How to photograph a mountain sky

Who amongst us hasn’t stood in awe, gazing admiringly at a mountain sky? At dawn, when the sky lights up, during the day when the clouds caress the mountain tops, at sunset when adorned in pink, or at night, cloaked in a thousand stars. But when you get out your camera, it’s difficult to capture the beauty of these magnificent landscapes. We met Eric Courcier, a mountain guide and photographer, who showed us his work and offered advice so that you too can successfully take photos of mountains skies. 

Eric Courcier is anything but a beginner. For 15 years, he’s been capturing the beauty of the landscapes he’s encountered. The mountain sky, with no close sources of light, is exceptional; the sky takes on a new aspect, often displaying magical colours. As an astronomy enthusiast, the starry skies remain an endless source of inspiration for him. Eric works with a type of reflex camera and lenses ranging in size from 12 to 300mm.

ciel de montagne quechua - eric courcier

Sunrises and sunsets

The light is softest at dawn and the end of the day, so you can make the most of the beautiful atmosphere. The low-angled light emphasizes the contours of the landscape. As far as possible, you should avoid the hours in the middle of the day when the light is harsh with very high contrast, which is not conducive to taking beautiful picture. In general, I expose for the highlights (to avoid “burning out” the white) and I often use the exposure compensation button (+/- icon) on camera. This device allows you to recover the details from the shadows or highlights depending on whether you use positive or negative compensation.

The most important thing is to use your camera’s RAW image quality setting. This mode gives you the raw image captured by the sensor and allows you to correct certain exposure errors, something you can’t do with JPEG.

A graduated filter may be useful – even essential – if the contrast between the foreground and background is too stark. You can always fill in some of the gaps post-production but you’ll always get the best results at the actual time of shooting.

 ciel de montagne quechua - eric courcier

Experimenting with clouds

A clear blue sky is beautiful but often the presence of some clouds can add to the atmosphere and produce a totally different picture. Using a ND (Neutral Density) filter will allow you to use lower shutter speeds by reducing the amount of light that enters the lens and, therefore, the sensor. These low speeds will produce a blurred cloud effect, if the clouds are moving. This type of filter is most often used to blur the movement of a stream or waterfall while keeping the white balance.

Don’t be afraid of experimenting with clouds and construct your picture around them. A mountain with a distinctive cloud nearby generally creates a lovely effect.

For a more classic composition, pay attention to the contrast between the clouds and the ground; don’t worry about a bit of under-exposure; it’s always easier to recover shadow details than details from white areas.

ciel de montagne quechua - eric courcier

Starry skies

There’s no need for fancy equipment to capture a starry sky; a recent, entry-level reflex camera will give good results when used with the right settings. Some compact, or so-called “expert” cameras or hybrid cameras can also be fun but offer fewer possibilities. A luminous object will be an invaluable aid when taking a photo at night.

Don’t forget that the earth rotates which means that the stars move in the sky.

If you over-expose, the perfect little white dots that you wanted to capture will appear as lines. This is all the more true if the focal point is a long way away. A wide angle lens allows for longer exposures than a teleobjective lens.

If you want to take long exposures without star trails, you need to use astronomical equipment, in particular a motorized equatorial mount which rotates in the opposite direction of the earth, meaning that stars don’t move across the field of view.

To shoot the famous circular star trails, direct your camera at the Northern star in the Northern hemisphere or the Southern Cross in the southern hemisphere, around which all the stars orbit. The ideal would be to accumulate exposures of 2-5 minutes with the shortest possible time interval between exposures and then stack the images using a specialist software programme.

ciel de montagne quechua - eric courcier

6 steps to capture stars on film

– 1: select your focal point and frame the desired image.

– 2: focus on a star or bright planet but if none is visible, choose the source of artificial light that is furthest from you.

– 3: turn off the autofocus and, above all, avoid touching the zoom now.

– 4: adjust the white balance (WB for White Balance on the camera) in manual mode, to between 2600 and 4500°K, to reduce the effects of light pollution from surrounding towns as much as possible. If you’re using automatic mode, your picture will be all yellowy-orangey which is not the effect you’re after when taking night photos. Make sure you don’t set the white balance control too low otherwise the picture will have too much blue.

– 5: frame the image

– 6: release the shutter using a cable release to avoid vibrations. If you don’t have one of these, you can set the camera’s self-timer to 2 or 10 seconds, depending on your preference.

And of course, to do all this, you need to use a tripod to avoid the risk of motion blur.

Some sort of planetarium software will be useful to help predict the rise and set times for the moon or a particular constellation so you can better plan your evening and viewing spot.

Stellarium is free and I regularly use it before taking photos.

Available on smartphones: Carte du ciel, Google Skymap and even Skeye give good results but you may end up having to pay, depending on your operating system or the options chosen.

ciel de montagne quechua - eric courcier

So now it’s over to you; capture your dream landscapes, where the sky meets the earth.

Submit your most beautiful photo on the theme of “Mountain skies”. Send us your photo and try to win a complete range of hiking equipment: shoes, clic hiking kit, jacket, backpack – you’ll be fully equipped, from head to toe!



Find more informations about Eric Courcier’s work on his website

Find this article on the new magazine Hiking on the Moon #9, “BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH”


Crédits Photos : Eric Courcier



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