How to Find the Magic In Winter Photography
For many photographers who live in the Northern hemisphere it is winter time and with a new season comes new opportunities to photograph.
Winter conditions can be just as exciting to photograph as the spring, summer, and fall, the conditions can present some challenges.
It’s obvious that snowy or icy winter conditions mean cold and preparing for those temperatures is a given: dress warm and protect your gear from getting wet. Beyond those, there are technical and creative considerations for great winter photography.
These include Exposure, White Balance, Contrast, and Lighting.
Exposure is an important consideration and capturing the best exposure is important to every digital image. In snow or white conditions the camera meter can be fooled, but once you understand how to adjust for that challenge you will come back with great exposures.
The camera meter is designed to average all tones in a scene and it generally does a great job with full tonal range scenes. But when the scene is comprised of a narrower or even a single tone, and say white snow, the meter often provides an incorrect exposure. So a scene comprised of mostly white will result in a grey scene due to underexposing the white. This can often be fixed with an increase in exposure compensation of between +1 – +2 in exposure settings and that will make the white subject or snow whiter.
The same ice pattern was exposed at +1.75 increase over the meters recommendation and it is a better exposure. One thought about proper exposure is to remember that the proper exposure for a white subject is not always rendering white but rather a light grey to maintain detail.
While I just talked about how to achieve proper exposure in snowy conditions by making white snow look ‘whiter’, you can enhance the feel of winter and cold by actually going with the meters suggestion and underexposing the snow for a ‘greyer’ look. Then by changing your white balance anywhere from 3200k to 4500k, you add blue. Since we associate blue with cold, you enhance that wintry feel.
This back-country cabin in winter was close to a normal exposure for the scene but with the weak flat light the winter mood was not emphasized.
By changing the white balance to 3200k a lot of blue was added to provide that winter feel. Then the shutter speed was set to -1.66 to darken the ambient light and a flash placed inside to brighten the interior providing a winter look and a cabin the feels like a warm place to be.
Like all photography, lighting is crucial! If you have poor winter lighting conditions like no sun, you might have a white-on-white subject. Since light is needed to separate subjects within a scene by creating tonal differences, you need to find subjects that have that separation between the subject itself and the background.
This tree with ice on it is a good example. The lower part of the picture has brighter snow behind making the branches appear greyer and stand out against the white snow behind while the very top part does not because the snow back there is grey and closer in tone to the branches.
Another way to make a very white scene pop is to look for details other than snow or ice. This image was captured along the same creek as the ice image seen above, but here it has other details with some color and darker aspects to it. While the RAW file was flat due to low contrast light, adding some contrast and saturation followed by light sharpening brings the needed pop.
If you find a great shot that requires you to face the sun, one way to deal with contrast when shooting towards the sun is to mask the sun behind something and create a starburst effect as seen here. Setting your aperture to f/11-f/32, depending on your lenses maximum aperture, creates a starburst effect. When that is combined with the hiding the sun behind an object you can get an even greater star effect.
Heading out to shoot when the weather is bad or during a snowstorm can yield some surprising results. While you can get some great images of blurring snow and trees cover in a fresh white flock, if the storm clears it could provide a perfect opportunity for dramatic winter images. Here the sun broke through the clearing skies and I placed the sun behind another tree top to lessen its impact. The result was a frigid looking image with some hard contrast in lighting that made for a dramatic winter scene.
Details Details Details
Besides the big picture of a great winter scene, there are always subjects that look magical up close. Using a macro lens or even just your zoom lens to move in and focus on the winter details can produce exceptional images.
These leaves and grass were ground plants that had a wonderful rim of ice and a frosty look to them. I used a 100mm macro lens to zoom in close. F/11 was all that was needed to keep the leaves and grass sharp and no adjustments to exposure were required.
This cottonwood tree has a layer of snow on top of all the branches and when I zoomed in with a 300mm lens to capture a detail shot, the result was an interesting pattern of winter in the forest. The 300mm lens stacked the scene so to speak, creating a compressed look with the trees further back
Whatever you plan to photograph in winter conditions, some things that will help you capture the best images include bracketing exposure to make sure you have the best RAW file with the most data. If you have a collection of lenses but feel that you are not interested in carrying them all while slogging through snow, keep in mind that there is a composition for every lens from up close to far away. So at least bring a wide angle to telephoto and your macro lens as well.
To get around in snow and especially deep snow, I use snowshoes. I have captured many great images while back-country skiing, but when photography is the main reason I am out the snow shoes are easier to work with.
If you plan to run solo and head for the snow, be sure and bring the correct clothing for the conditions. Layering still is a great way to go: put it on when cold, take it off when hot. A GPS is never a ‘bad thing’ and if you plan to head far out and by yourself, consider an emergency locator beacon.
And finally, go forth and capture great images while having a wonderful winter photography excursion.