Tips for Photographing in Winter
A typical January 6 at RMSP headquarters in Missoula, Montana means there is snow on the ground, gray in the skies and cold in the air. Thus far however, the mighty La Niña winter we were supposed to see has been MIA. But that’s OK. As we patiently wait for winter, we will enjoy blue skies, bike rides on dry streets and a little extra time preparing for how to best photograph winter when it finally arrives.
With some help from RMSP Instructor Doug Johnson (who knows a thing or two about shooting in winter), we have compiled the following list of pointers that will serve you well when you venture out with your camera to capture winter…whatever it may look like in your neck of the woods. Understanding that every photographer is different and will fine tune their own approach, we have broken this post up into three broad categories – preparation, awareness and technical – to help make it more applicable to many styles of shooting. Here goes.
Being prepared is the most important tip we can provide for winter shooting. As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is true across the board, and applies to being prepared with your equipment, your plans and the weather.
• Weather: (aka: Mother Nature can be a bit schizophrenic). The first glance out the window in the morning might indicate the day is going to be full of blue skies. Don’t trust it. Rather, find a source for weather reports in the area you plan on visiting and pay attention to what the forecast says. For excellent weather reports that can be tailored to your area, check out www.weather.gov and www.weather.com. If photographing in winter means getting into the backcountry to enjoy some snowboarding, snowshoeing or skiing you should never begin a day without checking for avalanche danger. Avalanche.org can steer you in the right direction.
• Yourself: Sounds like a no-brainer, but taking care of yourself is an important part of photography. In winter conditions, proper clothing is important to your comfort, and therefore the quality of your images. If you are going to be moving around a lot in the snow, you’re going to break a sweat. Dressing in moisture-wicking layers helps keep you from becoming a popsicle. YakTrax are nice for icy streets or trails and snowshoes can help you get into some better locations if the snow is deep. Remember to always throw some food and a water bottle or Camel Back in your bag before heading out the door. Also, it’s important to tell someone else where you plan on shooting for the day.
Get in the habit of asking yourself “what if” before you leave. What if the light is great and you shoot for 8 hours instead of 30 minutes? What if you leave the car lights on and your car battery dies? What if it snows a ton while you are out? When packing your camera bag, these two words should be on repeat in your mind.
• Your gear: Although not as important as keeping yourself protected, keeping your gear safe is crucial. After all, coming back with great images is the whole point. In cold weather, batteries tend to get drained faster. Keeping spare batteries next to your body is an age-old trick to extending their life. Or, you can keep batteries in a Ziploc baggie in a pocket of your bag with some small hand warmers … if you have them, that is. Buy some right now and keep them in your bag or car – you’ll use ‘em. When (not if), your gear does happen to get a bit wet, having something accessible to wipe it off is helpful. Consider attaching a micro fiber cloth to your camera strap so that it can reach all parts of your camera and lens in case you need to wipe them down.
Handy tip: When buying a camera backpack, consider buying one in which the zippered entrance to the main compartment is next to your back. That way, after laying the bag down on the ground, you won’t get a back full of snow.
After dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s, the next step is to head out into the world to create some images. However, that is not the same as going on auto-pilot. From both a personal and a photographic standpoint, once you are in the field, it’s time to ramp up your senses. Being aware of yourself, your surroundings, the light and time of day are important.
• Light: As you are standing behind your tripod, or waiting to give your snowboarding buddies the green light to drop in, mentally fast-forward to the vision of you sitting at your computer thinking about what you would have done different to the image on the screen … the one you are about to take. Be aware of the light, the clouds, your exposure, and exactly what it is you are waiting for. Is the photo going to be better if you wait for the sun to emerge? Or is the moody light perfect just how it is? And if the light is starting to fade, it’s probably time to start to think about an exit strategy from your location.
Handy tip: Carry a working watch with you when venturing outdoors in winter.
• You and Your Surroundings: It sounds silly, but it’s important to never lose track of where you, or what you are standing on. Winter has a way of making everything very quiet and very similar looking. Trees start to look alike, a previously active landscape can turn featureless with just one cloud, and your built-in compass can fail easier than you might imagine. If you are familiar with using a GPS system, these tools can be handy as you head off into unknown areas. If you are on a slope or shooting near the banks of a river or stream, be aware of what is beneath your feet. Ice shelves on river banks can be very unstable and lead to – best case scenario – a cold, soggy, expensive mess. On slopes, it is common for seemingly packed snow to disappear from step to step. If not cautious, you could find yourself neck deep in the snow, which if alone, can be a terrifying experience.
Handy tip: Attach a whistle to your jacket in case you need to communicate with people around you.
By now, you are dressed for every possible weather situation, you have Power Bars and water bottles coming out of your ears, and your senses are sharper than those of an entire Boy Scout troop. It’s time for some photography! But before you crank up the motor drive, and proceed to fill up your memory cards like you did your coffee thermos at the gas station, arming yourself with some technical information will help you make the most of your day. Exposure, angle of light, metering and the histogram can make or break your photos.
• Exposure: First and foremost, it is important to know that snow is capable of playing evil pranks on you and your camera’s meter. Nowadays, these pranks can be minimized by the beloved LCD screen on your camera, but back in the days of shooting film, incorrectly-exposed frames were directly tied to the disappearance of dollars in your wallet. In a nutshell, here’s why snow can be challenging to photograph:
• Camera meters the light coming off your subject (reflective metering).
• Camera meter reads everything as 18% gray, so it delivers you a meter reading accordingly.
• Lit snow is about 1.5 – 2 stops brighter than 18% gray.
• If you trust your meter readings, a predominantly snowy scene will be underexposed.
• Underexposed images = grumpy photographer.
As long as you are aware of what actions your camera is taking when metering in snow, you can remedy the situation with the exposure compensation feature on your camera. Start by adjusting this to +1 and note the difference in your image. Alternatively, try spot metering your scene off something that is roughly 18% gray already, such as the bark on a tree or rocks. By doing this, your meter delivers truer readings. Now recompose, fire away and notice the effect on the overall scene.
• Histogram: No, we’re not talking about the photo sharing app that iPhone users can’t stop talking about. That’s Instagram. The histogram is the graph you may have seen when fumbling with the buttons on your camera. If you didn’t know what it was at the time, you might have had flashbacks to math or science class and broke out in a cold sweat. Understandable, but unnecessary. The histogram is an awesome tool on your digital camera that displays the range of tonal information in graph form of an image on your camera. Without going in depth, the histogram provides an efficient way to see if your image is under or overexposed. If after shooting an image of a snowy scene, the histogram curves or spikes were all on the far right side, it would indicate that your image is overexposed. This is especially helpful on sunny days when you can’t really see the image on your camera’s screen.
• Time of Day: No matter the season, the time of day you are shooting is always a factor in your images. This is because the quality of light is largely determined by the angle it is coming from. In the morning and evening hours, the angle of the sun is lower. In a snowy, winter scene “side light” can work wonders for bringing out texture in the landscape and minimizes the blown out look you often get shooting snow when the sun is overhead.
Photographing in winter can be a fantastic way to spend some time outdoors, enjoy some fresh snow and create really exceptional images. If this appeals to you, consider joining Doug Johnson for Basic Photography in Missoula in February. (We’re assuming the snow will show up by then)! We also have a Yellowstone In Winter workshop coming up. This course is currently full, but if you are interested, we will be happy to add your name to our wait list in the event of a cancellation.
And of course, we want to hear your experiences, thoughts and clever secrets about your winter photography outings. Add your comments below.