Winter is an excellent time for landscape photography, and it’s one of my favorites. Although the cold temperatures and harsh weather conditions can make it tough to shoot and get outside, the unique elements that accompany winter can create some fantastic images.
Over the years, I’ve learned something new after every winter excursion. I’ve made mistakes, been unprepared, and experienced a lot of different conditions. These experiences have made me more aware and in-tune with how to approach winter photography.
These are some tips that I’ve compiled from my experiences and I hope they help you with your next winter adventure.
Chase New Snow
Ah, fresh snow, such a beautiful sight. It is also a very important element for photography. Snow is the ultimate simplifier. It wipes away distractions and provides a clean slate in many cases. Take a forest scene, for instance. A typical forest is laden with branches, twigs, plant growth, and more. It’s complex and has many distractions, those distractions make it hard to compose a great image. Take that same forest, but coat the understory with snow, it’s a totally different place. It’s simple, elegant, and it is much easier to compose.
Chasing new or fresh snow, or going to a place where there’s always a lot of snow (like the mountains) can make your photography life easier – it will help you create a composition that has a stronger focus on your main subject, and it will also allow you to ‘see’ the landscape better since it’s easier to identify things like leading lines.
The image below was taken just following a significant blizzard at Yosemite National Park. The storm left behind multiple feet of snow in some places.
Bad Weather – Good Conditions
Sub-zero temperatures, howling winds, blizzards – those are frightening things, right? Things that normal people tend to dislike and stay away from. Well, photographers aren’t normal people. And trust me, if you want to create the best possible winter images, dynamic winter images, you need to embrace bad weather.
‘Bad’ weather can create great conditions. Some of my favorite elements, like ice, hoarfrost, blowing snow, and rising mist all stem from harsh weather conditions. My recommendation is don’t discount ‘bad’ weather and know that it can actually create some of the best photography conditions.
The below image was captured when katabatic winds blew down from a glacier nearby. The 40-50 mph gusts created a great atmosphere with the blowing snow.
This isn’t so much a photography tip, as it is a general gear tip. Being ill-prepared for winter shooting is a recipe for disaster. Especially, if you’re planning on taking advantage of that ‘bad’ weather. You’ll have a better experience and you’ll be safer if you’re overprepared. That means having the appropriate clothing – down jacket, layers, insulated mittens, hand warmers, etc.
That means understanding how the temperatures will affect your camera gear too. Be prepared for shorter battery lengths and lens fogging due to condensation.
A few winters ago, I visited the Canadian Rockies during a stretch of -30 degree F weather. I wore waders and waded into some rivers by Jasper National Par for many shoots. The key was that I was prepared. I overdressed, made sure my camera gear was accounted for and easily accessible, I had additional gear for wading in cold water, and it made my experience much better than ‘wading in -30 degrees’ implies.
I definitely recommend hand warmers. They are an essential piece for me in winter. They can keep your hands warm if you have to take off gloves/mittens to adjust camera settings, and I have even used them to unfreeze tripod twist-locks in freezing temperatures.
Understand Exposure & Color
Winter elements, especially snow, affect optimal exposure and subsequent processing. Snow reflects a lot of light, and thus, it appears very bright. The brightness plays tricks on the internal metering system of cameras and a camera will tend to compensate for snow by underexposing the entire scene. This won’t apply to you if you’re shooting in manual, but if you’re using a mode like Aperture or Shutter Speed Priority, pay close attention to your histogram. Most winter scenes that include snow, will need positive values of exposure compensation applied so the scene is balanced and exposed properly.
Another issue is processing winter scenes. I find that a ‘cool’ approach works well for processing winter scenes. Incorporating or emphasizing blues and cooler tones helps portray the feeling of winter to the viewer and audience. However, I’ve found it is very easy to go too far, and the result is oversaturated snow or a color cast. I’m guilty of it myself, and to some, that appearance may be enticing. My advice is to take some time while processing your winter images. Take a step back, let a processed image rest for a day before coming back to it. When you do, you might find that you pushed the colors too much.
A side note – I find that it is much easier to dial in realistic colors if you’re starting with an optimal exposure that’s exposed to the right. When snow is underexposed and in the shadows, it’s much easier to overdo the color.
Look at the image below – the colors in the sky look good, and the cool mood is nice, but the snow is oversaturated and looks unnatural.
Look Beyond the Grand Landscape
Winter also offers fantastic opportunities to look smaller, and to focus on more intimate, abstract scenes. From ice textures to snow on the trees, winter leaves behind many unique patterns. The scenes are available and out there, regardless of the light. Don’t be afraid to get out your telephoto lens and look for textures and patterns. Some of the best winter images are shot between 200-600mm.
Here’s a shot that was taken in the middle of a whiteout snowstorm. Visibility was low, skies were gloomy, and there weren’t a lot of good options with my wide-angle lens. So, I put on a telephoto and started looking for tighter scenes between 200-400mm. I found this nicely spaced group of tree branches and I shot at a slow shutter speed (1/20th) to blur the snow.
There are patterns like this all over in winter, you just need to make yourself more aware of the small scenes.
Embrace the Night
I find that night photography in the winter can be one of the most productive times for astrophotography In the northern latitudes, the reason is simple – the Northern Lights. Perhaps Mother Nature’s greatest display, the Northern Lights are one of those natural phenomena that leave you at a loss for words. In the winter, places like Alaska, Iceland, and Norway, offer fantastic opportunities to capture the aurora. Winter days are short so there’s a lot of darkness and the lights are more visible in the extreme north.
I also really enjoy chasing the moon in winter. Winter moonrises and moonsets can be fantastic when combined with winter elements, like snow and ice. I find a crescent moon to be best, as a long exposure (10-30 seconds) amplifies the moonlight nicely, whereas a full moon can just be too bright at those long speeds. I use PhotoPills to check when and where the moon is rising/setting when planning my winter moon shoots.
This image of the setting moon was taken about an hour before sunrise in Jasper National Park.
A technical note: winter night shots, like this one, will yield underexposed shadows because of the darkness. It’s the one time where I focus less on color correcting the snow, as you’ll notice the snow does have a purple-ish/blue hue, which I just told you to look out for! Just do your best at night to manage the color. This image worked well because the golden light from the moon complemented the deep blues.
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