10 tips for photographing the Mont St. Michel

Wide-angle photo of Mont St. Michel at dusk (blue hour) with a small boat in the foreground

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:

Mont St. Michel during golden hour with a rowing boat in the foreground

The estuary is also worth shooting while you’re there:

Sunset over the mudflats of the Couesnon estuary by the Mont St. Michel

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:

Wide-angle shot of Mont St. Michel as night approaches

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:

Mont St. Michel at dawn with delivery vans parked outside

Quite a while with the clone stamp and other tools in Photoshop successfully removed them:

Mont St. Michel at dawn with a pretty pink sky

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:

Mont St. Michel glowing gold in the early morning sun

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:

The narrow, cobbled main street on the Mont St. Michel

Here’s a view from the ramparts:

The ramparts on Mont St. Michel in early-morning sunshine

And this is the post office just inside the main gate:

The post office on Mont St. Michel with beautiful timbered buildings opposite

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:

Wide-angle photo of Mont St. Michel at dusk (blue hour) with a small boat in the foreground

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:

Wide-angle close up shot of the Mont St. Michel

From further back along the bridge, my 24-105mm F4 L worked fine:

Mont St. Michel at sunrise casts reflections in the estuary that surrounds it

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:

Black and white image of the Mont St.Michel at dawn, with delivery trucks near its entrance

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:

A Mont St. Michel shuttle bus (navette) on the approach road 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.