Winter can be an outstanding time of year for photography. The landscapes can be aesthetically pleasing, offering more options to be had, and ideas to come up with across a scene for both landscape and wildlife photography.
In fact, Backcountry Journeys just so happens to really love winter! Our typical winter season will have us visiting places like Yosemite (one of my personal all-time favorite workshops), Yellowstone, Zion & Bryce, and Kaktovik (Polar Bears), so as to take advantage of the addition of fresh snow, ice, and atmosphere.
In the following article I’ll discuss what makes winter great by listing a few advantages that we have in winter, and then provide a few tips for photographing during one of the best times of the year!
Advantages of Winter
So, what can possibly be advantageous about winter? I came up with four, and obviously, there may be many more.
- The sun – it’s generally lower on the horizon. It rises later, so sunrise isn’t so early. Those of you who have traveled with us to Yosemite in winter recall getting to “sleep-in” just a bit, prior to taking advantage of the seriously wonderful soft light filling the Valley for a majority of the day.
- Snow, frost, and ice – these additions are huge! There are so many creative things we can accomplish both with epic landscape scenes featuring a blanket of fresh snow, or macro work with the incredible detail in an individual snowflake or icicle.
- Atmosphere – whether it’s fog, or conversion, or light snow falling during golden hour, the atmosphere can help tell a fantastic story of winter. It can add meaning and emotion to your images.
- Less Crowded – Popular photo locations might not be so populated. Think about your favorites photo locations. At what time of year are those spots most busy? It’s likely not during winter when it is cold and snowy. Perfect for you, if you are willing to brave the elements which, if you are reading this article, you likely are. Again, I think about Yosemite. Or, Yellowstone for that matter. We literally have those places to ourselves during winter, as tourists tend to shy away.
Tips For Winter
Be Thoughtful, and Safe
I’d be remiss if Tip numero uno wasn’t, “Be safe.” This includes having the proper clothing, footwear, and gear so that you can stay warm, stay dry, drive safe, walk around safely. You’ll also want to consider and understanding any limitations. Its important to be sure to not try to do too much. Your vehicle can only go so far down that snowy muddy road before it might get stuck. You should perhaps know your limits for how far into the woods to hike, and so on. I’ll never forget standing at Bryce Point on an unbelievably cold and windy early spring morning. For those of you who’ve been on our Canyons of Utah: Zion & Bryce tour, you’ve been here. A lady, not in our group, was there alongside us, completely ill-equipped for the environment. She had a light winter coat, wide open, no gloves (hands were frozen), no hat, and regular footwear that would provide zero warmth. She was freezing, yet refused to leave the spot until after sunrise, which she desperately wanted to photograph with her iPhone. As we spoke with her it became clear that she was far too cold, to a point where her cognitive responses were not good. Her decision making was just not there. Needless to say, we made sure to get her back to her vehicle to warm up, but, she lives on in my mind as a striking example of being thoughtful, and safe, in winter.
Gear & Clothing
Later this week, we will be running an entire article focused on our favorite winter photo accessories, so we’ll not get into too much depth with photo gear here. We will, however, touch on personal clothing choices so that you don’t make the same mistakes as the woman referenced above. Preparation will lead to being comfortable, dry, and as warm as possible. If you take care of these details, you’ll be able to focus more on your photography and less on how much you want to return to the warmth of your vehicle and an awaiting hot coffee. What does preparation look like? Many reading this are well-versed in layering up for an extended outdoor time during cold winters. Others may live in a region, such as Florida or Phoenix, where cold and snow are not a part of life. Ever. Take a look at the following list for ideas on how to best prepare:
- Layer your clothing choices, and use Merino wool or synthetic-based “hydrophobic” materials against your skin. This includes underwear, socks, baselayer leggings, and a base layer top. Add a mid layer (fleece works great because it provides a nice warmth to weight ratio), an insulation layer (like a “puffy” coat), and then a waterproof shell jacket, as needed. Some kind of insulated and waterproof pant over Merino wool leggings typically works like a charm for warmth below the belt. The shell is necessary if it is windy or wet. Use multiple layers of high-quality clothing. Merino wool-based layers can provide the necessary warmth – make sure that the base layers are close to your skin. Wool or synthetic socks under a waterproof boot is something that should not be missed. Cotton socks get wet, stay wet, and make you Brrrrrr… Cold.
- Speaking of footwear. This choice can depend a great deal on conditions and your intentions. Do you want to wear that big heavy snow boot that you use to scoop your driveway if you are going to hike a few miles to a shot location? Likely no. Could a waterproof hiking boot work well instead? Maybe. Depends on the snow. If you are headed out into the forest, following a nice snow event and you know the snow will be deep, the answer might be combining hiking boots, gaiters, and snowshoes. You’ll hear this all across the outdoors industry: “Take care of your feet.” This is because they take care of you, and they’ll holler pretty loud, so to speak, if they are unhappy (cold, blistered, wet, etc).
- Gloves are big! Meaning, they are important, and yes, one pair should be big. Outfit yourself with one thin pair, so that you can have some dexterity and control over the buttons on your camera and other gear. The second pair should be thick, one providing max warmth and keep you dry.
- A stocking cap or some sort of winter hat with insulation will help keep your head warm, mandatory in my experience.
Be Ready and Willing
Now that you are prepared with your layers, and your plans to stay safe, the next logical step is to be ready! Be ready to head out immediately following the weather (some snow accumulation). This includes watching weather forecasts, knowing where you might go, having your batteries charged, memory available, and, most importantly perhaps, having your mindset on taking advantage when you get your chance! Depending on where you live, snowstorms capable of providing aesthetically gorgeous scenes don’t come around every day, so be certain to keep your mind made up on heading out when conditions present themselves. Remember – there may not be a “next time” if the weather doesn’t cooperate well in a particular winter season. Like here in Flagstaff, Arizona where I live is a great example. We live in a “mountain town” at 7,000 feet of elevation. We, on average, receive 103.6” of snow each winter. This year (and seemingly last year, too) we sit at 74% lower than the historical average for this far into winter. Unless something changes soon, my chances are limited for this season, so I have to be ready for the next offering of snow from Mother N.
Keep Batteries Warm
Again, we’ll touch in more depth later this week about camera accessories, but, in the field, in the cold, it is recommended to keep your spare batteries warm. Cold batteries will not perform up to your expectations, so keep them warm and know that the battery in your camera will likely indicate that it is running low, even though it may not actually be doing so. I’ll often take any spares out from my pack and zip them into my insulation layer (puffy down or synthetic coat) so that the heat from my body can keep them from getting way too cold.
Keep Camera and Lenses Cold
While keeping batteries warm, you actually want to acclimate your camera and lenses to the temperatures, and then keep them cold until you are finished, even if your kneejerk reaction is to put your camera in the car for a bit to keep it safe. Allowing your camera, and even more so your lens, to warm up can cause the lens, viewfinder, and other components to fog up.
Set the White Balance
If you are shooting in RAW and have your white balance on Auto, you can, as usual, adjust that later in post-production. Scenes with a lot of snow can trick a camera into using the wrong white balance. If you are shooting in jpeg, or just typically like to set your own White Balance, make sure to set it manually.
Don’t let the white of the snow fool the camera/Use the Histogram
Winter or not, you’ll hear from many, if not all, BCJ photo guides that you should get into the habit of using the histogram when shooting landscapes. I’d be willing to argue that the histogram is the most helpful tool for getting your exposures right while shooting. Using it eases my mind as I know that when I close the shutter that I got the exposure correct, without blowing highlights. This is of great importance always, but especially when shooting snow-covered areas. The snow covered landscapes can mess with your camera’s internal light meter, so Shooting snowy landscapes can wreak havoc on your camera’s internal light meter, so don’t be afraid to use the histogram, and shoot in manual in order to take control. If you are shooting in aperture or shutter priority modes, your camera will try to compensate on its own, often getting it wrong.
Try a Polarizer
Using a circular polarizer is another tip that can be applied in many more circumstances than just winter scenes. A polarizer helps to make a blue sky darker and can enhance detail in clouds. It’ll also cut glare and saturate colors.
Use Color when/if you Can Find Some Color
Along these same lines, in mostly white and snowy conditions, take a look around to see if there is anything with some color that you could use advantageously. Like, this red covered bridge sitting lonely on an otherwise cold, winter landscape.
Consider Black & White When you Cannot
Can’t find that little pop of color? Or, perhaps you got yourself out there, but just couldn’t make it for sunrise/golden hour so you find yourself shooting during more harsh midday light? Have you thought about shooting in black & white? The low sun, that we touched upon earlier, will also create longer-lasting shadows, which is great for B&W imagery. Once again, if you are shooting in RAW, you can make the change to B&W later on in post-processing. However, maybe try changing your camera’s picture style to black & white so that you can size it up in the field, seeing it as you are envisioning it and allowing for settings and compositional changes.
Winter sure is a splendid season for photographers who choose to use the elements to their advantage. Sure, some of you reading might be thinking, “The only thing winter is good for is as an excuse to go to Hawaii.” And, maybe it is for you. There is no shame in not liking snow, ice, and cold if those things aren’t for you. It is true there are a few added considerations when shooting in winter, but the rewards are certainly there.
Hopefully, this collection of tips can help those of you new to winter photography to get started. And, perhaps these tips are just simple reminders for others. Either way, I hope this article inspires you to take advantage of that next winter storm. One I know that I am looking forward to with great hopes and high expectations. Well, at least to get out of bed and get outside. Let’s start there.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.