It’s no secret, I am a lover of the winter season. Snow, ice, and brutal temperatures are my thing, and I relish every moment of it. Sure, I have to dress in multiple layers, deal with freezing eyelashes and the occasional snowfall down the back, but boy…do I ever enjoy winter. Shooting in winter conditions can be extremely challenging but oh so rewarding. If you’re a fan of the beach and warm weather, I challenge you to trade your shorts and t-shirts for a jacket and gloves and get out there and explore!
Now before you get rolling, I never said this was going to be easy. Winter can be an extremely brutal season and there are definitely some tips and tricks you can utilize to stay warm, keep your camera and yourself safe, and to create compelling photographs. I’m excited to share ten of my favorite winter photography tips with you below. I hope you all learn a thing or two and become inspired to venture out this winter season!
One of the most frequent questions I get asked is what exactly I wear to stay warm out there. It’s important that you dress accordingly, because let’s be real, if you’re freezing your butt off, you’re not having fun, and no fun equals no creativity. I often find myself in temperatures anywhere between -40ºF to 32ºF, so there is quite a difference in dressing for such occasions. Regardless of temperature, I always start with a bottom and top wool base layer. I highly recommend Smartwool®. Your base is the most important layer as it will be your first defense to the cold. I also wear wool socks sometimes as well. Depending on the temperature range in which you may find yourself, you can purchase wool socks of different thickness. Above my bottom base layer, I usually go with a fleece layer, then a set of hiking pants, and finally a waterproof shell. Above my top layer, it’s the same. Base layer, fleece layer, down jacket, and then winter jacket. For gloves, a solid pair of winter gloves get the job done. Note: it is difficult to actually shoot and change your settings with gloves on, so I typically get set up and then put my gloves on. Although, when I’m dealing with dangerously low temperatures, I keep my gloves on because I’d like to keep my fingers attached. I personally like gloves that have a zipper on the top for a hand warmer. For boots, it’s key to invest wisely. I recommend Keen® Boots. They have great insulation, are waterproof, and calf high. On my head, it’s a thick beanie and sometimes a balaclava. Microspikes are also a great investment for your feet if you’re going to find yourself on ice.
KEEPING YOUR GEAR SAFE
Now that you’re toasty warm, it’s time to think about your gear. A couple of issues that you may run into out in the cold with your camera is your battery life being impacted quite dramatically, frost on your LCD or front elements, and ghosting in your LCD. First tip is to try not to breathe on your camera if you are in sub-freezing temps. Your breath can easily freeze onto any glass surface and then you’ll have to try and scrape it off. If you breathe onto your lens, it can freeze and lock up your focus or zoom ring. Next up is your battery life. Now, there’s no magic trick to keeping your battery from draining faster than normal in the cold, but you can try to slow how fast it drains. I typically purchase adhesive hand warmers and then stick them to the outside of the camera around the battery compartment. This technique typically slows down the rate at which my batteries are affected by the cold. Finally, you may notice that your camera LCD in live view may “ghost” as you compose a shot. From my understanding, this is nothing to worry about, it’s just an effect of the cold. A tip for your tripod, do your best to keep it out of water. Once you dip your tripod into anything wet and you are in temperatures below freezing, the joints of your tripod legs may freeze internally and then you can run into the issue of not being able to close or extend your tripod legs. Tripod foot spikes are also a good piece of equipment to have for shooting on ice, like glaciers or frozen lakes. The winter months can be quite windy, so tripod spikes give a bit more stability to your tripod and camera. I also recommend keeping a rain bag in your camera bag in case you encounter heavy snow.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE WEATHER
The last thing you want to do is get stuck in a snowstorm… or is it? Winter conditions can be fast and furious, so make sure you check the forecast before you head out, so you know what driving conditions to expect and how to dress. Don’t be deterred by heavy snow if it is a condition you are comfortable driving in. Long exposures in near white-out conditions can yield some rewarding imagery, and if you happen to catch the storm clearing, congrats! You’ve scored yourself a pristine snow globe scene! A quick note, if you do venture out into a heavy snowstorm, it’s wise to keep a GPS with you in case you lose visibility of where you need to hike back to. If your forecast calls for clear skies, be prepared for some colder temperatures. If you plan on shooting a lake or river, try to find out what the temperature of that water is. If the air temperature is going to be colder than the water temperature, you may encounter a scene where the water has some interesting steam or fog on top of it.
USE EXTREME CAUTION ON FROZEN WATER
After finding myself in an extremely scary situation involving thin ice and having to be rescued off a frozen lake, I now use extreme caution when going on any frozen water. If you find yourself wanting to photograph a frozen pond or lake, first try talking to locals and see if they know when the water froze. If it was just a few days or week prior, give it some more time. Generally speaking, it is safe to walk on ice when it is a thickness of 4” or greater. Any thinner, the ice may not be strong enough to support your body weight. Also, just because one area of the ice may be thick enough to walk on, still be cautious. Areas of water freeze differently and some areas can still be too thin to safely explore. It’s a good idea regardless of when the water froze to explore with a friend or two for safety. Try to keep some space between you and your friends so all your weight isn’t concentrated in one localized area. If you do end up going through the ice, the first step is to not panic. You will need to disperse your weight as you climb out, so don’t try to pull yourself up in just one area, you can continue to break the ice. Spread your arms out and try to get enough grip to pull yourself back onto the ice. Do not immediately stand up, try to slide away from the broken area before standing. I try to always keep a rope in the car just in case anything happens.
USE ALL YOUR LENSES
It’s easy as a landscape photographer to think about the big picture. Those big landscapes can be quite beautiful. I challenge you though to use multiple focal lengths while you are out there shooting. I always travel with my Nikon 14-24, Nikon 24-70, and Nikon 70-200. Sometimes I even have my Nikon 200-500 with me. With all these lens choices, I often find myself using each lens on every outing. Telephotos are great ways to zoom in tight on mountain peaks that may be floating in and out of the clouds. Or you may be able to catch that beautiful reflection of snow-covered trees across the lake. There are wide shots and tight shots everywhere in a winter wonderland. You can even find yourself having fun with a macro lens as you get that nice detailed snowflake shot! A quick tip, even though the sun may not be out a lot in the winter, keep your lens hood on as it can help keep snow off your glass.
YOU ARE YOUR WORST ENEMY
Yep, you heard me. You need to accept that at some point you’re going to find the most beautiful composition and realize you just walked right through it. Approach your shooting locations with caution, especially after a fresh snowfall. Once you put your footprints in the snow, it’s game over. Sure, you can work them out in post… but that’s more work and sometimes we roam crazily through a scene. If you have to walk into your scene for any reason, try to take big steps and track back to your camera via the same foot prints. I typically walk up to a scene and take a few minutes to just look at it before walking anywhere. I start by shooting further back, then moving in closer if needed.
EXAMINE YOUR SCENE… ESPECIALLY THE SMALL DETAILS
When you arrive at your destination, take some time before you pull your camera out of the bag to see what you have to work with. Snow and ice can create some amazing patterns, shapes, and textures for you to work with. Fresh snowfall and wind can create beautiful drifts and humps of snow. The edges of ice can display stunning jagged edges that make great shapes to point your audiences eye to a subject. Cracks in the ice can be wonderful leading lines. In certain cases, you can even find yourself on a lake that has methane being released from the vegetation in the lake bed. This release of methane forms bubbles that rise and get caught in the ice, creating fantastic foreground elements. Abraham Lake in the Canadian Rockies is infamous for these methane bubbles. On extremely cold mornings, you might also be greeted with hoar frost, AKA ice flowers. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to get caught up in the big picture, but first take a look at the small details that you can use within your landscape.
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR WILDLIFE
Although during the winter months many animals go into hibernation, you may still be lucky enough to come across those who don’t. One of my favorite scenes I have ever captured was while shooting in the Canadian Rockies. I was photographing snow covered trees reflecting in a river when out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of antlers. Just across the river and below a hill was an elk walking parallel to me. All I could see was antlers, but I watched them closely. He eventually walked up onto the edge of the river and took a look around. After about a minute, I was noticed and we had this beautiful moment of looking at one another. I took it in for a few seconds and then captured the frame below.
GET OUT AT NIGHT
Now you’re probably already thinking that I’m nuts for going out during the day when it’s already cold enough, but one of my favorite times to shoot winter scenes is at night. The way ice and snow can reflect light is pretty incredible. The snow glows with the smallest bit of ambient or moon light and reveals textures and details you would have never see during the day. Winter nights can also be exceptionally clear, and the stars seem to shine brighter than during other seasons. It will be colder at night, so make sure to dress with even more layers or bring extra layers with you for after sunset. Don’t be afraid to try some light painting as well. I enjoy taking a few Lume Cubes® with me and putting them in the snow or shining them through the ice to bring in a unique aspect.
LOOK FOR COLOR
On cloudy days, you can find yourself staring at a scene that looks almost black and white. Even shooting in color, it still looks monochromatic. It’s a bit challenging but see if you can introduce a splash of color into your scene. That splash of color will bring an entirely new spark of life to your image. I often keep an eye out for old barns, wildlife, even people in colorful jackets. The list can go on and on, but as soon as you see color, try to utilize it!
As I mentioned before, shooting in winter conditions can be quite challenging, but I hope you take note on some of these tips and apply them to your adventures! With the right planning, gear and mentality, you can overcome the challenges of winter and walk away with stunning images!