Fall is my favorite season to photograph and now it is dead and gone until next year.
Now, many of us are left with the impending cold weather and darkness of winter. Fear not! Winter is a fantastic time to photograph and there are many places that are known for their exceptional winter photography. I love all seasons, each one is unique, but winter can provide some incredible elements for photography – fresh snow and ice especially.
Winter is also a time for getting away.
I live in Wisconsin and winter can feel long, and I’m sure a lot of you out there in a similar situation would rather go somewhere warm versus a cold abyss. Well, I should have both ends of the spectrum covered on this list – the top destinations for winter photography (and yes, I did include some warmer climate, winter is winter!). At Backcountry Journeys, we pride ourselves on offering workshops to the best locations for photography. You will find that we offer photography workshops to many of the locations on this list and we plan to add more in the future. Join us for a winter adventure!
The Canadian Rockies
If I had to pick just one place for a photography trip each winter, it would be the Canadian Rockies, specifically Banff and Jasper National Park, in Alberta. The two parks offer some of the greatest mountain landscapes on the planet. Winter is a phenomenal time to visit as well. I’m sure many of you have seen photos of the iconic methane bubbles that form on many of the large lakes in the area. In addition, the winter snow complements the mountains so nicely. It simplifies a lot of the landscape and offers great compositions. Many of the rivers freeze, but you can often find pockets of openings where ice and hoarfrost exist. Many mountain landscapes like Banff and Jasper are simply inaccessible in winter unless you ski or have climbing skills. Not true for these areas, the Canadian government goes above and beyond to make sure many of the main roads in the park are plowed year-round – a huge benefit for access. Short days in January and February also mean that the sun hovers at a lower angle in the sky, meaning Golden Hour and nice light last longer. I am planning a personal trip to the Canadian Rockies this January, you should too!
Yellowstone National Park
If the Canadian Rockies are the holy grail for winter landscape photography, then the holy grail for winter nature photograph has to be Yellowstone National Park. No park transforms more in winter than Yellowstone. In winter, there are no crowds and you will most likely only find yourself with other nature photographers. Wildlife is abundant (minus the hibernating bears), and there may not be a more iconic shot than a frost-covered bison. Expect that and so much more though, winter is the best time to observe wolves in the park and many of the other reclusive species. Winter means a scarcity of resources for the wildlife in Yellowstone, which means that when there is a kill in one of the valleys, many species congregate. If you love wildlife photography and want a great winter trip, plugin Yellowstone. The landscapes aren’t too bad either, as winter creates an interesting clash between geothermal features and extreme cold.
Yosemite National Park
Ah, Yosemite National Park, one of the crown jewels of the park service and where the idea for parks really was started by John Muir and company. In my opinion, spring and winter are probably the best times to visit Yosemite. Spring transforms the valley, with lush greens and rushing water from every iconic waterfall. But, winter, winter is really special. Yosemite has no shortage of iconic views and I think that the best time to shoot those views like Valley View and Tunnel View is winter. El Capitan and Half Dome are really something else with fresh snow. The Merced River cuts through the entire valley always offering a great view and composition. For the most part, winter is quiet in the park, too, with the exception of one week each February. Mid to late February is the only time during the calendar year when the setting sun is angled just right that just prior to sunset, the light, if unobstructed by clouds, hits the side of El Capitan just right, transforming the ephemeral Horsetail Fall into a fiery sight – hence the event name, ‘Firefall’. Time your visit with ‘Firefall,’ and maybe you will luck out and get to see the incredible event.
Okay, enough with winter, right?! What about those of us in the midwest and northeast who get to experience fresh snow and frigid temperatures for four months of the year?! Well, there is a location for you as well…a cluster of islands far west of California, the Hawaiian Islands, of course. All of the islands of Hawaii are magical places and winter is a great time to visit. Many see the islands as a tropical vacation, but don’t realize how much there is to photograph. Each island is unique in its topography and features, but each offers volcanoes, waterfalls, seascapes, and more. Where else in the world can you photograph a seascape at 85 degrees, but then an hour later be on top of a volcano at almost 14,000 feet? You can on the Big Island of Hawaii. Hawaii is also one of the best places in the world to watch and photograph humpback whales. Many of the whales migrate from their Alaska grounds to the Hawaiian Islands to give birth, and it is a fantastic place to see mama whales with their calves. If you have never been to Hawaii, it needs to be on your list, and there is no better time than winter.
Back to cold landscapes, and Iceland, which is next on our list. Iceland is a great spot to visit during all times of the year, you really can’t go wrong. Winter makes Iceland special though for one big reason, the Northern Lights. With great access to many beautiful landscapes in winter, Iceland is one of the best places in the world to view the Northern Lights. Iceland is just a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, which puts it in a prime space for the Aurora. There is nothing like watching and photographing the Northern Lights. I recommend enduring the cold and making a winter trip to Iceland sometime. Besides the Northern lights, the days are very short so the sun is so low on the horizon that the light is always great. The longer hours of darkness just mean a greater chance to see the Northern Lights too. Winter transforms the waterfalls and rivers, just like the Canadian Rockies. The water features on the island are laden with snow and ice and offering a totally unique perspective from when most people visit.
I think without a doubt Antarctica and the surrounding islands are the greatest location in the world for nature photography, and especially wildlife photography. Obviously, the logistics of getting to the South Georgia Islands or the Antarctic Peninsula are complicated. Most trips start from the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, and involve a ship crossing of the Drake Passage. Drake is known to be one of the roughest areas of the ocean on the planet. With that being said, the winter months are the best time (and really the only time) to schedule a trip to Antarctica. Located in the southern hemisphere, our winter months (December, January) are the summer months in Antarctica. It is when the ice flows break and actually allow access to many of the areas within the mainland and peninsula. It is truly an amazing region, untouched by humans and pristine in every way. Expect to photograph whales, seals, seabirds, and penguins non-stop. Not to mention the incredible glaciated mountains and landscapes of the Lemaire Channel and Paradise Bay.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is one of the hottest and driest places on the planet. Visiting in summer and doing any kind of hiking is almost a death wish, with temperatures often exceeding 100-110 degrees. That makes winter a great time to visit the park. Death Valley holds desert landscapes that look like a different planet (I guess that’s why they filmed scenes from Star Wars in the park). Badlands, salt flats, dunes, mud tiles, and mountains populate the park and always offer something interesting to photograph. Temperatures are much more comfortable during the winter months and it can actually get below freezing at night. Access to the park is very easy as well and many great spots are just off the road. One of my favorite things to do in winter is to photograph some of the Death Valley dunes during windstorms. The wind kicking up sand creates an incredible atmosphere. The night skies are also incredible in the park. If you stay up and endure some of the cold, you will be greeted more stars imaginable and some fantastic night photography opportunities. Death Valley National Park can also easily be included with a trip to nearby parks like Yosemite National Park or Joshua Tree National Park. If you have the time, a California winter road trip has the potential to be an extremely productive photography trip, with a great diversity in landscapes.
Costa Rica is another one of those warm destinations where you can still do ‘winter photography’. Costa Rica is one of the most exotic locations on the planet and it is a great spot if you love wildlife photography. Although it is a relatively small country, it boasts 5% of the entire world’s biodiversity. Think about that for a second! Costa Rica is known for its species richness and great diversity, which is great for photography. In a single trip, you can capture photos of monkeys, coatis, sloths, crocodiles, and maybe some wild cats if you are lucky. You can really boost your wildlife portfolio with a trip to Costa Rica. We recommend visiting the Osa Peninsula, and we run many workshops there every winter. Our very own guide, Ben Blankenship, has actually spent much of his life working and photographing in the Osa Peninsula…thus, if you are thinking of a Costa Rica winter trip, we truly recommend joining Ben on one of our winter trips for the best possible experience.
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com