Sella was born in Biella in the foothills of the Alps and acquired his interest in Alpinism from his uncle, Quintino Sella. He made a number of significant climbs in the Alps, including the first winter ascents of the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa, and the first winter traverse of Mont Blanc. He took part in several expeditions further afield, including three to the Caucasus (where a peak now bears his name), to Mount Saint Elias in Alaska, to the Rwenzori in Africa, and the 1909 expedition to K2 and the Karakoram. The latter three expeditions were in the company of Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi. Sella continued to climb into his old age, and made his last attempt on the Matterhorn at seventy six. The attempt failed when one of his guides was injured in an accident.
The high quality of Sella's photography was in part due to his use of 30×40 cm photographic plates, in spite of the difficulty of carrying bulky and fragile equipment into remote places. He had to invent equipment, including modified pack saddles and rucksacks, to allow these particularly large glass plates to be transported safely. His photographs were widely published and exhibited, and highly praised; Ansel Adams, who saw thirty-one that Sella had presented to the US Sierra Club, said they inspired "a definitely religious awe". Many of the photographs he took were of mountains which had not been previously recorded and so have historical as well as artistic significance; for example by recording the retreat of glaciers in the Rwenzori mountains in Central Africa.
Sella died in Biella in 1943. His collection of photographs is now managed by the Sella Foundation (Fondazione Sella) in Biella. Some pictures of Sella are exhibited in the Museo Nazionale della Montagna "Duca degli Abruzzi" in Turin.
- Summit: Vittorio Sella: Pioneer Mountaineering Photographer, 1879-1909. Aperture Foundation, U.S, 1999, ISBN 978-0-89381-808-1
- Curran, Jim (1995). K2: The Story of the Savage Mountain. London: Hodder & Stoughton. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-340-66007-2. "Sella is still remembered as possibly the greatest ever mountain photographer. His name is synonymous with technical perfection and aesthetic refinement."
- "Frozen in Time: Vittorio Sella". London: The Daily Telegraph. 2008-07-01. Retrieved 2008-08-08. "...described by both climbers and photographers as the greatest mountain photographs ever made"
- Kaufman, Andrew J.; Puttnam, William L. (1992). K2: The 1939 Tragedy. Mountaineers Books. p. 170. ISBN 978-0-89886-323-9.
- "Frozen in Time: Vittorio Sella". London: The Daily Telegraph. 2008-07-01. Retrieved 2008-08-08.
- "Vittorio Sella". The Georgian Museum of Photography. Retrieved 2008-08-08.
- Mantovani, Roberto; Diemberger, Kurt (2004). K2: Challenging the Sky. White Star Editions. p. 41. ISBN 978-88-540-0116-9.
- Joanna Wright and Robin Lenman, "Mountain Photography". In The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; ISBN 0-19-866271-8).
- "Vittorio Sella". Rwenzori Abruzzi Centenary Celebrations. 2006. Archived from the original on 2008-05-08. Retrieved 2008-08-09.