington, and active volcanos along the Aleutian Range in Alaska are changing mountain range profiles all the time.
The newer ranges are formed by volcanic action as well as shifts in the plates of the earth, called tectonics. The plates of the earth’s surface collide, with one shelf rising as the other pushes under, and the higher shelf becomes the mountains. As one plate pushes upward, the sedimentary layers are revealed, exposing its geology. Here you will find fascinating layers, textures and patterns to photograph.
Long dormant volcanos tend to feature round, smooth tops. The explosive force of a recently active volcano reshapes the mountain’s profile, changing dome crowns into giant holes, sometimes filled with water or ice. The force of the blast can dramatically change the surrounding landscape as mud, rocks, and ash are smashed into neighboring mountains and areas. Lava flows down the mountain sides, changing the landscape even more as it sculpts and cools.
As lava cools, it forms a volcanic rock known as basalt. As it cools and shrinks, cracks develop along the blackened surface, forming a cluster of hexagons like a honeycomb. These cracks extend the full depth of the rock, making vertical columns of basalt. This is common throughout the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon, Devil’s Postpile National Monument in California, Hawaii, and other volcanic areas.
But volcanic action isn’t just millions of years old and found in the rocks. It is found today on many active volcanos around the world. Hawaii still features red hot lava flows spilling into the sea and changing the shape of the islands. Mt. Rainier in Washington State is considered active, though barely. Even if the volcanic activity isn’t visible to the naked eye, it is still going on. On March 23, 2004, a series of small earthquakes rattled the Three Sisters volcanic center in central Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. While these were minor earthquakes, the experts say that the regional seismic network detected approximately 100 earthquakes up to about 1.5 magnitude centered five kilometers west of South Sister volcano. Since 1997, the ground has been uplifted by 25 cm (about 10 inches), believed to be “the continuing intrusion of a modest volume of magma (molten rock). The magma appears to be accumulating at a depth of about 7 kilometers (4 miles) below the ground surface and now measures about 40 million cubic meters (about 50 million cubic yards) in volume.” They are expecting more earthquakes in the area as the Earth’s crust shifts and moves to accommodate the heat and gases.
Mountains in Motion: Glaciers
Glaciers leave their marks on the landscape in many ways. Their surging ice flows pick up rocks large and small and transport them along their path to deposit them miles away. Glaciers are formed when the snow falls and accumulates faster than it melts and builds up over years or thousands of years. The weight of the snow on top compacts the oldest layers of snow into ice at the bottom, putting the most pressure on the lower parts. When the mass gets large enough, it starts to slide downhill under its own weight and the process continues for hundreds of thousands of years to form a river of ice that may be hundreds of meters thick and may move several meters a day. Between May 1956 and the summer of 1957, Alaska’s Muldrow Glacier surged four miles, and at its maximum speed moved almost ten inches a minute. The world’s fastest moving glacier is currently Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, moving 35 meters a day.
The ground underneath the glaciers are worn by the constant movement of the ice. Any rock or mountain section that is loose or weak is picked up and carried along with the glacier and those bits scour the landscape they pass over, like sandpaper, wearing it down. Tiny particles of rock are formed and collected in the glacier and the “rock flour” remains suspended in the water. These particles scatter the light and give the blue color to high mountain glacial lakes such as Lake Louise in Banff National Park in Canada.
Glaciers leave behind characteristically U-shaped valleys, as opposed to water carved valleys which tend to be deep gorges like the Grand Canyon. Into these valleys come plants and animals, protected by the refuge created by the glacier’s path.
Water cuts as it flows through a valley, but it’s not as “tough” as ice. While a glacier actually grinds its way through the mountains, a stream will cut through the softest part of the rock layers, leaving the hardest stuff behind. Narrow canyons and gorges with rough sides are smoothed in the places where water has polished it and rough in places where the rocks have broken off. As snow melts from the mountain tops and sides, small branching streams carve into the sides as they seek the path of least resistance, creating a network of branching patterns.
The areas of the mountains with the hardest rock resist the water’s forces so the water pushes around them, sometimes causing pillars to separate from the main mountain like in the Grand Canyon and the Garden of the Gods.
Wind takes longer to erode, a matter of force, being even weaker than water. Wind picks up light particles of sand and dust that sandblasts the mountains over time. Areas exposed to the direct wind get worn away more quickly. Wind that has time to pick up sand and dust and spread itself over a wider range creates softer, rounder mountain peaks. Where the wind meets resistance or loses its strength, it leaves deposits of sand and dust, piling up into new sedimentary layers.
Shake, Rattle, and Roll
While we can’t see deep beneath the earth’s surface, earthquakes and shifts in the earth’s surface can be photographed indirectly by finding the cracks in the rocks and mountain’s sides, or in crevices that form as the ground shifts underneath.
The Canadian Rocky Mountains offer many excellent examples of the forces of nature at work. These mountains were formed by the movement of two tectonic plates against each other, resulting in the uplifting of the mountains on one side, and the side that lost the war against the stress forces slides down and under the winning side. The upper layers are shoved skyward, often exposing their strata, or layers, to examination. These Mountain are jagged and almost torn looking as the weaker edges tumble away as the push from the planet’s Pacific plate continues to grind forward.
As the two land masses fight against each other for space, earthquakes result and the land shifts under the pressure to conform. Cracks form, great crevices, rough and ragged, splitting open to reveal the layers of sediment and stone exposed in lines, twists, and curves. The forces can be read like the lines in the palm of your hand, telling the story of the land.
In Israel, there are three “craters” which tell all of the above stories in combination. The original mountains were formed ages ago through the great pressures in tectonic shifts from the Syrian-African Rift, forcing the land masses on either side to rise up and tear each other apart. Seas covered them repeatedly over the millennia. Where the sedimentary layers were made of the hardest rock, they resisted the pressures of the water and tides. The limestone layers left behind by the receding sea were soft and didn’t withstand the wind and rain, so over time, they wore away leaving the stronger edges rising up from the desert floor, creating a crater which is really a mountain turned inside out. Along the edges of Maktesh HaGadol, Maktesh HaRamon, and Mahktesh HaKatan, you can see the layers of hard rock sediment pushed up by the geological forces. On the inside, they drop away to the bottom layers of what once was a mountain. The colors in the sand and grains left behind by the layers that once covered the mountain paint the crater floor with intense shades of black, red, green, and pink.
Weather Makers and Takers
Not only do mountains create weather, they stop the weather. Mountains have sides. Where the western slopes of the Olympic Mountains meet the sea, the mountains hold back the rain creating a temperate rain forest with trees covered in layers of green mosses. On the other side is a dry, rain shadow area, creating good pasture land that gets moderate rainfall of 16 inches a year compared to the 150 inches of rain on the seaside’s Hoh Rainforest. The same is true for other large mountains ranges like the Cascades and Rockies. On the weather side you will find luscious green forests accommodating the high rainfall, and on the other will be harsh desert lands.
Pollution affected by weather in the mountains is becoming a major concern. Not only do the mountains stop weather, they act as a barrier to halt air pollution from passing over. Instead, the mountains catch the polluted air from the cities below, and the pollution is trapped in the falling snow and rain. As the mountains are a major source of fresh water, this trapped pollution becomes a health problem. Acid rain is formed by the rain water passing through the toxic air, depositing the poison on the mountain below. Acid rain is destroying much of the plant life and trees in the Smokey and Blue Ridge Mountains on the east coast of the United States, and it wears down the rocks. The Athabasca Glacier in the Banff/Jasper National Parks of Canada feeds water to three oceans and it is under threat from pollution’s effects, too.
Photographically, the increase in particulates in the air creates dramatic sunsets and sunrises. Air pollution also creates a haze, making it difficult to even see the mountains in the distance, or the valleys below when you are in the mountains. If you are planning to travel to photograph mountains near high pollution zones, like the Blue Ridge Mountains, consider visiting after a hard rain or during the winter when the storm winds clear the air.
Wide angle lens are excellent for sweeping views of valleys and mountains rising up, giving a wide striking sense of scale. Take care to notice everything in your viewfinder as all of it will be on the film. Anything distracting will pull the eye away from your main subject: the mountain. Experiment with getting low to the ground to allow wildflowers or rocks to sit in the foreground and loom large compared to the smaller perspective of the mountain in the background.
A long telephoto lens compresses the distance and brings the mountain closer to the camera in the photograph. The mountain appears to tower over things in the foreground. This is a different perception of size and scale. A long lens can also be used to highlight only a part of the mountain that is of interest, a crag or crown of interest, or a rock formation on the side of the mountain.
Few people consider mountains worthy of macro or closeup photography, but these techniques can be used to photograph the sedimentary layers, cracks and crevices of the mountain’s characteristics. Watch the angles of lines when working with cracks and layers in stone to keep them at pleasing angles in the viewfinder, either parallel or on the diagonal to the edges of the frame. Look for repeating patterns in the gravel and crushed rocks. Look closely and you can find mountain images in the mountains with the repeating and echoing patterns.
While the geological formations are fascinating and make excellent subjects for photographing the natural history of a mountainous area, take time to leave the analyst behind and become an artist. Look for echos in the shapes and patterns that repeat themselves between the background and foreground. Look for fascinating patterns and shapes, recognizable subjects and abstracts that attract your attention. Patterns can be found in the lines and designs, cracks and crevices, and also in the shifts of color. Lichens add colors to the rocks and are part of the story of the mountains and their exposure to the weather. Common mountain patterns feature S-curves, strong vertical and horizontal lines, jagged edges, triangle and pyramidal shapes, branching, and fractals. Learning to recognize the patterns in nature will help you find even more compositional opportunities within the mountains.
Light on the mountains is something very special. Mountains that are quite high will catch the first and last rays of sun long before or after the surrounding landscape, so the last light of the day will strike the top of the mountain just as the sun disappears over the horizon. This is the time when the sunlight travels the greatest possible distance through the atmosphere, losing all the blues due to scattering as it passes through. What is left is a red or pink color that can turn the glaciers and peaks a wonderful glowing red color called “alpenglow”.
It usually lasts a few seconds to a minute before it fades and disappears. Don’t give up when you see the sun has set because the best part of the show may come a few minutes later. When you see a sunset, not only watch the sun go down, but turn around and see what is being lit by the sun. That quite often will be the much more exciting picture.
Weather creates dramatic light in the mountains, often different from what is seen below in the valleys. Mountains create their own weather, changing minute by minute. Storm light, dramatic storm clouds, crepuscular rays, and fog can all be found in the mountains. Photograph through snow and rain as they act as a giant diffusion filter, softening the effects.
Look for a vantage point where you can see a series of ridges, one behind the other, usually early in the morning or late in the day, the farther ridges will be a lighter color because of the haze over the longer distance. Photograph them with a medium to long focal length lens to fill the frame with the layer patterns of mountains. The telephoto lens compresses the perspective and makes them appear closer together.
If you are in a place where you don’t have that vantage point or you don’t have layers of ridges, you can fake it with double or triple exposures, adding a sense of drama. This works particularly well with silhouettes. A sunset sky and the jagged black silhouetted mountain stack up in the frame. Pay attention to the profile of each exposure so the second or even third exposure complements the first. The viewer will see all the layers at once but you have to remember while you’re composing.
Clouds and fog add an interesting dimension to your images of mountains. They can act as separators between mountains and ranges of ridges. If the mountains are all monochromatic, the nearest ridges fade and disappear against the farther ridges. Fog or clouds that sit in the valleys between the mountains separate the layers and add some visual interest to the photograph.
Look for opportunities to photograph the sun as it peeks above or drops behind a mountain. The burst of light at that instant is magical. The mountain itself becomes a silhouette, and the sun makes a star burst that can turn an ordinary afternoon into a special photographic memory.
Climb Every Mountain…
Mountains have winding roads, tunnels, rivers, waterfalls, streams, and a diverse climate and plant life range as you pass through the different altitudes. Make it a habit to keep your eyes open as you drive or hike, and stop often to look around to see what’s in view. The profiles and outlines of the mountains capture the drama of the erosion that they have undergone. Mountains can be photographed by themselves or in combination with other things. Explore their history and delight in their revelations. Most of all, photograph them well.