Landscape Photography in Spain - Garganta del Cares

Landscape Photography in Spain – Picos de Europa (Part Two)

My epic week of landscape photography in Spain at the Picos de Europa began here at dawn in the 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi) deep Cares Gorge (Garganta del Cares). Check out Part One, Photographing the Picos de Europa for the no less spectacular Refugio Collado Hermosa and Refugio Cabana Veronica where we shared epic sunsets and incredible cloud inversions with eagles, vultures and deer, miles from any human interference.

Garganta del Cares

We (Richard Hartley and Kiersten Hartley-Rowland from Spanish Highs) set off before dawn to Garganta del Cares with the intention of photographing the day breaking on the mountain tops. Naturally things didn’t go quite according to plan, but I did get to take the image above and there are a few photography tips associated with this particular image.

The Difference Planning makes to a Photograph

The photograph above was not a reaction to the scenery we found ourselves in. When we arrived at the location, it was pitch dark and we could only dimly make out the gorge and the surrounding mountains.

I wanted to create a picture about scale, that showed the immensity of the gorge, without simply showing the mountains.

I knew that the Sun would rise behind us and I guessed that the spur would cast a shadow across the gorge before the Sun rose too high in the sky. It seemed to me that the shot would be about scale, and feature a person, the spur and the shadow, it was a matter of choosing the best vantage point from which to shoot and thinking about camera settings.

The camera settings were as follows. 118mm, f/7.1, ISO 500, 1/1000sec

The thinking behind the settings

I wanted the photograph to be as sharp as possible, so f/7.1 is in the zone of most sharpness for the 70-200mm lens I was using. I didn’t need the cliff face to be totally sharp, because the cliff face is the thing that drives home the point about scale. I wanted the spur and Kiersten to be spot on. I needed to push the ISO to 500 to enable the shutter speed.

Choosing the Focal Point

The rule of thumb for focusing says that roughly 1/3 of the area in front of the focal point is in sharp focus, and 2/3 behind. I was about 100m from the spur and the cliff face was another 100m behind. If I focused on Kiersten, or the spur, the cliff face would be in sharp focus. which I did not need.

I use back button focus for precisely this reason, this involves reprogramming the focus process to sever the link between focusing and the shutter release. Tying focusing to a button at the back of the camera allows me to preset the focus, before I press the shutter release. Using manual focus would achieve this too, but I find back button focus allows me to benefit from the camera’s excellent autofocus, while second guessing the area that will be in focus in the image.

What I did was set the focus, using a rock that was around 50m away from the camera. It doesn’t appear in the image, I simply used it to set the focus, knowing that this would throw the background slightly out of focus using the 1/3, 2/3 rule.

This method relies on estimation but the margin of acceptable error is sufficiently large for it not to be an issue. If my estimate is off by a metre, shooting something 100 metres away, it isn’t going to make a critical difference.

Using a Tripod

Whenever I use a long lens in landscape photography, I also use a tripod. Even at 1/1000 of a second, the slightest vibration can make an image less sharp than it should be and with long lenses shooting distant objects the effect of any movement in the lens is magnified massively.

I use a Feisol CT 3442 tripod with no centre column. Centre Columns introduce movement, for the benefit of height. The Feisol tripod extends to 1.5 metres, not including the levelling base and the panoramic head that I use. As I am around 1.8 metres tall, I can use this tripod without bending, which saves my back!


I took several different compositions – one in landscape orientation and others shifting the focal point to different points in the frame. I do this to give myself choice in post processing. I’ve learned that on the day I may get carried away with the image I think is right, only to find it’s not as good as I thought when I get back to the computer. On this occasion I got it right.


The processing of this picture was actually very simple. The natural curve on the shadow made the background look like a planet. Deepening that shadow using the Tone Curve emphasised the point about scale that I was trying to make. This gorge is nearly a mile deep, the sense of scale in real life is incredible and that was the story I tried to tell.

I warmed up the rocks and cooled down the shadows using the Color Grading Panel in Adobe Lightroom. Saturated Kiersten’s jacket and altered the hue to make it stand out more using the HSL Tools.

Other Views including Sotres to Tielve

Cares Gorge

Abandoned Finca

On my hikes, I’m constantly amazed at the ruined buildings, built so far from human contact. I understand many of them started life as shepherd’s shelters, but this one, perched on the edge of a drop of several hundred feet seems more ambitious.

What a place to live for a writer or artist, but how gruelling would that have been for a farmer? the effort taken to build this homestead must have been immense.

Sotres to Tielve

On the second day, we found our planned route was closed, so we improvised, walking from Sotres to Tielve through much greener pastures.

These villages have a strong Alpine feel being surrounded by meadows and greenery.

Landscape Photography in Spain – The Picos de Europa

I have to say the Picos de Europa trip is well worth doing for any landscape photographer looking at Spain for inspiration.. There are many other routes to follow in the Picos and I will be returning. Coming from the blasted south at the end of summer I was surprised to find so much greenery, the landscape is softer apart from the mountains which almost defy description.

In 2024 I will be running photography workshops in Andalucia focusing on the Alpujarras and Sierra Nevada. I plan to publish details as they are finalised, but if you sign up for my mailing list below, you’ll get regular updates on the workshops as they become live and other exclusive content related to my Introduction to Landscape Photography Course which will be live next month.


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