Nooksack Ridge in winter North Caascades Washington

Essential Winter Photography Tips

Essential Winter Photography Tips

Nooksack Ridge in winter North Cascades Washington Winter Photography Essential TipsHeather Meadows North Cascades #64748  Purchase

Note: This post is a bit longer than some of my others since there is a lot of information to share on the topic.

A successful winter photography trip is all about planning and timing, especially if you’re photographing landscapes. As I outlined in my previous post winter photography presents some unique challenges to the photographer, but if you can get past them a whole new world rich with rewards will be open to you. Few experiences can match getting out of your tent at dawn after a storm has cleared to photograph a trackless pristine winter scene in perfect light!

Front Country or Backcountry:

When planning a winter photography trip your location options are basically the same as the rest of the year, frontcountry or backcountry. However in winter a backcountry photography location involves more risk and preparation.

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Frontcountry locations can be accessed in a number of different ways. It may be as easy as driving up to a classic viewpoint along a road or in a national or state park. But keep in mind many of those locations may be closed or on unplowed roads in winter.

Utilizing ski area chairlifts is a great method for accessing winter landscapes. They can get you higher up to views usually accessible by hiking trail in summer. They’re also a good way to shave off some miles and elevation when starting a backcountry trip. Some ski areas offer a discounted one trip only lift ticket. But if you’re a skier a full day ticket is the way to go. It will enable you to do some early morning photography, have fun skiing all day, then make one last trip up for evening light. Getting on and off a chair lift can be tricky though when you have a pack full of camera gear.

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Backcountry locations involve more planning, more gear to carry, and efficient means of travel. Don’t even consider getting into a winter backcountry location by just walking in snow boots. Nothing is more exhausting than trudging through hip deep snow! Snowshoes, skis, or split-board snowboards are the best options.

All the gear for a full day backcountry photography trip can be reasonably carried in a mid-size backpack. If you’re planning an overnight trip expect to carry at least 25% more weight on your back. But if that seems doable don’t forget that snowshoes or skis can add up to an additional 5-7 pounds on each foot Any way you look at it you’re in for a good workout!

A well timed overnight backcountry trip will put you in an enviable position. Photographing a pristine landscape at sunrise  just after a fresh snowfall is a magical experience, making it well worth all the effort!

*Essential Tip: To photograph pristine landscapes arrive as early as possible when photographing near ski areas, or other popular locations. After a fresh snowfall skiers will flock to the slopes in hordes. Often within an hour after sunrise slopes will be completely tracked out. The popularity of backcountry skiing has exploded over the years. So even relatively remote areas can be tracked out quickly.

Also, be aware of reckless drivers on roads leading to ski areas. Many skiers throw caution to the wind when it comes to getting first lines.

Wells Grey Provincial Park in winter Winter Photography Trip PlanningWells Grey provincial Park British Columbia #3683  Purchase

Light:

In winter the sun of course is in a lower latitude. And for photographers that means more opportunities for golden light and side lighting. Also, since the days are shorter there’s a lot less waiting around in the cold for good light. The golden hour lasts longer in the morning and starts earlier in the afternoon. But even in late morning and early afternoon the angle of the sun can still present wonderful photographic opportunities.

As a bonus you don’t need to get up as early in the morning. But if you’re camping out you’re in for nearly fourteen hours of darkness. You’ll also have less travel time available, requiring some locations to be an overnight trip. Of course waiting until late winter or early spring means longer days and warmer temperatures. However during the transitions of seasons the weather will also be more volatile, which could also provide opportunities for dramatic light.

*Essential Tip: Set your camera meter on manual. Camera meters are set for a base exposure of neutral gray. All that white snow will trick your camera into exposing the scene too dark. There are numerous methods of compensating for this, but for me the easiest is to set the camera on manual and overexpose +1 stop. Also, always check your exposure on your camera’s histogram view, and adjust your exposure accordingly.

Weather:

Ideally you’ll want to be on location just as a storm cycle concludes, leaving the trees* and landscape covered in fresh snow, with the remnant clouds bathed in glowing morning or evening light.

*Essential Tip: Trees that are free of snow tend to lose detail and become silhouettes against a snowy white backdrop. Try to get on location before snow melts off tree branches.

Your first challenge is to become a bit of an amateur meteorologist.  You’ll need to regularly keep track weather of patterns and trends for your desired destination. Make sure you use several sources, such as NOAA, Weather Network, AccuWeather, Mountain Weather Forecasts, etc.

Observe storm patterns and satellite images on weather sites. Watch the direction they come from and where and how long they last. Also take note of temperature fluctuations before during and after a storm. Winter storms often start out warm and wet, followed by colder dryer conditions. Look at the bigger picture and find out the seasonal patterns of weather. Let’s take a look at why this is important.

Ice encased trees Winter Photography Trip PlanningSnow encased trees North Cascades  #33243  Purchase

Regional Weather and Snow

 
Pacific Northwest storms often dump huge quantities of heavy wet snow in the mountains. Quickly fluctuating temperatures can change the snow to rain in an instant, or vice versa. This is especially true in November and December, the stormiest months of the year. However January and February have cooler and more consistent temperatures, with more calm periods between storms. Making this a better time to visit locations such as Mount Rainier or Mount Baker. In March the storms ramp up again with more variable temps.
 
Rocky Mountain states and provinces have a completely different scenario. The big difference is temperature. This far inland it’s much colder and dryer. The snowfall amounts will be a lot less, even in major storms. And even more importantly the snow will be dryer and less likely to accumulate on trees. So your window of opportunity to photograph that fresh snowfall my be much smaller.
 
In the Rockies the cold dry conditions are a great benefit for photographing other winter subjects, such as ice. The consistently colder temperatures freezes waterfalls lakes and rivers, something that is quite rare in the coastal ranges. 

So make sure you educate yourself to the various conditions in different areas, it’ll help get you there at the right time and decide where to go for different subject matter, not to mention when it’s time to high tail it out to the safety of a motel.

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Route Finding:

Well groomed summer trails to your favorite mountain vista will be under several feet of snow in the winter. There won’t be any trail markers visible, leaving it up to you to find the route.

White-out conditions are especially dangerous. There will be no visible distinction between sky and snow, and it’s very easy to get turned around in a matter of seconds. When traveling on skis in these conditions there can often be a strange and frightening sensation of sliding backwards when you’re actually moving forwards! Even in good weather a familiar route in winter will look much different than in summer. I’ve been up to Artist Point by Mount Baker dozens of times in summer. But it always amazes me how unfamiliar the route looks in winter.

Check in with park rangers for special winter routes and advice, or go online to local winter recreation forums for advice. For example due to avalanche dangers the Paradise area at Mount Rainier has different winter routes specified by the park service.

I’m a firm believer in using map and route finding skills, and not relying on GPS, cell phones, and other electronic gadgets. In winter especially you must develop a new set of skills and common sense to get around safely. It is unbelievably easy for things to go wrong in winter. Dead batteries, or losing your phone or GPS in the snow mean disaster.

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Safety:

Avalanches are the biggest hazard on a winter photography trip in the mountains. Never ever travel alone in any area that is is susceptible to avalanches! If you are caught in even a small slide your chances for getting out alive are very slim. However the science of learning to identify potential hazards is too complex to explain here. 

Visit your local outdoor recreation store to get information on avalanche awareness and safe winter travel in your area. Most likely they will also offer avalanche safety courses or direct you to an organization that does. A good short course will go a long way in keeping you alive and safe. Plus you’ll have fun and probably meet some future travel partners.

Afterwards, and before heading into the backcountry, you’ll need to invest in the tools needed for safe travel in avalanche prone areas. Namely an avalanche beacon*, avalanche probe, and shovel. Expect to pay anywhere from $350-$450 all three items. Most outdoor retailers sell these items both separately and in a package, which offers a bit of savings on cost.

*Do Not purchase a used beacon that was manufactured before 1990! These older beacons use a different frequency, and are not compatible with newer models.

Also exercise extreme caution on lakes or streams. A snow covered surface may hide dangerously thin ice.

Frostbite and Hypothermia are the next biggest hazards of photographing in winter. Landscape and nature photography practically requires sitting around in one place waiting for the right lighting conditions. This alone is an invitation to hypothermia. But remember, hypothermia is not limited to winter conditions. It can occur in temperatures of 50º, and even higher in windy wet conditions.

When you’re working up a sweat hiking or skiing in it is very easy to quickly lose heat and become chilled when resting. Even on a sunny day. Unless you quickly put on dry clothes or an insulating layer hypothermia can quickly set in. Learn what the signs are and act quickly to get warm.

Frostbite or frostnip are serious concerns anytime the temperature gets below freezing. Fingers and toes are most susceptible. Tight fitting boots and gloves are the biggest causes, since they hinder crucial circulation. Tingling numbness and loss of feeling are danger signs.

To prevent both hypothermia and frostbite it is essential to stay dry and wear properly fitting clothes. Keep your core body well insulated and warm and your extremities will fare better.

Ski lift Mount Baker Ski Area Winter Photography Trip PlanningMount Baker Ski Area  #53513  Purchase

Dress for Comfort and Safety:

Always dress in layers. to stay warm and dry you’ll constantly be shedding layers when active, and adding layers when sedentary.

Baselayers are the foundation. You wear it all day and it keeps body heat in and wicks sweat and moisture away. Merino wool is preferred over synthetics. It stays fresher longer and retains heat better than synthetics.

Midweight layers can be a synthetic sweater or vest, or a lightweight down sweater. Keep in mind that when you work up a sweat down will absorb that moisture, causing it to lose its insulation properties. For that reason synthetic is preferred for this layer.

Insulated jacket. This is where you’ll want to invest in a good down product. When taking a break or standing around waiting for light you’ll loose body heat quickly. A nice puffy down jacket or parka will trap that heat and keep you warm and cozy.

Shell Jacket and Pants. These can be either hardshell or softshell, but hardshells are preferred for stormy conditions. Just make sure they are well made and are both water and wind proof. A lightweight article without insulation is best and most versatile. Look for lots of easily accessed pockets and waterproof zippers.

Gloves and hats. I always carry two pairs, a fleece liner glove and an insulated ski gauntlet glove with leather palms and fingers. Mittens can be better for warmth but they’re difficult for performing minor tasks like buckling and pulling zippers. A good beanie hat is essential to keep your head warm. Use a lightweight version or headband for uphill exertion and a heavier one for sitting around.

Winter dawn over Crater Lake and Wizard IslandWinter dawn, Crater Lake National Park #3180  Purchase

Photography Gear Tips:

Keep it simple and organized: Try and keep your gear to a minimum and keep it organized. One my absolute biggest frustrations of shooting in winter is dealing with buckles, straps, snaps, and zippers. Every item you’re wearing or carrying seems to latch and get tangled on to these fasteners. Trying to cope with the problem is compounded by necessity of wearing gloves. Try and choose gear that have a minimum of these things and keep important items in easily accessible pockets or compartments.

Keep it out of the snow: When photographing try and lay your pack, spare jacket, or other large item on the snow, then place needed articles on it to keep them dry and in view. It is incredibly easy to drop a filter or lens cap in the snow right in front of your feet and never find it again!

Keep it dry: Bring along several good micro fiber lens wipes and or large cotton bandannas. No matter how hard you try things will get wet or snowy and having an absorbent fabric on hand is indispensable.

Keep Batteries warm: This should go without saying but batteries will quickly lose power in cold temperatures. Modern lithium-ion batteries hold a charge longer and better than traditional AA or AAA types. Regardless keep them warm in a pocket close to your body.

Keep your camera cold:  Needless to say your gear will be in cold temperatures for most of the day. Bringing a camera in and out of a car, warming hut, or lodge will quickly warm it up, causing harmful condensation to form on the lens and camera body.  If this happens always wipe your gear dry immediately. Better yet, protect them in plastic ziplock bags before bringing it inside.

Tripods:  Using a tripod in deep snow can be challenging. Manfrotto makes tripod snowshoes that will attach to the legs of most tripods. I have a pair of these but have never used them simply because they’re a pain to attach and don’t work well in all the various snow conditions I encounter.

When setting up my tripod I cautiously spread the legs only about half way or less and sink them into the snow almost monopod style. Since this position isn’t very stable I’ll use a remote to trip the shutter. Spreading the legs all the way out increases your chance of bending, jamming, or breaking them. Be warned that this may not be the best technique but it works for me.

Handle with care: The lower the temperature goes the more susceptible everything is to breakage. Plastic items are the biggest concern, but metal items can become brittle too. Never overtighten anything! Not only is it an invitation to breaking but it will be more difficult to unfasten when wearing gloves.

Filters: Polarizing filters should be used judiciously. It’s very easy to darken a blue sky too much against a white landscape. And just like using them throughout the rest of the year, be careful of vignetting on a wide angle lens.

If you regularly bring graduated neutral density filters you’ll probably use them in a reverse manner in winter. Meaning the land will need to be darkened instead of the sky. I rarely find a need for these filters in winter, and never take their added weight into the backcountry.

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Winter Photography Tips
Trophy Mountains, Wells Grey Provincial Park British Columbia

Gearing up for Winter Photography

Gearing up for Winter Photography

Trophy Mountains, Wells Grey Provincial Park British Columbia Winter PhotographyTrophy Mountains British Columbia  #3962  Purchase

With fall photography wrapping up most of us are beginning to dream of plans for next years photography trips. But what about the next several months? There’s plenty of photography opportunities and subjects during the winter months too. But I’m not talking about heading down to the Southwest for desert photography. I’m talking about the cold snowy areas of National and State and Provincial Parks, many of which are nearly deserted in the winter months.

But before going into tips and techniques of actually photographing in winter lets talk about how to stay safe and comfortable.

Winter photography is definitely more challenging than photographing in warm summer weather. However with a little preparation and the proper gear it can be safe, comfortable, and extremely rewarding. In this post I’m going to outline some tips on gear, safety, and getting around in winter.

All the various items of winter clothing and gear are generally pretty pricey, but you need to get the best you can afford. The key here is to not skimp on quality. Some items that perform great in summer easily break or breakdown in cold temperatures. In particular, gas canister stoves are nearly useless in cold temperature.

Bow Valley in winter, Banff National Park Winter PhotographyBow Valley Banff National Park #43869  Purchase

Winter Photography Clothing:

  • The rule in outdoor safety is, cotton kills. Cotton has no insulation properties, leaving you vulnerable to hypothermia. And when cotton is wet it is nearly impossible to dry off in cold temperatures.
  • Merino Wool is your best option for base layers. Unlike traditional wool Merino wool is softer and isn’t itchy. It’s warm, comfortable, and stays fresher smelling than synthetics after a few days of wear.
  • Waterproof shell jacket and pants. Look for features such as built in gaiters, suspenders, articulated knees, hood, and deep pockets with zippers.
  • Down jacket or parka. Absolutely nothing beats down for insulation. Keep it dry and it’ll be your best friend. But get it wet and it’s worse than cotton for insulation. I wear my down jacket  when standing around camp or when waiting for light. However it’s too warm for heavy exertion, when you risk getting it wet from perspiration.
  • Insulated high top snow boots. You’ll be trudging through deep snow and standing around a lot. Make sure they fit well. Tight fitting footwear equals cold feet.
  • Two pairs of gloves or mittens. I have insulated ski gloves with leather palms and finger and a thinner set of synthetic gloves for better dexterity when working.
  • Hat, sunglasses and or ski goggles. In addition to the hood on your jacket, it’s wise to bring along a wool or fleeces beanie. Also, a good full face balaclava, is essential for when it get really cold and windy. Goggles are great during windier conditions, they provide better visibility and help keep your face warm.
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Getting Around:

Unless you plan on photographing from your vehicle or on well packed trails, you’ll need an efficient way to get around in deep snow. How you do that will depend on your goals and location. If you’re photographing in the mountains you’re most likely going to encounter deep snow of varying consistency. Here in the Pacific Northwest the snow is heavy, wet, and often over 10′ deep. In the Rockies it tends to be very dry, powdery, and deep too. Regardless of which location it’s no fun postholing through deep snow in just boots.

  • Snowshoes are a great method for beginners to travel through snow in a great variety of conditions. They don’t require special skills or  boots, and are relatively inexpensive. However don’t assume that you’ll be floating easily on top of the snow. Unless you’re on a packed trail you’ll definitely be sinking in the snow to some degree, and working up a sweat. If you’re hiking through deep, wet, and heavy fresh snow they’re almost as exhausting as postholing.
  • Backcountry, Alpine Touring (Randonee), Telemark skis, and Split-Board Snowboards. These are, in my experience and personal opinion, the best and most enjoyable ways to access photo subjects in deep mountain snow. You’ll get around easier and faster, and with much better flotation, even going uphill in steep terrain. Plus you’ll have a blast gliding back to your vehicle. The big downsides to these options are the gear can be expensive, and all of them have a much higher learning curve than snowshoes.
  • Cross country skis are an option only if you’re on a groomed trail or have lots of experience. These skinny skis are generally too narrow for deep untracked snow, and are nearly useless for going uphill. And they don’t turn very well on the downhill.
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Winter Photography Camera Gear Considerations:

In winter you must, of course, care for your camera gear to a greater degree. It’s quite a challenge to stay dry and keep snow off of your gear.

  • A good backpack style case is essential If you’re going out for more than a few minutes. A good quality backcountry ski pack is a wise investment. Most traditional camera backpacks don’t have enough room for extra clothes, water, snacks, and other essential items necessary for winter travel.

For day trips I suggest finding a quality pack with around 2000-3000 cubic inches of storage. Dedicated ski packs have the advantage of being designed for winter backcountry travel, with room for essential safety equipment, such as shovels and avalanche probes. They are generally more waterproof, and have features that can be accessed with gloved hands.

Another good idea is a camera case with a chest harness. This will give you quick access to your camera when snowshoeing or skiing in. And it will keep you from constantly unloading your main pack in the snow whenever you come across a subject.

  • Batteries. Always bring extras and have them fully charged before heading out. Todays lithium-ion are far superior and more reliable than standard AA batteries. But they are not immune to cold conditions, keep them warm in your jacket if you can.
      • Microfiber clothes and towels. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe states “A  towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have…” This is also true for winter photography. Despite your best efforts you will constantly be wiping snow and moisture off your gear. Not to mention the constant fogging lens, filters and camera bodies will get as you handle them. At least one microfiber cloth is essential, but take three for good measure.

Backcountry Safety warning sign Mount Baker Ski AreaBackcountry Safety Warning Mt. Baker Ski Area #56529  Purchase

Safety Considerations:

There are plenty of risks to consider when photographing in a winter environment.  Among them are traveling in avalanche terrain, hypothermia, frostbite, thin ice on lakes and streams, and getting your vehicle stuck. Nearly all of them can be avoided by careful planting, a good amount of caution, and common sense. Listed below are a few basic items you should never leave home without.

  • A Backcountry style snow shovel is a must. They’re strong, lightweight, and are great for a variety of uses. Its main safety purpose is digging out an avalanche victim. But they are also useful for digging out your car after a storm, and making a seat or shelter in the snow.
  • Avalanche transceivers and probes are essential if you’re planning on traveling into the backcountry through questionable terrain. However these items are of absolutely no use if you are not trained in using them.  Always travel with companions and make sure everyone has avalanche rescue and awareness training!
  • Tire chains or other traction devices for you vehicle. Never leave home without these. Conditions can change rapidly throughout the day, and a bare dry road in the morning can have inches or feet of snow on them in the afternoon. Most mountain highways require them during winter months anyway.
  • Jumper cables and or a portable jump starter is also a must. Imagine charging up camera batteries, smartphone, and or laptop while sitting in your car waiting for the snow to stop, only to find out your car battery is dead. Not a good feeling!
  • Gas camping stove and extra food. After a day in the snow and cold it’s nice to have a hot drink. It can also be a lifesaver if you’re cold and on the verge of hypothermia. I always carry a large propane tank in my truck along with a two burner camp stove. To keep it going in cold weather I need to replace the regulator on the stove every year or so. For the backcountry I always carry a white gas MSR XGK. Unlike todays popular gas canister stoves this stove performs flawlessly in the coldest conditions.
  • Extra dry clothes and sleeping bag. If you worked up a sweat, or all your clothes are wet you’ll appreciate changing into dry clothes back at the car. A sleeping bag is essential if a surprise storm prevents you from driving home.

North Cascades Highway closure Winter PhotographyNorth Cascades Highway in winter #56605  Purchase

Coming up next

The next installment will discuss planning an outing, day trips vs. overnight backcountry trips, weather, and other considerations.

If you enjoyed reading Gearing up for Winter Photography please share it with your friends and family.

All photos appearing in Gearing Up for Winter Photography are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!