Winter Photography - 13 Steps to Beautiful Images
Winter is here and if the forecast is correct there may be a small coating of snow in the next few weeks. This winter may deliver (who knows this is the UK) and even with cold frosts some amazing images can be obtained. Fog and frost has been around so far this winter and while blue skies are stunning the fog can be beautiful in its own way. To ensure you make the most of any snowfall here are some lessons I have learnt.
Wrap Up Warm
Snow means just one thing and that is cold temperatures. Even if the sun is out then the air temperature can be chilly. Layers are essential, thermals as a base layer and if snow is still falling a waterproof outer layer. Waterproof trousers or salopettes are really useful if the snow is deep. Hats and gloves are also valuable additions. After lots of trial and error I have discovered the joy of silk gloves. These are really thin but warm and even in sub-zero temperatures I can use my camera with just silk gloves on. I usually combine these with fingerless wrist warmers to keep my wrists snug!
Protect Your Camera
Cameras are much more hardy than us humans and with some TLC they will be fine in cold weather. Mine has survived -30C, frosted and a fogging lens, but with some care it produced great images. If it is still snowing then a waterproof covering is ideal. I prefer to use a piece of chamois leather, laid across the top of the body and lens, but there are lots of commercial coats, covers and sleeves. It all depends on what you want and need.
When you hit the cold air, the lens will fog almost instantly. To avoid this the camera and lens needs to be cooled. Leave it in the boot of the car, away from heaters or place it in a zip-loc bag filled in the cold before leaving. This will allow it to adjust to the surrounding air temperature and the condensation will form on the bag not the camera. This will also happen when you come back indoors so the camera should be placed in a zip-loc bag on site (remove the memory card or you will have a long wait before playing!). Leave the camera in the sealed bag for as long as possible so it can adjust to the air temperature inside nice and slowly. This stops condensation forming inside the camera body.
Batteries will loose power more quickly in the cold. Always make sure you have more than you need and keep them warm in a pocket until you need them. Try and avoid live view for long periods of time as this will drain the batteries as well.
Use a Tripod
If you are attempting to take detailed shots a tripod is really useful. In the cold fingers become numb and if you can support your camera and take your time to compose the image the overall outcome will be much better.
Sometimes the snow is unplanned and short-lived and you have to go with the moment. If it is around for a longer period of time work out when and where the best locations are for sunrise and sunset. There are lots of apps and websites but my favourite is the Photographers Ephemeris. This gives you times and directions of the sun and moon (don't forget moon shots in the snow are stunning!). Plan your visit to make the most of the light. Shadows on the snow can look beautiful as can low sun filtered through snow laden plants. If you plan to visit high ground such as Exmoor or Dartmoor remember to drive safely, observe public rights of way and park considerately.
There is nothing better than a fresh fall of snow. For beautiful images it is worth taking the time to find an undisturbed location and getting out early to enjoy both the light and the magical moment. As soon as the snow has foot prints it has lost the fresh quality and cannot be edited or removed. If you are in a location with other photographers or a popular spot, be considerate and don't hike through the middle of frame leaving huge great footprints.
This is similar to normal landscape photography but even in well known and familiar locations you may see different compositions. Frozen streams may allow a wider field of view and snow laden branches may frame a shot in a different and unique way. Foreground is also useful and can be used to add depth to the image.
Snow is usually associated with either over cast skies or bright sunshine. In some ways an overcast sky can help with snow photography. The light will even out the highlights and shadows making a higher quality image. The harsh sunshine associated with snow can present its own problems with bright spots reflecting the light and causing highlights that can not always be adjusted in post-processing.
Snow confuses cameras. The camera will try to assign the white to a point on a gray-scale and it can't always manage it. The snow isn't always white either and will reflect the light from the sky, sometimes appearing blue and sometimes appearing pink if there is a sunset glow. If you can shoot in RAW then this will allow adjustments later. Explore the bracketing settings on your camera or set the camera to overexpose by one stop. Having the image too white and light is easier to correct than an image that is far too dark and underexposed. Always check the histogram on your camera if you can to make sure there are no areas that are underexposed or overexposed. This will be explored in a blog post very soon.
Photograph for Black and White
Sometimes colour isn’t needed. The harsh structure of trees in winter combined with white snow can provide beautiful images. Finding isolated trees or hillsides with texture will make the image pop. Try to imagine the picture in black and white when you are setting up and compose to ensure leading lines and rule of thirds are spot on.
Hoar frost is a magical creation and is found on very rare occasions. It doesn't last long and as the air temperature increases the frost will melt into nothing. Getting out early into exposed areas where the air has cooled onto the trees can lead to some beautiful landscapes. Don't forget details as well as the bigger picture as hoar frost, clinging to branches is stunning.
Fog and Mist
Cold mornings usually start clear but can easily mist over. As the frozen ground warms, the moisture turns to mist which hangs above the ground in a surreal layer. Water is also great for mist. In places where the air temperature is colder than the water temperature the water will steam and boil giving a beautiful mist.
Snow, frost and ice can bring added beauty. Always remember to look at the small things. Puddles that are frozen can become works of art in their own right. Bubbles are caught as the water freezes leading to stunning patterns.
Snowflakes are hard to photograph, but with patience it is possible. When it begins to snow leave a dark woollen object outside to collect the flakes. This makes it easy to see the flakes and gives a great background. Using an additional light source and a macro lens beautiful flakes, all completely different can be captured. Flakes can also be seen on the outer edge of hoar frost and the top of structures. Take it slowly and hunt around, there is bound to be one all on its own and perfect for an image.
The final bit of playing in cold weather is frozen bubbles. The temperature needs to be below about -6C to make these work and the air needs to be fairly still. Using a bubble mix, blow gently and allow the bubble to settle on the frozen surface. I find my garden gate works well. If it is cold enough the bubble will freeze rather than burst. Allow the entire bubble to freeze before using a small side light to enhance the patterns as you take the image. This usually needs a macro lens or setting.
Updated November 2018