Essential Winter Photography Tips
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Note: This post is a bit longer than some of my others since there are a lot of winter photography tips 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!
Winter Photography Tips, Front Country or Backcountry:
When planning a winter photography trip your location options are the same as the rest of the year, front-country or backcountry. However, in winter a backcountry photography location involves more risk and preparation.
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Frontcountry locations can be accessed in several 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 trails 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.
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In winter the sun of course is in a lower latitude. And for photographers that means more opportunities for the 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 the 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.
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 the 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 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.
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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 may 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 freeze waterfalls lakes and rivers, something that is quite rare in the coastal ranges.
So make sure you educate yourself about 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 hightail it out to the safety of a motel.
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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 backward when you’re 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 the summer. But it always amazes me how unfamiliar the route looks in winter.
Check 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 a 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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Winter Photography Tips, Safety:
Avalanches are the biggest hazard on a winter photography trip in the mountains. Never travel alone in any area that is susceptible to avalanches! If you are caught in even a small slide your chances of 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.
Afterward, 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 for all three items. Most outdoor retailers sell these items both separately and in a package, which offers a bit of saving 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 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.
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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 the light you’ll lose 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 hard shells are preferred for stormy conditions. Just make sure they are well made and are both water and windproof. A lightweight article without insulation is the 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.
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Winter Photography Tips, Gear:
Keep it simple and organized: Try and keep your gear to a minimum and keep it organized. One of my absolute biggest frustrations with shooting in winter is dealing with buckles, straps, snaps, and zippers. Every item you’re wearing or carrying seems to latch and get tangled onto these fasteners. Trying to cope with the problem is compounded by the necessity of wearing gloves. Try and choose gear that has 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 another 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 microfiber 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 are 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, a warming hut or a 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 them 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 halfway 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 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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Helpful links for Winter Photography