Winter Photography Tips & Techniques
Winter can be a wonderful time to get outside and take advantage of some beautiful and unique photographic opportunities. With landscape, wildlife and even portrait photography, there is no end to the number of stunning shots that can be captured during this season. However, it can also be a very harsh time of year and can pose some challenges to your photography skills and equipment. To help you get started, here are a few tips and techniques to make your photography experience much more enjoyable.
- Wear appropriate winter clothing for the occasion. Dress in layers and wear warm socks, gloves and a hat. You can always take something off if you get warm.
- Good boots with gripping soles will help trekking through the snow and up steep inclines.
- Thinner “Touch” style gloves can help you operate your camera dials and buttons easier and will allow you to use the touch screen on your LCD when your gloves are on. Consider wearing these under heavier gloves when you are not shooting. Pack a few disposable hand warmers just in case.
- Know your camera settings ahead of time. Trying to fiddle with settings during a cold shoot will just make you colder and more frustrated. Learn to understand and use the camera’s histogram.
- Let someone know where you are going and bring a charged cell phone along with you just in case you would require emergency help. I once got my truck stuck in a ditch along a country gravel road on a cold, snowy morning and didn’t have my cell phone. I waited over a half an hour until a car finally drove by and I could flag them down and ask to use their cell phone.
Winter conditions can be extreme and will play havoc on your camera equipment if you’re not careful. So take some precautions before wandering out into a blizzard!
- Keep your batteries warm! Cold temperatures can greatly reduce the battery life. Store your batteries in an inside coat pocket, close to your body. Always carry a couple of spare batteries. There is nothing worse than running out of power during the perfect shot!
- Let your camera acclimate to the cold temperatures before you start shooting. Don’t keep your camera inside your coat. Body moisture and rapid temperature changes can cause fog or condensation on your lenses. When you bring your camera inside, keep it in the cold camera bag and let it slowly warm up or place it inside a zip-loc bag. This again, will keep the warm air from condensating on the camera. If you plan to go back outside soon to shoot, leave your camera in a cooler area.
- Keep your camera dry in inclimate weather. Use a DSLR rain cover like the Manfrotto E-702 PL Elements Cover if necessary to protect your camera from moisture.
- If you are using an aluminum tripod, consider purchasing a set of insulated leg covers. These make carrying your tripod much more comfortable.
- Use memory cards better suited to extreme conditions like ProMaster’s AWXC|MAX Professional Memory Card that is guaranteed freeze proof and waterproof.
- Keep your camera on a strap so you won’t lose your grip and drop your camera in the snow. I use a BlackRapid Sport camera strap that keeps my camera easily accessible at my waist at all times.
1. When to Shoot - Shoot early in the morning when the sun is rising or late in the afternoon as the sun begins to set. This is the time of day that can yield warm dramatic light and produce stunning images. Shoot with the sun at 90 degrees to the camera to keep contrast and textures in the snow crystals. Watch for reflections in the snow and ice. Shoot hoarfrost, ice cycles and snowflakes up close. They make wonderful macro subjects. Last of all, shoot right after a snowfall when the setting is most serene and be cautious not to get footprints in your composition.
2. Shoot in RAW - Step away from shooting in JPEG format and change to RAW if possible. Snow is seldom white because it picks up reflections that cause your camera’s sensor to misread the white balance and change its color. The resulting factor is usually snow that looks grey or blue. If you are able to shoot RAW, you can correct any of these unwanted colorcasts on your computer’s imaging software at a later date.
3. Exposure - When you’re photographing snow the majority of the landscape is usually white or extremely bright. Snow is known to trick the camera meter to give false exposures. The meter on your camera is designed to evaluate lights and darks, average them and give you a neutral grey or middle tone neutral reading. However, with all of the bright snow, the meter is fooled and underexposes the shot (it tries to see the bright white of snow as 18% grey, thus underexposing it and producing a darker image). Fortunately, you can do a few things to prevent the snow from turning grey. Switch your camera to Manual mode and shoot the images slightly overexposed or use your camera exposure compensation. The amount of overexposure is dependent on your lighting conditions and how white you want your snow to look. As a rule of thumb, you can try +1 to +2 1/2 stops.
4. Take Action Shots - Use fast shutter speeds and/or higher ISO to capture and freeze action shots when the lighting conditions are less than perfect. Sledding, skiing, snowboarding and wildlife photographs add excitement to any backdrop.
5. Add color and contrast - Look for something that brings color or contrast to your scene….a covered bridge, a lone evergreen or a snow-capped mountain with blue sky to add some appeal to your photo.
On the other hand, try converting your image to black and white to add contrast and give your image an entirely different look and feel.
6. Capture falling snowflakes - Use a lens like the Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 IS II USM with a shallow aperture and the fastest shutter speed you can get (1/400 of a second or higher) to capture the snow falling. This can make the snowflakes close to your lens and behind the focus point look larger giving your image a magical look.
7. Use fill flash - When shooting people or animals in snow, or just to add a bit of sparkle to your image, you may need to use fill flash to reduce contrast. You should set your flash compensation to -1 to -1.5 stops to avoid the image looking unnatural.
Hopefully some of these tips will help make your outdoor winter photography experience a success. Most importantly, get outside and enjoy the stunning beauty that our winter months provide. Be safe and have fun!