It is tempting leave cameras in a cupboard during the winter months, but I believe it is one of the best times of year for landscape and nature photography. This article gives you some ideas to encourage you to explore your local area after a snowfall or heavy frost. It’s great for your physical and mental health to get outdoors, so go for a winter walk and you may get an image to cherish.
When it snows
Spectacular landscape photography can be achieved in winter conditions, but it can be difficult to get to those grand vistas up in the hills and mountains without full commitment and forward planning. Local places that are familiar and perhaps ordinary for most of the year can be transformed by snow and ice. Local parklands, waterways or tree-lined roads can be as stunning as any grand vista. A good snowfall will cover up roads, pavements, and grasses, simplifying the landscape and creating new compositions for you to explore.
An effective snow landscape composition will require you to think differently about familiar places. Explore a local woodland or park and you will see that once intimate paths and trails will open up when the ground has an even snow cover. Try and search for long lines of trees that naturally guide the eye into the distance. Best results will be achieved when the snow is still falling or has just finished so that the branches are covered. You will need luck for the weather to fit with your availability, but you can use mobile apps to pick your moment most effectively.
Much like any landscape composition, you do need to identify elements that guide the eye. Sometimes, you can find foreground interest like a small bush, some leaves, a fence or wall for the eye to anchor onto and then direct you to the scene. At other times, there is nothing. You use the dead space of snow-covered ground to force the eye into the distance.
One issue with snow is that an obvious subject might not be easy to identify as everything becomes uniform. This is where a person in the landscape really helps. Experiment with primary colors. Red jackets or umbrellas work well when everything else is black and white. Yellow works well when there is blue ice or water.
“In Wonderland” Canon 70D, ISO 400, 18mm, f5.6, 1/320
Exposure compensation when it snows
Another technical issue of taking pictures in the snow is that automatic exposure by cameras will lead to underexposed images. A camera aims to have an exposure of 18% gray across the exposure area as an average (mid gray reflects back 18% of the light cast upon it). If the scene is very white, the camera will need to underexpose to reach this value. So you need some form of exposure compensation to achieve a correctly exposed image. Some consumer cameras have a snow mode. Most people will need to manually compensate their exposure. This is straightforward in manual mode, and cameras with Live View show you the exposure level accurately. The following compensations are a good guide
- Snow and clear sunny skies: Add 2 to 3 EV
- Snow with partly cloudy skies: Add 1 to 2 EV
- Snow with heavy cloud: Add 2/3 to 1 EV
If you are taking images of snowy landscapes with sunny clear skies, you will have an extreme dynamic range challenge. Either the snow will be blown out or the shadows will be black with no detail on a single exposure. Graduated filters will be of little use. I recommend using auto exposure bracketing (AEB), which is available on most cameras. Take 3 or ideally 5 images, each 1EV apart and blend the exposures in post-production. You can use HDR software or Adobe Lightroom’s HDR function. However, I recommend exposure blending in Adobe Photoshop, where you can use plugins to make the process of using Luminosity masks very easy.
When the fog freezes
Freezing fog is probably my favorite condition in which to find unique images. When the fog is thick, the light is very blue and oppressive. The landscape is simplified greatly and you can isolate individual subjects like a beautiful tree or single architectural element away from a messy background. Sometimes you notice things which you pass by each day, like the different shapes of these five trees. Explore your local neighborhood and find something unique.
“The Bleak Midwinter” Canon 70D, ISO 400, 14mm, f8, 1/250
If the fog is not so dense, it can still add a lot of atmospheres. Find an open view, like here at this riverbank. Again, try and find additional interest in your composition such as a clear subject to focus on or some foreground interest to lead the eye into the scene. Alternatively, experiment with natural framing by trees, branches and leaves for a more intimate feel.
“Cold Days – Warm Hearts” Canon 70D, ISO 400, 18mm, f8, 1/15
When the fog finally begins to lift, you can experience some remarkable conditions. The light turns golden yellow when the sun hits the ice crystals as freezing fog lifts and you can capture some stunning moments. Go to a favourite view and wait for the light to reveal itself. Once lifted, freezing fog leaves behind a coating of fine ice crystals on every surface. These are magical conditions where trees turn white, but they do not last long. The crystals fall off with the slightest breeze and melt quickly in the sun.
“A Frosty Crossing” Canon 70D, ISO 100, 105mm, f8, 6 secs
Small is beautiful
Nature photographers who are skilled at capturing the stunning detail of flowers need not give up photography during winter either. There is an exceptional beauty to be found in the ice crystals that form during a hoar frost. The crystals are larger when there is plenty of water vapor in the air, so have a look near bodies of water or after freezing fog. If mobility is a problem, you may find great subjects in your own garden or local parkland. If you own a good macro lens, you can create simple beautiful images with just single leaves or dead flower heads coated in crystals. You will need to work handheld to get a good composition. Move slowly in a quiet area as you can easily shake the fragile crystals off leaves.
“Crystalline” Canon 70D, ISO 100, 105mm, f8, 1/40
“Barbed Bronze” Canon 70D, ISO 800, 105mm, f8, 1/200
Wrap up: It should be obvious but wrap up warm. Wear strong waterproof shoes or boots with sturdy grips. You don’t want to be slipping around while carrying your gear and you certainly don’t want wet feet. Wear gloves and/or keep your hands in pockets as much as you can. Your hands will get cold when handling the camera or tripod.
Batteries: The available charge on batteries is temperature dependent, so be aware that your batteries will not last as long as you are used to. Carry a spare and keep in your inside jacket pocket, photographers vest, or trouser pocket if you can, to keep it warm. Always use battery cover guards to prevent contact with keys and coins.
Condensation: Moisture quickly condenses onto cold surfaces. Keep your gear in a bag for as long as you can so it stays just a little warmer than the outside so your front lens element or filters do not fog up. Have a blower and clean lens cloth in your bag to remove condensation if fogging is unavoidable.
Moisture: Heavy snow is very challenging to work in. Your equipment will get very wet, which also leads to fogging. Pack a small towel to wipe your gear down. The biggest tip is to not use your camera as soon as you get indoors. The moisture in your house will quickly condense onto your cold camera and lenses and moisture may even build up inside if they are not fully weather sealed or you decide to change lenses. Keep them packed until they warm up. If you don’t have a good quality weather resistant camera bag yet, consider buying dry bags from a camping or mountain store. You can use them to keep snow off your camera outside and to be airtight when warming up inside.
Any good quality camera with manual controls
Wide angle, telephoto, and macro lenses all come in useful
A sturdy tripod
Use a circular polarizer when photographing sunny landscapes, but you will not need any filters for most winter scenarios.
A good weatherproof bag. Consider bringing dry bags, a towel, and umbrella to cover your equipment when it is snowing.
I use Adobe software and an excellent Photoshop plugin for exposure blending.
A frequently updated list of all of the equipment, software, and apps I use and recommend can be found on my website at https://www.adamwest.co.uk/p/inmybag