Capturing the Blue Ridge: An Instagram Photo Tutorial

Melina Coogan
Made Possible by
Curated by

When I moved to Asheville, NC after more than a decade in the Pacific Northwest, I found myself struggling to take bright and enticing photos with my phone. I was lost without the sharp lines of the Cascades and the vast open space of the Puget Sound. The Blue Ridge is a place of astonishing beauty, but its features are more subtle and ethereal than the Western landscape. My Instagram feed became a blur of green, loosely structured shots that did little to capture the allure of my new home.

As I slowly grew familiar with the environment, became aware of the moods and colors of each different season, hiked to grassy balds for the first time, and discovered new editing apps, my photo stream sprang back to life. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you capture the essence of Western Carolina in the springtime.

1. Explore your tool box

Afterlight , PicTapGo , and VSCOcam are all great options for fine tuning and filtering your pictures. They offer many more options for editing and effects than you will find on Instagram. Snapseed allows you to zoom in and edit the very fine details within a picture. All of these apps are free. As you explore your tools, you may find yourself returning to the same set of filters or exposure settings; this will give your feed a cohesive and intentional feel.

2. Explore the Forests

Spring is about bright colors and ample light. The half-formed canopy of filmy young leaves allows plenty of sunlight into the vine-twisted forests of Bent Creek, Richmond Hill, and the verdant Hickory Nut Gorge Wilderness, illuminating a thousand different shades of green. There are a few simple tricks that will help you to capture this resplendent landscape.

Melina Coogan

To begin with, activate HDR (high dynamic range) mode on your camera. Each time you take a picture, your camera will automatically fire off two: one that underexposes the shot and one that overexposes the shot. It then combines them into a single image where a full range of light is visible.

Melina Coogan

Shooting your photos during the 'golden hours' of early morning and early evening will help you to convey the soft, buoyant nature of the season. The slanted sunlight will gently brighten the forest, creating an image that seems to glow. You can enhance this effect by increasing the saturation and exposure dials, or choosing a filter that adds a layer of clean light, such as Coral by Afterlight, or Valencia by Instagram.

Keep  in mind that while the scenery may be breathtaking in real life, landscape photography often falls flat on a phone camera. I don't even bother to upload scenery shots onto Instagram, as they receive so little attention. Add some pop to the landscape by introducing one single subject into the frame. This will create depth, allowing the eye to anchor into the foreground as the many greens melt into a vibrant background. Avoid placing your subject directly in the middle of the frame.

Melina Coogan

Your subject can be something within the environment itself, as long as it gives the photograph an obvious focal point. In this case, get as close as possible to your subject and double tap the screen to help bring it into focus. Make it obvious . Remember, if there is nothing in the picture to grab the viewer's attention, they will just keep scrolling through their feed until they find a picture that does.

Melina Coogan

3. Explore Mountain Balds

Mountain balds are the Appalachian's gift to photographers. Depending on your angle, your frame can include endless mountain views, or a clean horizon line and empty space, against which any subject will spark.

To eliminate all background noise, shoot from a low angle. I really mean it: lie down on your stomach and point your camera upwards, filling the frame with sky. Increase the contrast dial and choose a bold, bright filter such as Lights Out by PicTapGo to help your subject pop.

Melina Coogan

For a softer look, shoot from a high or midrange angle. This will capture the rolling mountains as they soften and fade in the background. I took this shot on the absurdly photogenic Art Loeb trail , and added the gold tinged Crown  filter by Afterlight. When compared to the picture above, it demonstrates just what a dynamic template mountain balds can be.

Melina Coogan

Balds present the perfect opportunity to play with silhouettes. Phone cameras do a remarkable job of capturing these types of images. You will get the best results right around sunset, when the light is fading but the sky is still luminous. I recommend Black Balsam Knob  and Max Patch ; both are a quick jaunt from the car, so you won't have a long hike out in the dark.

To achieve the silhouette effect, tap the screen to focus on the sky in the background. The camera will adjust its light meter to the brightest portion of the photo. Your picture will automatically underexpose, rendering any subject in the foreground black. In the editing stage, increase the color saturation will deepen the background hue for an even bolder effect.

Silhouettes Melina Coogan

This photo was taken in the evening on the summit of Black Balsam Knob. Because of the scattered cloud cover and late hour, there was not enough ambient light to fully capture the vivid blue mountains rolling off in the distance. Increasing the brightness and exposure only made the photo look washed out. When you're shooting outside with low light, experiment with filters that deliberately mute colors. The High Five filter from PicTapGo is my favorite: it adds a faded, retro tone to the picture.

Melina Coogan

4. Explore in the Rain

We get our fair share of April showers here in Asheville, which is a real bonus from a photography standpoint. Rain brings a coveted moodiness to a landscape: grey skies make for striking contrast, water droplets pearl on flower petals. Next time the clouds gather, grab your phone, throw it inside a plastic zip-lock bag, and hit the trails. You'll probably be the only one out there.

To enhance the rich colors of a rain darkened landscape, use a jewel-toned filter such as  Marine  by Afterlight. Gently lowering the contrast and sharpness dials will create an ethereal, water-blurred effect.

Pay attention to all the dazzling details of a dripping forest: beaded cobwebs, reflections in a standing puddle, bright umbrellas. When shooting rain drops, remember to get as close as possible. Zooming in on a phone camera does nothing but reduce image quality. When you edit the shot, gently increase the sharpness to make every bead of water stand out.

5. Explore the Details

Melina Coogan

Everywhere you look in Asheville, you will find a colorful reminder of spring. Sugar on Snow Gelato returns to the Farmers Markets, High Five Coffee Bar  is serving iced lattes, and thousands of tulips bloom inside the Biltmore Estate's walled garden. Sunshine streams through amber ale in the outside courtyard of Burial Brewery, and the single track in Bent Creek is rich and red with mud. Observing the small things will help you to capture the full spectrum of this sweet and elusive season before it gives way to the full blaze of summer.

Last Updated:

Next Up


Gearing Up for Cycling Season With the Elephant Rock Ride