Hills always attract me. Even more so, when the distant snow-covered peaks are visible. Every winter, these glimmering white peaks become my favorite subject for photography. Different peaks, different weather conditions, varying times of the day… these peaks are very dynamic! Every day presents a new subject.
(Is that an early morning snow storm on the peak that I just captured?)
A friend of mine asked me, why I always end up photographing these peaks from a distance and never venture out to them. Well, that is a job for more enthusiastic people. I prefer the comfort of my home, venturing out to photograph only to return back to my home again. If these snow-covered peaks were my calling, I would have been a trekker, maybe even a mountaineer, but I am not. I am a photographer who is intensely impressed by the beauty of these peaks but who prefers to admire them from a safe distance.
Driving on the winding roads of these foothills, I keep witnessing these landscapes every now and then… landscapes asking to be photographed. My frequent trips to Maini’s Hill Cottages, a homestay run by my family, ensures that I get to photograph these peaks very so often. Apart from the cottages, I also have to travel to Almora and a few other neighboring towns. Every place provides a different kind of look.
Lots of thoughts cross my mind when I photograph these peaks. Usually, I am alone on these trips. Quietly setting up my camera, while the chilled breeze hits my face… that’s a feeling to be experienced.
The other day, a friend accompanied me with his mobile camera. Unfortunately, mobile phone cameras use too wide a lens and so not good for such photographs. Well, I did not want to disappoint him and so handed him over my second camera body… and along with that a flurry of instructions which I am not too sure that he understood. I am writing them down here just in case he happens to read this article.
(Sunrise on hills – during early autumn, photographed from Maini’s Hill Cottages)
Most landscapes with snow-capped hills look good to the eyes but while capturing, these hills have very little contrast. If you observe the histogram of such exposures. all the data is concentrated in a very small region. This requires to be corrected in post-processing. This correction brings forth various artifacts also. So, the first thing to do is to shift to the lowest ISO. I use 100 ISO for most of my such photographs.
Next obviously is the exposure. Expose a little to the right of histogram. This apparently reduces the noise further.
For landscapes which feature a foreground too, there are chances of either the hills getting over-exposed or the foreground getting under-exposed. Present-day photographers recommend exposure bracketing and creating a HDR. I am old school and so I still prefer using an actual graduated ND filter for the hills. My favorites are square filters which can also be moved up and down. (Neutral Density Filters).
Use a shutter speed which is more than the inverse of focal length or more than 1/focal length. This reduces camera shake. With digital images, mild camera shake can show up as a soft image. You don’t want that, do you? Keep the camera as steady as possible. (Camera Shake – How to avoid it?)
Use a medium aperture. Too wide an aperture may not give the required depth of field especially if foreground is included. A very small aperture may cause softening of the image due to diffraction effects. Mid-range aperture also brings out the best of the lens.
Click raw and post-process. You’ll thank me for this if you are still not clicking raw.
(Early morning on Trishul, when the first few rays of golden sunlight lit up the peak)
The hills are far off but they are spread wide across. Ideally, a wide panorama is what would do them justice, provided the panorama is then printed as a large-sized print. Anything less will surely undermine their grandeur and beauty.
Two simple ways to great panoramas are – either to capture in a normal to wide-angle lens and then crop the top and bottom; Or, capture multiple images and stitch them together.
Cropping obviously leads to a drop in quality but for use on the web or sharing with friends, this option is fine. Even printing for use in albums is fine with this method but for anything more serious or quality-oriented, stitching images is the way to go.
For good results using stitching, some basic things have to kept in mind while capturing images. Use a short telephoto lens. Click raw! Set the focus, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO manually. Don’t change anything across shots that are meant to be used for creating a panorama. Yes, don’t even change the shutter speed (for those wondering why, apart from the obvious change in exposure, it also impacts the quality of images. We can discuss this aspect in person). Mount the camera on a tripod and start capturing the images. Move to left or right for every subsequent image while keeping at least 1/3 frame common (overlapping). Capture multiple shots quickly. It doesn’t matter if there is a minor change in the amount of overlap. What is important is to capture when the scene has not changed much. On hills, this is the challenge. With every passing moment, especially during sunrise or sunset, the light changes very quickly. For those of you seriously considering going into panorama shooting, borrow a panorama head from someone you know and give that a try too.
For processing the constituent images, I use Affinity Photo nowadays (Affinity Photo – Rocks!). The process is simple. I just have to launch the program and use the keyboard shortcut – Ctrl+Alt+Shift+P and a screen pops up. This lets me choose which images to use for creating the panoramas. Once the panorama is created, a little cloning or healing is usually required.
(This was created using three raw images captured hand-held using Zeiss 135mm lens on Nikon full-frame body, stitched using Affinity Photo)
Here is the link to this file if you want to download a larger size – Snow-peak Pano under CC Attribution 4.0 License
Going beyond snap-shots
Capturing what is in front is easy. The beauty of these peaks makes each photograph a keeper. However, for making a difference, the photographs have to be something more than just a snap-shot.
Some amount of foreground adds depth to the images. I try to include the dark hills too in the foreground. These being dark do not over-power the main element, the snow-covered mountain peaks, but still, make the image impactful. I find the clouds also quite interesting. Peaks appearing above the clouds can be mesmerizing. They also add depth to the image.
(This square format image was used on my Instagram account. Nanda Devi peak with clouds and a foreground in silhouette)
My favorite snow-peak photos were created in the early morning hours or late evening hours. Sometimes long after the sun had set! Timing is as important in photographing these mountain peaks as with any other landscape photographs. These hours when the sun is at an angle, the mountains appear to have character. Their peaks look beautiful and the colors sometimes out of this world!
(View of the hills from Maini’s Hill Cottages – these psychedelic colors were actually there on one fine evening. Some more time and they would turn deeper in shade.)
Every time when I drive to the hills, it fills me up with excitement. However every time, I also have to travel back to the plains. Sometimes on the same day and sometimes after spending a few days in the hills itself. When I time my return correctly, even the journey back becomes interesting.
Many a time, I have witnesses Alpenglow or the phenomenon where reflected light lights up the peaks. The peaks turn pink to deep orange. This is also fun to observe and photograph.
(The pink-orange peaks in the late evening. Notice the houses on the left side of the foreground, they have their lights also on)
What I am planning to photograph next is these mountains during night time when the moon is almost full. The white peaks appear grand against the dark sky. Now on one of my forthcoming trips, I’ll do this. The challenge would be to stay out at night when the temperature goes below zero and capture these beauties. If you want to accompany me, just let me know. We can plan a trip and carry some hot coffee in a flask.