Mountains are a major attraction for photographers. We usually tend to shoot them from below, using their profile against the sky as the appeal of the image, but shooting from the top often provides a much more dramatic image.
Here on the isle of Skye we are fortunate to have the UK’s most dramatic mountain range - the Black Cuillin. This is where British mountaineers who plan to climb Everest or any of the other iconic mountains of the world come to hone their skills. They are the remains on a long-extinct volcano and rise almost a kilometre straight out of the sea. They are not the tallest mountains in the world, but when you climb them, you climb every single metre of their stated height, as you start from sea level. I have a cousin who lives in Colorado who was boasting how she had climbed a 14,000ft peak. It turns out the trail starts at 11,500ft, so the gain is only 2,500ft - shorter than the Black Cuillin of Skye.
On the subject of the Cuillin, there is only one area called the Cuillin, so it cannot be pluralised. If you ever see anyone referring to “The Cuillins” they don’t have very good knowledge of the place. There is however the Black Cuillin and the Red Cuillin, each with their different geology and appearance. The Reds are smooth and rounded and generally top out around 800m. The Blacks are gnarly and jagged and top out at just a few metres shy of 1km.
Taking advantage of the current good weather we are having here in the Hebrides, myself and team member Harry decided to take a visit to the Black Cuillin Ridge for a sunrise photography session. The problem with this is that sunrise is currently 4.40am, which meant we needed to be in location by shortly after 4am if we wanted to take advantage of a colourful dawn sky, should there be one. There is no easy way up to the ridge, just different levels of demanding routes. The quickest takes around 3 hours for someone of reasonable fitness, so anyone with a PhD in mathematics will tell you that we needed to start our ascent by 1am. This meant setting the alarm for 00:15 as it is a 30 minute drive from where we are based. I don’t think I’ve ever set an alarm for an earlier time!
When you need to hike over an hour to a location, especially if it involves gaining lots of altitude, then you want to make sure you are only carrying the essential items. We had decided to take only two lenses each - a wide angle zoom and a telephoto zoom. I had opted for my 16-35mm f/4, and my 70-200mm f/4, both of which are very light in weight. The only other things I planned to have in my bag were a camera body, a couple of filters, walkie talkies, head torch, spare battery, food and 1 litre of water. A litre of water is nowhere near enough for what was likely to be at least 8 hours in the mountains, but I know the area well and know where I can fill up along the way. Water is heavy so you don’t want to be carrying surplus amounts, but at the same time it can be life saving, so you need to make sure you have ample supplies.
I had received a new camera bag the day before (camera bag review in the pipeline), so had been customising it to fit most of my lenses and other equipment. As we left in the morning, I was still half asleep and was only concentrating on making sure I remembered to take my food out of the fridge and into the spare compartments I had created in my bag.
Upon arriving in the car park, the good news was that there was an almost full moon high in the sky, providing enough light to see without the need for a torch. I considered leaving mine behind to save a few grams of weight, but I could see that we would be walking into shadow areas so took it just in case these were too dark to see without assistance. At this time of year on Skye it never gets close to being truly dark. Even at 1am there is a twilight glow on the northern horizon. If the skies are clear, this is often enough in itself to be able to see by, but the addition of the moon made it even easier.
Climbing with someone always helps take your mind off the task ahead, as you can distract yourselves with meaningless conversation. Topics covered as we gained altitude were naked calendars, pork pies, underwear, tweed (although thankfully not associated with underwear!), and the theory of relativity and gravity. The pork pie conversation is relevant and probably worth reciting. I was told by a mountaineering friend that a pork pie is the best food you can have in your bag when heading for the mountains. Weight per calories, it packs more energy than a chocolate bar and releases its energy over a longer period of time. It also has other potential uses but I could only remember one at the time. The jelly and fat surrounding the meat inside can be used to prevent chaffing. Simply rub on the affected area and voila! You might smell like a sweating pig, but at least you aren’t being eaten by your clothing.
Before we knew it, we were over half way up. Occasionally turning to look towards the northern horizon, we could see the band of deep orange and blue twilight getting gradually brighter as the sun started edging its way closer to the horizon. We were making good progress so afforded ourselves a 10 minute break for breakfast about 300m shy of the ridge line. Sitting on a rock at 3am eating homemade mushroom and onion pate sandwiches (I know!) whilst watching the approaching dawn evolve, compensated us at least partly, for the 90 minutes of sleep we’d each had.
Our approach to the ridge meant the eastern horizon had been obscured from our view for about 30 minutes, so as we crested the lowest point of the ridge we were greeted with our first view of where the sun would be rising. It wasn’t difficult to see where it was going to be, as a stunning bright crepuscular ray was shining directly up from below the horizon. We stopped briefly to get some shots before heading further up to our chosen viewpoint.
A crepuscular ray indicates the position of the sun below the horizon - useful for composition purposes to know where to set up
Upon opening my bag I realised that I still had all my lenses inside from the previous evening when I was customising it to fit all my gear. This included a couple of super heavy Sigma lenses which I would never have chosen to carry up a mountain. For some unknown reason, Harry thought this was amusing.
Shooting into the sun creates a couple of potential challenges. The first is contrast. All cameras have a range of luminance over which they can record detail. Regardless of what tone a subject actually is, once it reaches the lower end of the camera’s latitude range it will be rendered as black. If you make the exposure darker, areas which are already black won’t become darker as they are already black and there is nothing darker than black. The same subject can also be rendered as white by increasing the exposure to the point where it reaches the other end of the camera’s latitude. Increasing the exposure won’t make white areas brighter as they are already at the limit of where the camera can record detail, and there is nothing brighter than white.
There is still substantial snow deposits around the peaks. Their texture and decaying edges make for interesting shapes, contrasting well with the dark rock
When shooting into the sun you are presenting the camera with a huge range of tones which are almost certainly going to be beyond its limitations to record both highlight and shadow detail. In such situations you need to decide which end of the spectrum to sacrifice. In most situations you would choose to hold detail in the highlights and let the shadows go totally black. The key here is to look for pleasing shapes to silhouette, and being among mountains usually offers plenty of such subjects.
The sun rising above the distant mountains of Torridon on the mainland, with the jet black Red Cuillin peaks of Glamaig in the foreground
The second challenge when shooting into the light is flare. Some lenses deal with this better than others and it is good to know which ones perform better in this regard so you can reduce the effect of flaring ruining your shots. Flare is caused by excess light bouncing around between the various lens elements and is often seen as colourful hexagon-type shapes. The further from the centre of the frame you position the sun, the more noticeable they will be. You can use this to your advantage by trying to find compositions where you are able to keep the sun in the centre of the frame, but ultimately you don’t want this alone to influence your composition.
This shot has significant flare in the lower right corner and also just below and slightly to the left of the sun
The big difference between photographing mountains from the top as opposed to the bottom is the distance you are able to see. Usually when we shoot mountains from below, they are typically the most distant subject in our scene and may only be a couple of miles away. When standing on summits your vision is often limited only by the atmosphere or curvature of the Earth (Flat Earth believers need read no further). If the air is super clear then you may be able to see for up to 100 miles, but on hazy days this may be reduced to just a few miles. Either situation is good and can be used to your advantage. If the air clarity is good, you can pick out distant compositions with a telephoto lens and still get full contrast of rich shadows and crisp highlights. If the air clarity is poor, you can use the reduced visibility to illustrate distance, as further mountain peaks will be rendered with lower contrast, which helps to separate closer peaks from more distant ones, thus creating a three dimensional feel which adds impact to the photo.
Using the haze to illustrate distance - with the closer mountains having greater contrast
Another useful tip for mountain photography is to show scale. Mountains are often void of subjects of a known size. Things like trees, buildings, etc, which provide scale to lower level landscapes are seldom seen at higher altitudes, and a photo of a mountain without anything of known size in the frame fails to illustrate the scale of the scene. A person is often a great subject to use for this purpose, as they also double up as a strong focal point - an area of the image for the viewer’s eye to settle on.
When using a person in your scene, it is essential that they are interacting with the landscape. There is little point in having them looking at the camera, as this ends up being more of an environmental portrait shot rather than a landscape shot. Get them looking towards the scene as though they are a hiker taking in the view, or a photographer capturing the view.
Meet Goldmember's son. Top tip - to create a sunburst effect like this, simply use a smaller aperture such as f/16
Another tip is to ensure they are a good distance from you as this will enhance the scale of the scene. If you place the person close to the camera, you will then need to use a wide angle lens to include them. This then makes the background mountains appear very small in relation to the person standing in the foreground and all sense of scale is lost. If you place the person a good distance from the camera you can use longer focal lengths which keep the distant mountains large in frame and create the scale you are intending. You can still use a wide angle lens when placing a person a long way from the camera, as although this makes the distant mountains appear smaller in fame, the person also appears smaller in frame, so the sense of scale is still present.
The positioning of the shadow here is as important as the positioning of the person
Another tip for placing people in your frame is to make sure they stand out well from the background. In the image above, had Harry been standing on the rocks to the right of the snow, you wouldn't have noticed him. Another way to achieve this is skyline your subject like Harry did here as I satisfied my thirst with fresh mountain spring water.
Not representing scale so much, but illustrates how to make your focal point stand out by placing them against a contrasting background
As the sun climbed higher in the sky, it was time or us to start heading down. We had got our shots and the light was only going to deteriorate as the day matured. We could see groups of hikers heading our way like a line of ants in the glen below. Being a bank holiday with great weather forecast meant that it was always going to be crowded along the ridge once the masses arrived. We however had the privilege of having an entire mountain range to ourselves as we watched a stunning sunrise. This more than justified the early alarm call.
If you like the sound of sound of shooting mountains from their summits, you may be interested in a trip which myself and Harry host for our sister company, Worldwide Explorers, to the Dolomites. We stay mostly in remote mountain refuges which puts us in the perfect locations for elevated dusk and dawn photography. Please get in touch if you would like more details.
All shots taken yesterday (May 26th) in the Black Cuillin of Skye.