Photography during the winter takes courage. From what I’ve experienced, it well worth taking the time to bundle up and head outdoors, even if it is miserably cold outside.
Some of the best photographic opportunities present themselves during the winter season. Cold winter air is generally clearer than warm summer air, as it generally contains less moisture. When the ground is covered in snow like a blanket, the familiar surroundings can take on an entirely different perspective. So, don’t let an entire season slip by without taking your camera outdoors. It’s important, though, to prepare yourself and your camera gear for the conditions so that you’ll be more productive and you’ll have a more enjoyable experience.
Planning is an important element of making photographs all year but from years of experience I’d say that planning your winter outing is essential to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. Don’t push yourself. Let someone else know where you’re going and when they can expect you back. No photography is worth risking the deadly side effects of prolonged exposure to cold.
1. Consider photo-friendly gloves
If you are shooting outside, you will need gloves. To avoid frustration and frostbite, buy photo-friendly gloves that will let you use the camera’s touch screen, dials and buttons. Most photo stores sell special photo gloves with thin thermal fabric around the fingertips, so that you can fully control your camera. In extreme conditions, I would suggest wearing waterproof shell mitts as an outer layer.
Don’t underestimate the importance of waterproof boots that are insulated, along with wool socks to keep your feets dry and warm. If you know you will be standing stationary for an extended period of time, bring a small foam pad or an old doormat with you to keep your feet from freezing.
You might not automatically think of snowshoes when considering photography but they will bring you farther across the snowy landscape, keep your feet off the cold ground, and help your focus on what you are outdoors to do – to capture epic winter photographs. For navigating uneven terrain, you might want to consider ski poles or trekking poles to provide even more stability when climbing and descending st4ep slopes.
4. Keep your batteries warm
Batteries and cold don’t mix. They lose their power when exposed to low temperatures.The best rechargeable performers are lithium-ion followed by NiCad and NiMH. These battery types should perform without issue down to 0° C (32° F). The number of exposures that you can get with one charge can drop as much as 50% in subzero environments. Don’t get caught right before you attempt to capture the best shot of the day or night. Carry a spare battery or two with you. I usually keep them in a pocket and let my body heat keep them at an appropriate temperature so they maintain their charge. During a recent shoot in northern Iceland, I kept the battery in my pocket and I was ready to compose the shot and then I put it in the camera to maximize my shooting time.
5. Camera bag or backpack
If you are out in the winter elements, your camera will be exposed to the same cold air that is freezing your feet. Unlike your feet, ensure that your camera is not subjected to driving snow, slush, or ice. Protect your investment carefully.
6. Exposure compensation and white balance
Snow can be one of the most complicated subjects to expose properly. When you are trying to capture the pure whiteness of fresh snow, adjust your exposure compensation by +0.3 or +0.7. If you don’t, your snow will end up looking grey or blue instead of white. Snow is very reflective and will cause your DSLR camera sensors to misread the white balance. Using a lens hood is use when photographing in the bright sun. Since snow can act as a giant reflector, there is a greater chance of stray light reaching your lens and causing unwanted lens flare.
7. Quality of light
The sunrise and sunset can be a lot more dramatic than usual during winter time, especially right before or after snowstorms. The winter season sees the sun rise later in the day and set much earlier. Because of the lower angle of the sun, the quality of light is generally better throughout the day and shadows are longer.
My go-to filter, regardless of season, is the polarizer. A polarizer is a great tool to accentuate the sky and add more definition to clouds. It will also eliminate glare and add more saturation to colours. Be careful not to over-polarize with the winter’s low sun angles, which will give the sky an unnatural appearance.
A UV filter is effective for clearing up the appearance of haze in photographs. The UV filter’s other main benefit when photographing in snowy environments is that it protects your lens from snow and other elements.
Graduated neutral-density filters are useful and one of my favourite creative pieces of gear in my camera bag. ND filters are essential when you need to equalize variations in exposure between different parts of a scene such as the foreground or the background and sky. I find that a three-stop (No. 8) gray graduated neutral-density filter is effective for common situations in winter scenes.
9. Focus problems
On days that are overcast, foggy or when snow is falling, your lens may experience difficulty obtaining autofocus in such low contrast situations. You might hear the lens search for focus without success, especially when it’s trying to focus on the falling snow.When photographing in this situation, it is best to switch from auto to manual focus.
10. Capturing the snowfall: the correct shutter speed to use
One of the most majestic things to photograph is snowfall. Falling snow provides a creative photographic opportunity. Keep in mind that faster shutter speeds will stop any movement, whereas slow shutter speeds will result in the snowflakes being blurred in the photo.
You’re next question might be, “well, what’s a fast shutter speed and what’s a slow shutter speed?”. I wish the answer was easy. It really depends on the type of weather. On a calm day when the snow is gently falling a shutter speed of as little as 1/125 sec. is enough to free motion. However, during blizzard conditions, 1/350 sec. will barely be enough. This is really a matter of experimenting. Try bracketing shots using various shutter speed and aperture combinations to find out what works best.
Once you have decided on these settings, consider how you will capture your subject using a depth of field. Having snowflakes large and slightly blurred in front and behind your subject will create that magical feel.
11. White out
Up to this point, you might be thinking only about how to capture the magical snowy landscape. Although this can be appealing, it may result in a boring photo. Consider how you can add contrast to your scenes, such as including colourful clothing or by including dark shadows in evening scenes. Contrast can be used creatively to add an emotional element to your compositions.
12. Before you go back inside
After your done your shoot, don’t rush back to the warm indoors without preparing your ice-cold camera for a sudden change in temperature. Electronics and moisture don’t mix. Cameras are no exception. An easy way to avoid condensation is to place your camera inside an air-tight plastic bag, like a self-sealing freezer bag. Leave your camera inside the bag until it reaches room temperature.
Get out there!
Winter conditions do present unique challenges for photography but don’t let the challenges prevent you from capturing images to be proud of.
I used to get into a creative low from about November to March. Over the past several years, though, I’ve discovered new opportunities by shooting in the middle of winter. Winter photography can be an extremely rewarding experience. Landscapes are transformed into magical dream-like scenes that you won’t witness any other time of the year.
What cold weather tips do you have for shooting in the cold? What has worked well for both you and your gear? Leave a comment below.