Winter offers plenty of photographic challenges but unique opportunities too. Sarah Howard explains how to come away with great images
Photographing in winter can be a truly wonderful and rewarding experience, but it’s more about attitude than anything else. Whilst technical ability will help you achieve the results you want, if you think ‘cold and miserable’ you will be so, decreasing your chances of achieving good photographic results. It’s easy to hibernate, but if you make the effort the rewards can be great.
First things first
The most important thing is to dress warmly. Thermal socks, decent boots, plenty of layers, a hat and gloves with a silk liner will ensure you are warm and ready to face the elements.
Keeping yourself warm isn’t the only issue – you also need to make sure your camera is functioning properly. Battery drain is the biggest problem in cold temperatures so never expose your equipment for longer than absolutely necessary. Keep spare batteries with you and work as quickly as possible when photographing.
Bear in mind the effect of the cold on your camera; it will need to adjust to the cold before being used. Lens fogging and a build-up of condensation on your lens is the first problem you will encounter due to sudden changes of temperature when getting in and out of a warm car. To minimise the risk of this happening, keep your camera in the boot, away from any heat. Place it in a zip-lock plastic bag whilst inside and then let it acclimatise inside the bag for a while outdoors before shooting. This way the condensation will form on the bag, not on your camera.
Finally, make sure to protect your gear from the elements. If it’s snowing or raining, protect your camera with a ready-made cover, or a plastic bag with an opening for the camera lens and viewfinder. Also, try not to breathe through your nose on the viewfinder as you photograph, as the condensation may turn icy.
Timing and planning
This is key to a successful image. Pick your location and time of day carefully and do your research beforehand. See when and where the sun rises and sets, and check the weather forecast over the preceding days so that you can plan to be at your chosen location when it’s likely to be looking its best.
Winter offers photographic opportunities that are quite unique but it can be quite a challenging time. Often the light can be fabulous, especially in the early morning or late afternoon. This is when your shots will appear at their warmest and most dramatic, and when shadows are long, creating contrast and mood. Dragging yourself out of bed on a cold dark morning may not appeal to the best of us, but it will be worth the effort – and there’s nothing quite like feeling as if you’re one of the first to see the dawn of a new day, when it’s quiet and the world is still stirring.
A frosty morning creates a beautiful start to the day and brings another strong element to your images. Trees and grass suspended in time slowly come to life with the warmth of the sun, and this is when you often see mist rising, providing a great opportunity for some atmospheric shots.
Freshly fallen snow has an ethereal beauty so try to get out early, while the ground remains untouched, to capture it at its most magical moment. A heavy hoar frost transforms the most mundane scene into a winter wonderland, as trees are held suspended in time. Seize the moment, as it doesn’t happen often. It’s at this time that opportunities are presented for capturing frosty tree canopies, but also for close-up detail shots of the frozen remains of leaves or pine needles held still in time.
Think about your composition
Composition is vitally important. Use a tripod, not only to steady your camera but also to carefully set up your shot and consider all possibilities. Look closely at what you see in your viewfinder and exclude anything that doesn’t add to the overall impact of your image. Explore different viewpoints and make use of all your lenses. See if you can include a path, stream or river, which will help lead the eye into the scene, and don’t forget to include some foreground interest to add depth.
Winter presents many problems with regards to exposure. Overcast skies are generally considered the landscape photographer’s nightmare but these often provide the best possible conditions for woodland images. The soft, diffused light allows colours to stand out more, as they appear more saturated, while your camera’s dynamic range won’t be quite as challenged as it may be in harsher conditions, which should help to retain detail in both shadows and highlights.
Snow presents its challenges for the photographer as most cameras are fooled by it. A general misconception is that you need to drastically overexpose to make snow appear white, but snow is seldom white; it picks up reflections which change its colour. A blue sky will cast a blue/grey reflection, whereas morning or evening light casts a lovely warm glow. You need to be aware of the effect of changing light and learn how to take advantage of it. Learn to set your camera’s white balance manually and check your histogram to ensure your exposure is correct. Bracket your exposures if needs be, or simply try overexposing by up to one EV stop to see if this brings out key details while still retaining highlights.
Get close and look for detail
Winter brings out a whole new world. The bare bones of the landscape are exposed creating a stark, graphic appearance and trees without leaves take on a whole new look. Look for detail – capture winter’s patterns, textures and colours. Frost and snow offer much in the patterns they create. If you are near water be sure to take some shots of frozen surfaces. Keep your eyes peeled.
Be brave and don’t let the cold keep you inside. Get out there with your camera – the wonderful world of winter photography awaits you!
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About the Author
Sarah Howard is a professional travel and landscape photographer who runs photographic workshops around the country. For more information visit her website.