Making Mountains Memorable

By Patrick Aalto

For thousands of years, mountains have captured our attention with their size and grandeur and inspired artists with their striking lines and patterns. Mountains are timeless and unchanging, at least by human perception. They often create their own weather, while at the same time shielding vast areas from winter storms.  The Cascade Range of Washington and Oregon, bestowed with hundreds of mountain peaks, is a stunning example of the beauty and inspiration we can find in the mountains.  Mount St. Helens holds a special allure as a place to witness what the land can do to rebuild itself.  

Creating stunning images of mountains can sometimes be easy; they do all the work by being beautiful and we have only to be there and press the camera’s shutter button.  More often, though, the images we create fall short of truly capturing the color, power, scale, and depth that inspired us to raise our camera to our eye. The good news is that there are techniques to be practiced which can elevate your photographs from mere snapshots to captivating works of art. 

The first thing to consider is the sheer size of mountains and mountain peaks.   Picture this (pun intended): if you have your toes against a building, it is nearly impossible to see the entire thing.  Similarly, if you have stood on the summit of Mount St. Helens, you might have noticed that it is difficult to take a picture of Mount St. Helens.  The same is true of all mountains, the most striking images are not always taken when standing on the mountain.  The further you move away from a peak, however, the size and scale begins to diminish. There is a sweet spot, a distance which maintains size and scale while still allowing detail and a clear subject.  Luckily, the peaks of the Cascades allow us to hike and sometimes drive, directly onto their flanks and buttresses.  This is where truly magical images can often be created.  

Being close to a mountain, and trying to fill the camera’s view-finder with subjects might mean that a wider-angle lens is needed.  Many newer smartphones have cameras with wide-angle lenses or perspectives built within.  For most camera lenses, the term “wide-angle” refers to sizes ranging from 10mm (super wide) to 35mm.  These allow for a wide perspective which can encompass an entire peak and may include a foreground subject like flowers or a river.  Dramatic skies swirling around a peak are also easily included when using a wide perspective.  

Telephoto lenses play an important role when photographing mountains.  As a way of bringing the mountain to you, getting a tight visual perspective of a peak is a great way to emphasize texture, patterns, shadow, and light.  Dramatic photographs of the interplay of mountain and sky can be created by zooming in from far away to eliminate distracting foreground elements.  

Powerful images can be made any time of the day.  It is true that the light and sky around sunrise and sunset are often the most powerful and filled with color and drama.  A crimson sky with a sharp-angled mountain peak silhouetted against it is stunning in its simplicity.  Near the beginning or the end of the day, the light also has a warm look to it, allowing the landscape to be awash in a rich red glow.  Midday can be great for photographing the contrast between a white snow-capped mountain and a clear deep-blue sky.  This is also the time of day when most people are out hiking and exploring.  

From nearly everywhere in the Pacific Northwest, mountains and volcanic peaks can be seen.  Access to seeing mountains can happen from within many metropolitan areas, or if you have the ability to drive, nearly all are approachable by vehicle.  Regardless of your mobility, you can watch and photograph mountains from almost anywhere in Washington and Oregon.  Any camera can be used, from phone cameras to point-and-shoot cameras to Digital SLR’s.  Mountains are incredible and inspiring subjects for everyone to photograph.  Consider some of the points written here to help you create more captivating images of Mount St. Helens and beyond.