Learn what it takes to take perfect photos in winter.
Extreme weather conditions are challenging to photograph. High contrast scenes and bright snow throw off your auto exposure. Cold weather and condensation can damage your equipment and batteries drain faster.
Whether you are trying to capture the beauty of icy winter landscapes or your children’s fun on the slopes, the challenges of winter photography require preparation. In this short essay, I am going to give you advice to help you coping with those situations.
Take better photos in Winter
Winter shooting presents many opportunities for the focused photographer. Low angle of the Sun in Winter
Ancient Bristlecone Pine
- On the northern hemisphere, the sun will be much lower on the horizon. This is great news for us photographers. It simply means the magic hour, the time before and after the sunset and sunrise, will now become longer (a magic hour and a half). We will not have to wait long between sunrise and sunset. During the day, the low angle of the sun creates pleasing light enhancing the texture of the landscape. I took the picture of the bristlecone pine during the early afternoon hours in November. The sun was already low in the sky, so that I could use it to my advantage.
- Snowflakes are complex formations. Frozen water develops structures of unique intricacy. Look out for winter textures. If you love macro photography, you will not have any trouble to find subjects. Texture presents itself not only in macros. Frozen dew on grass in the morning will look entirely different from the glaring reflections of the melted dew water in the afternoon. Tracks left by game can form interesting patterns and lead viewer attention into the frame or tell a subtle story of wildlife without actually showing it.
- Winter scenes often lack color. It is tempting to convert pictures into black and white, but it is even harder to replace mundane grey with color. Look for color in winter landscapes to create truly unique photographs. Sunset and sunrise will bathe the landscape in warm light if the sun manages to peek through the often-thick cloud cover. Do not get discouraged by a grey day and tricked into packing up and going home early. Stick around until the last light of the day fainted. Sometimes the sky opens up rewarding the patient. Look for light and shadow. Shadow on snow will look blue and light on rocks will look warm yellow. Combine the two to get a pleasing mix of colors.
- Although combining light and shadow can lead to a lovely mix of colors, the very large dynamic range can be extremely challenging to capture. Winter scenes often have a tremendous dynamic range exceeding the capabilities of your camera to capture. Always expose for the highlights, as you can never recover blown out highlights. Use your cameras histogram and exposure warning modes to judge, but do not use the appearance on the screen, as this will be deceiving. You can pull a lot out of your RAW files by using a method similar to my HDR processing technique.
If you still fail to capture the entire range, set up your camera on a tripod and take multiple exposures. You can then combine them on your computer.
I am not using graded filters anymore due to several shortcomings, but they too will help you to capture a scene of large dynamic range.
- One filter I use a lot is a circular polarizer. “Polarizers” remove polarized sunlight and are great tools for taking the glare off the snow or other reflective surfaces and bringing out deep saturated colors. I also use them to darken the sky and enhance the contrast of the cloud cover.
- Snow sometimes confuses your cameras automatic exposure modes. Although cameras have become somewhat “intelligent” in recent years, storing different scenes in their memories, they are still just as good as their operators. Light meters will evaluate the light reflected from the entire scene and try to make it an average brightness. For many scenes, this works very well, but for bright scenes your camera will underexpose. Snowy landscapes will become gray. You need to compensate and use your cameras exposure compensation to “overexpose the scene” to get snow-white snow.
Knowing how to keep your gear in operating condition is at least as important as knowing how to take good photographs. The tips below will help you to do just that.Golden Light at El Capitan
- Some cameras can tolerate cold weather better than others can. I have never had problems with my 20D, but my dad told me that his Canon S3 refused to zoom in cold weather. Limit your equipments exposure to cold weather as much as you can. Carry your camera close to your body, inside your jacket, if it is small enough to do so. Take only the equipment you need out of your backpack. Change lenses quickly and preferably inside your car.
- Keeping a backpack full of goodies warm is not always an option. I usually do not bother too much in the cold, but I am very careful about how I warm up again. Walk with your glasses from the frost into a warm room and have them fog over immediately. The same thing will happen to your camera. Condensation (water) can lead to fungus growth inside your lenses, electrical shorts and other nasty effects. I usually leave my camera in my backpack for several hours, resisting the urge to view my pictures and recharge the batteries immediately. The inside of the backpack warms up much more slowly. Other people use silica gel packs in their backpack to absorb the moisture. If you do not have a photo backpack, put your camera inside an airtight Ziploc bag when you are still in the cold. It will seal in the dry air and prevent condensation.
- Acclimatization of equipment is also important when you go out into the cold again. Now the air inside your lens is warmer than the outside air and you can get condensation inside the lens. This can get you fungus growth inside your lens. Do not breathe on your equipment in cold air. Your breath will condensate and freeze on the lens. It will be next to impossible to clean up outside.
- Cold weather diminishes battery capacity. Lithium Ion rechargeable batteries are not as sensitive to cold weather as others are, but even those will weaken. Always keep some spare batteries with you and keep them warm. I usually carry them in my inside pockets of my jackets. That is where I keep my image tanks to keep their batteries warm.
- Snow will melt when it falls on your equipment. We already established that water is bad so keep the snow off your gear. I usually use large Ziploc bags. When you forget to bring any, use the disposable shower cap that you will most certainly find in your hotel. Special rain covers for cameras and lenses are available to offer even better protection while keeping your shooting.
This previous posting:
The Ten Most Common Photographic Mistakes
has many more tips for taking better photos.
I use this website to publish my highly subjective views of photography. Things I consider beautiful and worthy of consideration may not strike others as important. I do neither claim to be accurate nor perfect. My life is a quest to become a better photographer. I learn new things every day and I do not mind telling people about them. My views are a result of my own quest.
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