loves to take their camera into the outdoors with them. For some people,
a trip to the mountains is just not the same without that through the
Stretching from horizon to horizon mountains can be an exciting
challenge to capture on film. As you travel through the mountains, it
may seem a near impossible feat to transfer the sights, sounds and
smells around you onto a two dimensional photograph. In reality, you
can accomplish this by using a few of the many tools of the photographic
trade and learning to think photographically.
One of the most difficult tasks in capturing the mountains on film is
trying to squish them into the tiny viewfinder of most cameras. Since
most of us have a limited selection of lenses often only one, we must
learn to work within these limitations. The trick is to capture tiny
vignettes of the mountain environment. Donít try to put everything in
one image. Many of the most successful photographs are those that have
been kept simple with only a few elements to compete for the eyes
attention. This is one of the toughest skills to learn as you are
surrounded by endless opportunities for great pictures. Take a few
seconds to find the one view that best describes the situation and try
to capture that scene on film. In this way you donít spend more money
on film than you spent on your entire vacation.
In years past, exposure was often a problem in the mountains. With
slide film it still can be. Generally, print film is much more
forgiving of incorrect exposure than slide film and so slight errors in
exposure will not affect the final print. Slides however, donít have
the chance to be corrected during printing and so your exposure must be
bang on. How do you solve this problem. The surest way is by
experience, but since we donít have the time to experiment we need to
find another way. If the scene is vital to your final slide show you
can try a technique known as bracketing. This means that you take a
shot at the exposure that your camera tells you is correct and then you
take two more one slightly overexposed and one slightly underexposed.
In this way one of the slides should work out perfectly. I think of it
as image insurance and generally take three frames of every image I
shoot. Even the experts make mistakes and we often only get one chance
to capture an image. Just to reiterate, with print film, most of todays
cameras can provide you with an acceptable image just by following the
Horror or horrors, you have gotten your prints back and they all look
washed out. Before you panic, take a look at your negatives. One of
the realities of most processing labs is that their equipment doesnít
think and just spits everything out according to some preset average.
In most cases, your negatives will show lots of detail in the image. In
this way if you have some shots that you really like, you can pay a few
dollars more and have them printed by a custom lab. They normally do
them by hand and can often astound you with how good they make your
photographs look. Often the difference between a great photograph and
an all right one is found in the printing.
Another very important consideration when taking photographs in the
mountains is focus. More images are ruined by incorrect focus than by
any other single element. Even most of the so called autofocus cameras
sold on the market today do require you to consciously focus the
camera. Generally there is a small spot in the centre of the viewfinder
that must be placed on the main subject. Once this is accomplished you
depress the shutter release half way and the focus is locked on that
subject. Too often people think that autofocus means point and shoot
and they are then disappointed by the results. Make sure that you
understand the inner workings of your camera.
As a quick aside, also make sure you are comfortable with removing
and loading film. Even professional photographers donít know every
camera model and so you canít depend on others to change the film for
you. Also bring along an extra battery because most of today's cameras
are little more than extra weight without good batteries.
I mentioned earlier, what you include in your photograph is as important
(if not more important) as whether it is sharp and clearly focused.
Good composition is not difficult to learn and simple guidelines have
been developed to help you improve your final images.
The most commonly referred to guideline is called the "rule of
thirds". According to this rule, it is a good idea to place the main
subject a third of the way in from one of the margins. The old practice
of putting your main subject dead centre in the image doesnít usually
give you visually exciting photographs. Moving it off centre will often
add much more impact to the image. This can be taken one step further
by placing the main subject a third of the way in from two different
margins. For instance placing the image one third of the way from the
bottom and a third of the way in from the side provides a very powerful
To move another step further look at your subject. If it is a
picture of a canoe paddling to the right, donít place it on the right
hand side of the frame. Place it a third of the way in from the left
margin. In this way the canoe is moving into the picture. When you
look at a photograph of a canoe, your eye will look at the canoe and
then unconsciously look to see where it is going. By placing the canoe
on the left of the image, the viewers eye will be directed into the rest
of the image and not out of the frame. The rule of thirds is a good
technique to help make your images much more exciting.
last main point is lighting. Too many camera manuals tell you to keep
the light to your back. Not only is this only one of a myriad of
lighting methods, itís often the most uninteresting option available.
Generally it leads to an album full of people squinting in front of flat
uninteresting scenes. Remember, shadow is what defines depth to our
eyes. If you always keep the sun to your back, you wonít see any
shadows on the mountains and they will tend to look very two
dimensional. Experiment with light coming from different directions.
For most mountains scenes the best accessory to add to your camera is
an alarm clock. The most dramatic light is usually found in the early
morning or during the last few hours of daylight. At this time the
light tends to hit the mountains at a sharp angle causing very strong
shadows. These shadows provide a strong feeling of three dimensions and
can make the difference between a nice image and a great one. Remember
you arenít taking a picture of a scene, youíre taking a picture of the
light on a scene at a particular time. You might as well try to get the
best light for recording that scene.
Also donít ignore the opportunity to shoot directly towards the sun.
This technique has many more uses than the traditional sunset shot. It
can be used to produce very graphic images as the subjects are often
recorded as dark silhouettes. Some of my favourite images were taken in
this way and are often much more interesting than the traditional front
lighting (sun at your back). One word of caution! If you are shooting
towards the sun, donít look directly at the sun through your
viewfinder. This is particularly important if you are using a telephoto
lens. The sun can cause damage to your eye, particularly when magnified
through a lens, so be cautious not to look at it directly. If Iím
including the sun in my frame, I hold my eye a short distance from the
viewfinder and I avoid looking at the sun directly.
Finally the quality of light is very important. On sunny days with
harsh shadows we call this hard lighting. This is the type of light
that is best for mountains during the early morning when the light comes
in from the side. However when you take pictures of people, often this
harsh lighting makes their eyes disappear into dark sockets and makes
every line and wrinkle jump out at you. In short it is often
unflattering for portraits.
However, on overcast days, when many people tend to put their camera
away, the much softer light often provides no shadows at all. This is
great for portraits as not only do the lines and wrinkles tend to
disappear, but colours are much more bright on overcast days. For this
reason rainy days are great for taking photographs of wildflowers as the
colours tend to jump off of the image. Generally a good guideline to
follow is: "if the sky is white crop tight". Basically this means that
if the sky is white, concentrate on portraits and close ups and try to
keep the white sky out of the image. It will generally only record as a
featureless sea of white anyway so why put it into the frame. Donít
ignore moody landscape shots during bad weather. Often the fogs that
fill the valleys can lead to very exciting images. The main secret is
to be aware of the quality of light and use it to its best advantage.
The preceding guidelines will help you to bring home much more
exciting memories of your trip to the Canadian Rockies. The rest of
this manual will be devoted to a few techniques that will be of interest
to more advanced photographers and will refer to a few of the optional
pieces of equipment that can take their photography one step further.
Donít feel that you need to continue on if youíre experience and goals
are no more than an exciting record of your trip.
are one of the most misunderstood pieces of photographic equipment. So
often people think they are used only to take pictures when there isnít
enough light to hand hold a camera. Nothing could be further from the
truth. The tripod is one of the greatest compositional aids ever used
by the photographer. As a professional I use some form of camera
support for virtually every image I shoot. By placing a camera firmly
on a tripod, it allows you to take a few extra seconds to more carefully
compose your image. How often have you carefully planned a picture only
to move slightly when you pushed the shutter and suddenly an unwanted
tree branch crept into the scene from the margin. With a tripod you
will see exactly what you are going to get in the final image and in
most cases your images will improve greatly.
Tripods also extend your creative possibilities. They do allow you
the option to use longer shutter speeds in low light or for special
effects (ie. long shutter speeds make waterfalls look much more delicate
rather than freezing the water droplets). If youíve got one, I strongly
recommend you begin to use it more often.
People often look at good photographs and wonder if filters have been
used to enhance them. In most cases one of three types of filters have
been used: polarizing filters, warming filters and split neutral density
Polarizing filters are the most commonly used filter in photographing
mountains. They are a filter that is actually rotated in front of the
lens and provides a varying effect. Generally they are used to remove
glare and darken blue skies. Since light coming into the camera lens
comes from many different directions, there is a lot of scattering.
This scattering tends to degrade the image. A polarizing filter is like
a screen that lets light enter the lens from only one direction. This
allows it to remove glare off lakes, darken blue skies and even cut
through haze on hot days. If this sounds like a miracle cure, you wonít
get any argument from most pros, however there is a cost for this cure.
First of all it costs you light. It is a fairly dark filter and so less
light gets into your camera. If it is getting late in the day, it may
force you to use an exposure too slow to hand hold your camera. This is
therefore another case where having a tripod can save the day.
The second type of filter is a warming filter. Slightly yellow or
magenta, they are used to warm the image up and give it a slightly
golden look. The effect is very subtle though and often imitates the
warm glow of morning and evening light. Also, if you are taking a
picture of someone sitting in the shade on a nice sunny day, they will
come out with a slightly bluish complexion. This is because the blue
sky tends to tint the light in the shadows. A warming filter can
counteract this effect and give them a more natural appearance.
Finally a split neutral density filter. Basically this is a filter
that is dark on top and clear on the bottom. Normally in the mountains,
you often have a situation where the mountains are very bright but the
foreground is quite a bit darker. Most slide films cannot record this
large range of light. By placing the dark part of the filter on the
mountain, the range of light in the image is reduced and often the film
will then record an image more like that viewed by the eye. The line
between light and dark in the filter should be placed along some natural
horizon and this allows it to effectively disappear. This is another
great secret weapon used by many professionals but again costs you in
light. Donít forget your tripod.
Taking photographs in the mountains is not nearly as difficult as it
may appear at first. Perhaps the most difficult aspects are focusing
your eye on small vignettes and not trying to take one photograph with
everything in it. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the
mountain environment and before you know it youíll be bringing home the
photographic bacon. Have a great Rocky Mountain adventure and donít
forget to bring along lots of film.