10 tips for photographing the Mont St. Michel
Last weekend, my wife and I enjoyed a mini-break in France. My main objective was to photograph Mont St. Michel, having been inspired by stunning images by Serge Ramelli and Scott Kelby.
I was lucky with the weather, the tides and much else besides, meaning that I too came away with great images. It’s so beautiful there that it’s hard not to do so!
I hope my images will inspire you to do likewise. To improve your chances of success, here are my tips for making the most of your visit.
1. Shoot at sunset
It’s an oft-quoted adage that landscapes always look at their best at golden hour (sunrise and sunset) but nonetheless true. Here, the last rays of evening sunshine are illuminating the west side:
The estuary is also worth shooting while you’re there:
And in the evening, there’s the added bonus that the Mont is floodlit between dusk and midnight, which makes the view even more special:
If you arrive after 7pm, parking is free (use of the shuttle bus to the Mont is also free).
2. Come back before sunrise
At this time of day, because regular tourists are either still in bed or having breakfast, you’ll have the Mont largely to yourself. Unfortunately, on the day I visited (and probably on most days), several delivery vehicles were parked near the entrance:
Quite a while with the clone stamp and other tools in Photoshop successfully removed them:
If you get a largely cloudless sky at sunrise, as I did, the rising sun will turn the buildings on the east side a lovely honey colour for half an hour or so:
Parking first thing in the morning is €4.30 for two hours, versus €6.30 for two hours after 11.30am.
3. Aim for low tide
When the sea recedes miles away, you get a real sense of the size of the estuary and a wider choice of vantage points. At high tide, you’ll get great reflections of the Mont in the water around it, but you’ll be restricted to the bridge that replaced the old causeway and the concrete apron at the end of it.
4. Choose the right time of year
I’d say that March or September, around the spring and autumn equinoxes, are the best time of year to visit and get great photos. At the height of summer, the Mont is over-run with tourists during the day and sunrise is much earlier than 7.30, when the shuttle buses start running. Conversely, in winter, while there are fewer tourists overall, they will still be around at sunset during late afternoon. The weather is also likely to be worse, with fog and damp conditions in the estuary more likely.
5. Explore the Mont while you’re there
Even though the view of it is better than the view from it, most people do go there to do just that and it’s worth climbing at least part-way. Lack of time meant I didn’t climb all the way up to the Abbey, but here’s a shot of the main street:
Here’s a view from the ramparts:
And this is the post office just inside the main gate:
6. Work the angles (a little)
If you’re wearing stout shoes, I found that it’s possible to walk out a few yards onto the mudflats on the west side of the bridge. Note that we’re talking about mud here – fine, grey, alluvial estuary mud – rather than coarse beach sand. It squelched a little bit for me, but my feet didn’t sink into it. And as luck would have it, there was a dinghy laid up on the mud, lending foreground interest to some of my shots:
7. Don’t take stupid risks
Elsewhere, the mud was deeper, wetter and more treacherous. Please heed local warnings and stay out of it. In particular, don’t be tempted to stride out into the estuary on the north side of the Mont. You don’t want to be that person the coastguard has to rescue!
8. Go wide
In terms of lens choice, this is an occasion when a wide angle is ideal. I’ve got Canon’s 17-40mm F4 L. Attached to my Canon 5D Mark ii, I found that this lens was wide enough to fit the whole of the Mont in the frame when shot from where the bridge meets the apron:
From further back along the bridge, my 24-105mm F4 L worked fine:
9. When shooting at midday
Perhaps you’re on a coach tour and can’t choose when to visit. If so, my advice would be to bring a lightweight tripod, a timer and a ND filter to blur the sky (ND 4 or 10 in strength depending on the time of year), then go black-and-white with your images in post-production for the fine-art look:
10. Stay at the Mercure
Perhaps my only regret was my choice of hotel. Having last visited the Mont nearly 20 years ago, I hadn’t realized just how much it has been redeveloped over the past few years. The old causeway, with its car park that stretched all the way into the estuary, has gone completely – replaced with a huge onshore car park from which you catch a free shuttle bus to the Mont:
There’s now a little holiday village, with hotels, restaurants and a gift shop or two, where you reached the coast. Whereas Rachel and I stayed at the Ibis near Avranches for £65, for another £10 or so, we could have stayed on-site. This would have saved me two eight-mile journeys.
Bonus tip: Time your visit to coincide with the wine fairs at major hypermarkets
Each Spring and Autumn, the likes of Auchan and E. Leclerc hold wine sales with some great offers. This for me is another good reason to visit at these times. Even with the fall in the value of sterling in the wake of the Brexit vote, their deals are still good value compared with the price of wine in English supermarkets.
Diane Bergander / March 5, 2018 /
We are planning to visit the beginning of October. Thanks you for your suggestions and comments. We are thinking of staying at the Hotel Gabriel. Any thoughts? We were going to stay on the island, but with my bad knees, all the steps would have done me in quickly. My husband can shuttle to the island and walk about, but I don’t think I can do that.
Dominic Brenton / March 5, 2018 /
My pleasure! The Hotel Gabriel looks nice; it’s situated in the pedestrianised street that leads to the Mont. You and your husband will be able to catch regular shuttles to the base of it from where you’re staying. Sunset and sunrise are the best times to shoot the Mont; at about 7.30 in the morning, your husband is likely to have the place largely to himself. That said, delivery trucks parked outside the main gate could slightly mar the view.
Vijoy / March 18, 2018 /
Great article Dominic! We will be staying there for one night, and would like to catch the sunset/sunrise/blue hour. Would you suggest staying on the Mont (e.g., Le Mouton Blanc), or close to it (e.g., the Mercure you mentioned). We will have a car.
Dominic Brenton / March 18, 2018 /
Hi Vijay, thank you very much! That’s up to you and your budget. If you stay on the Mont, you’ll need to take the shuttle bus from the car park, and the street up the hill is quite steep; there could be quite a few stone stairs to climb, too. It would certainly be an experience, and you’d be close by at dawn and dusk. I think I’d stay at the Mercure; perhaps you have more of a sense of adventure!
Ashley Boultbee / May 16, 2018 /
Great article. I am going to be there from October 8th-9th, also staying at the Hotel Gabriel, right on the days of the highest tides. I am hoping I will have times when I can also get low tide photos. The sunset and sunrise times on those days are fairly close to the high tide. Will I be somewhat limited as to photo vantage points during high tide? Also, are most of the good photo locations walking distance from my hotel? Any other tips for taking photos at high tide?
Thanks a lot for a wonderful article
Dominic Brenton / May 17, 2018 /
Hi Ashley, thanks for taking the time to comment. High tide means the Mont will be surrounded by water, so you’ll get some great reflections, especially if the skies are relatively clear. You might be restricted to the causeway bridge but, even so, you should get some nice shots from there. The little shuttle buses run frequently and are the easiest way to get from your hotel down to the Mont. Other tips? Bring a tripod and an ND filter (if you’re using a DSLR or similar) so you can blur cloud and use small apertures to get light stars at dusk, And finally, don’t spend the whole time staring down your viewfinder: just be present and enjoy being there!
Bilal / July 24, 2019 /
Would the shuttles run from the Mercure before sunrise, or am I better off driving. I am thinking of going in late Septrember.