Don’t put your cameras away just because it has started snowing. Winter offers many opportunities for the nature photographer who is prepared.
In this article I’ll provide you with some wonderful winter photography ideas and tips.
Although most people think of winter as being cold, drab, and dreary, this season actually has a lot going for it if you wish to shoot beautiful nature photographs. With the onset of cold temperatures, insects, poisonous plants, and rattlesnakes cease to be a concern.
Snow covers sticks, small bushes, and a myriad of other distractions creating cleaner landscapes. Snow often reduces contrast in some scenes by acting as a huge reflector providing a wonderful soft light to work with. Winter snowstorms tend to concentrate wildlife at bird feeders which makes wildlife photos easier to come by.
Mammals look especially handsome during the snowy months in their fuzzy winter coats. And most birds have completed their summer molt by October so they too look beautiful during the upcoming months.
Winter Photography Ideas – Exposure Tips
We have lived in snow country all our lives and look forward to winter’s arrival each year. We recently moved from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where our snow season lasted for 5 months, to the high mountains of Idaho where we have snow on the ground from early November till late May in most years.
Early in our careers, we used many different methods to determine proper exposure for snow. We’ve used the “sunny 16” rule, metering a Kodak 18% gray card, metering the palm of our hand, and using a hand-held incident light meter.
All of these methods can be used at times to shoot accurate exposures, but none have both the speed and accuracy that we demand for a broad variety of nature photography which includes trees, landscapes, and wildlife.
Today we use our built-in through-the-lens spot-meter to determine all of our snow exposures because it’s both very precise and quick.
Properly exposing scenes on an overcast day where snow is the dominant subject is the easiest situation. Just meter only the snow and then compensate for the reflectance of the snow by adding two stops of light. For example, let’s suppose we were photographing snowshoe hare tracks in the snow.
First, we would spot-meter the snow and adjust our shutter speed and f-number to balance our camera meter display. In other words, take an exposure reading from only the snow. Let’s suppose our meter balanced at 1/15 second at f/16.
Since we probably want f/16 depth of field to get all of the hare tracks in sharp focus, we would use our shutter speed in this case to add two stops of light. Moving our shutter speed to 1/8 second would add 1 stop of light and moving it to 1/4 second would add another stop of light for a total of two stops of light.
Therefore, we would shoot at 1/4 second at f/16. Bracketing is not necessary because snow is such a reliable subject to take meter readings from.
Not all camera’s have built-in spot meters. If yours doesn’t, just put it on Center-Weighted. Fill the frame with only snow, and make the necessary compensation by adding two stops of light. Using your matrix meter should probably be avoided unless you test it to make certain it works.
Matrix metering systems vary substantially from brand to brand and even from one model to the next. The lack of uniformity among matrix metering systems makes them difficult to predict. However, our hints should work well with Spot and Center-Weighted metering, assuming your camera is operating up to specs.
It’s critically important to meter only the snow. Suppose you are shooting a scene of lodgepole pines after a heavy snowfall. The scene is mostly white, but does have some dark pine needles and tree bark. Don’t meter this overall scene and then add +2 stops of light!
While the white snow will cause underexposure by 2 stops of light, the dark areas tend to cancel out some of the effect of the white snow, so you’ll overexpose the whole scene somewhat. The trick is to find a patch of white that is big enough to fill your entire camera viewfinder. Meter only this patch of snow, add two stops of light, and shoot a properly exposed photograph.
Finally, please remember the +2 stops of correction on an overcast day works best when snow is the most important element in the photo. If you happen to have a darker animal like a mountain lion or raccoon, then snow is no longer the most important element in the photo.
Since the animal is now most prominent, still meter the snow, but now compensate by adding 2 1/3 stops of light. This would overexpose the snow very slightly, but we are willing to tolerate this to get more detail in the darker animal.
Snow on a sunny day requires a slightly different compensation. When the sun is coming over our shoulder or from the side, we meter only the sunlit snow and add 1 2/3 stops of light. All of our electronic camera bodies now have shutter speeds and f-numbers in 1/3 stop increments so it’s easy to work with thirds of a stop.
If your camera doesn’t, just add 1 1/2 stops. That’s close enough. It’s important not to let your meter see any dark subjects or snow in the shadows because that will throw your meter off. If the sun is coming directly toward us (backlighting), we still meter the sunlit snow but add a full +2 stops of light because the slight glare tends to inflate the metering reading slightly calling for extra compensation.
Finally, if darker animals are our primary subjects in the snow scene, we again add at least +2 stops of light to be certain of getting enough exposure on our animals.
There is one more point that we should address. Many photographers have learned to add light to snow scenes to shoot proper exposures. Since overcast days aren’t as bright as cloudy days, they believe that less compensation is necessary in such situations.
In truth, snow reflects about 90% of the available light no matter if it’s sunny or cloudy. All of our tests and experience have shown that we need about 1/3 to 1/2 stop more compensation on a cloudy day. The grey clouds are reflecting grey light on the snowy landscape below. We find the increased compensation useful to counteract the effect of the extra gray light reflecting down from the clouds overhead which make the snow even greyer.
If you prefer to use Automatic or Program modes, set the exposure compensation dial to +2. Then take the meter reading as we suggested, using the AE Lock to hold this exposure value while you recompose.
Exposing black & white film or color print film is not nearly as critical because the lab can compensate for minor exposure errors, although the best prints come from a well exposed negative. With print film, a +2 stop compensation is generally fine with snow.
GREAT WATERFALLS PICTURES
Waterfall photography also falls under great winter photography ideas. Winter is an excellent time to photograph waterfalls in the forest. In summer, this often means the white water is surrounded by very dark greens and blacks of the forest understory: a situation with a very large tonal range because both deep blacks and clean whites are present that is difficult to record well on film.
However, once a blanket of snow covers the landscape, the dark underbrush is replaced by white snow. The reduced tonal range or lowered contrast make waterfalls much easier to photograph well.
The best opportunities for gorgeous waterfall photos usually occur in early winter after a very heavy snowfall, but before extremely cold temperatures set in for an extended period of time. Even though waterfalls generally flow during the entire winter, very cold temperatures can cause ice to form.
This can completely conceal the flow greatly diminishing your photo opportunities. If this happens to you, just wait for a few days of above freezing temperatures. Often the ice will melt away revealing the waterfalls again.
We have encountered two other problems when trying to photograph waterfalls in late winter. As snow begins to melt, any dirt that has fallen on the snow rises to the top. Generally, dirty snow should be avoided. The second problem is the ice build-up at the base of the falls.
We’ve seen 100 foot high waterfalls that had only 20 feet of falling water because 80 feet of ice had formed at the base. For the most dramatic photos of the waterfalls, you need the water falling as far as possible.
Properly exposing waterfalls is rather easy during winter because the tonal range of snow, ice and white water is reduced. On cloudy days, meter a solid patch of clean white snow and compensate your exposure reading by adding +2 stops of light. If the waterfalls is illuminated by sunshine, then compensate by adding 1 2/3 stops of light.
SHOOTING IN THE FOREST
We do most of our tree photography during winter because the contrast in the forest is lower and the branches of large maples and oaks create wonderful patterns after a big snowfall. We prefer overcast lighting or soft sunlight for creating these kinds of images and lots of depth of field since out-of-focus tree branches aren’t appealing.
Once again, meter only the snow in overcast light and compensate by adding +2 stops of light. If a lot of dark tree bark appears in the photograph, it’s wise to bracket slightly by adding another +1/2 stop of light. In other words, metering the snow and adding + 2 1/2 stops of light would be the second shot.
This will probably overexpose the snow very slightly, but will provide more detail in the bark which may be important if the tree trunk dominates the photograph.
Another fun photo with snowbound trees is to lie on your back and shoot straight up with an ultra wide angle lens like a 20mm. This angle has worked particularly well for us in the lodgepole pine forests that grow all around our home. The best conditions include as much snow on the trees as possible and a rich blue sky for a pleasing background.
Metering is tough because it’s difficult to read only sunlit snow with a 20mm lens. There just isn’t a big enough patch, even for a spot meter. Also, there is a lot of contrast between the sunlit snow and the snow that is shaded by the pine trees. While we don’t bracket a lot, here is one situation where bracketing is almost mandatory.
* To determine proper exposure, start with the “sunny 16” rule which says that proper exposure in bright sunlight is 1/ISO at f/16. With Fujichrome Provia (ISO 100), the “sunny 16 rule” would say proper exposure is 1/100 at f-16. If your camera doesn’t have 1/100 second shutter speed, just round it off to 1/125 second.
* Since we want lots of depth of field, we would convert this exposure to 1/60 second at f/22, an equivalent exposure, and shoot a frame.
* Then shoot another frame at 1/60 second at f/19 and finally a third frame at 1/60 second at f-16.
The trunks of trees and the shadows they cast on the snow provide the opportunity for creating exciting pattern photographs. Look for solid stands of similar sized trees that are typically found in aspen or maple forests. Deep snow is best here because it covers many distractions like brush, logs, and stumps providing a cleaner surface for shadows to fall on.
Late evening or early morning sun is best on a blue sky day. The color contrast between the warm sunlit snow and the graphic blue shadows cast by the trees is stunning on color film. You’ll need lots of depth of field here, so stop the lens down to f/16 or f/22. Metering this situation is easy.
Take a reading from the sunlit snow only and compensate by adding + 1 2/3 to 2 stops of exposure with the compensation dial or manually with the shutter speed dial. Whatever you do, don’t let your meter “see” the shadows or you’ll overexpose the sunlit snow.
Photographing the sun streaming through snowbound trees produces another wonderful effect which we call sunstars. You’ll need a bright sunny day and pine trees that have as much snow on them as possible. (This lowers the contrast or tonal range in the scene.)
Once we find just the right group of trees, we snowshoe to their shaded side because we want to shoot directly at the sun. We always use f/22 as that creates a more dramatic sunstar with longer rays.
First, we decide on our composition and focus on the trees while the sun can’t strike the lens directly because it’s blocked by a tree. If the sun were in the photo, it would be so bright that we wouldn’t be able to focus and could damage our eyes.
Using a cable release connected to our camera body, we patiently wait for the sun to emerge from behind the tree. Once it starts appearing, we shoot a frame every few seconds till the sun eventually disappears behind another tree. Then we recompose and refocus all over again and wait for the next appearance of the sun.
Metering was tough to figure out the first time we tried creating this image. The only solution was to run a series of exposure tests to find out what we liked best. The results showed we should meter the snow on the shaded side of the tree and make no compensation at all.
This underexposes the snow by two stops, but plenty of detail remains. More importantly, the blue sky is darkened creating contrast between the sky and the sun producing a far more dramatic sunstar effect.
BIRDS AND MAMMALS
Many birds and mammals are particularly easy to photograph during the winter. Birds can be attracted to your backyard with sunflower seeds and suet. Some mammals also come to feeders, but the species depends on where you live. In most places, you can expect hungry squirrels, but we’ve also had skunks, raccoons, opossums, moose, black bears, deer, and flying squirrels at our feeders.
And in Idaho, a pine marten regularly visits our suet feeder.
A long lens in the 400mm to 600mm range is best for backyard bird and squirrel photography. We’ve used Nikon’s 500mm f/4 lens for more than a decade with wonderful results, but a 300mm f/4 with a 1.4x converter making a 420mm lens is an affordable alternative. Tokina, Sigma, and Tamron all make less expensive lenses in the 400mm range that work well.
You’ll also need a blind since most backyard critters won’t let you approach closely, but there are always exceptions.
Chickadees are notorious for being friendly, landing on our hands to beg for food.
You can purchase blinds from Leonard Rue Enterprises and DB Designs or build your own out of 2×4’s and camouflage material. An even easier way to proceed is to put your feeder in front of a window on the north side of your house or garage.
Since you’ll be photographing toward the north, plenty of light will illuminate the front of your animal as long as the roof isn’t so high that it blocks the sunlight. It’s best to be able to remove the window when you are taking photos since shooting through window glass typically costs some image sharpness and may induce a slight color cast.
Find a tree or bush in your backyard that naturally provides photogenic perches for the birds. You can even move trees around if none are naturally growing in the perfect spot. (Discarded Christmas trees work well.)
Then place a large barrel with a lid on it right in front of the tree to serve as a feeding station. The idea is to photograph the birds in the tree just above the barrel and not standing in a pile of birdseed although well done photos of birds at attractive feeders (a barrel doesn’t qualify as attractive) do sell well in the marketplace.
The barrel works better than most commercial feeders because there is more room on top. When birds are fighting for position on the narrow ledges of commercial feeders, they jump around more making them harder to photograph. Everything seems to be more relaxed when there is plenty of room at the dinner table.
Most birds are too small and active to meter directly. The best way to proceed is to place a mid-toned subject near the scene, so you can quickly meter that. We often tape a Kodak 18% gray card to the barrel; this works pretty well, unless it rains. Gray cards also fade in time when exposed to bright sun for a few days so be careful. A faded gray card is more reflective than 18% which will cause underexposure problems.
Bright sun or bright overcast are the best lighting conditions for birds and mammals. If the sun is shining, photograph them against the blue sky. If conditions are bright overcast, avoid the gray sky by composing so your visitors are against the out-of-focus trees in the background.
But, our favorite conditions are bright overcast on a very snowy day. This doesn’t happen often, but photographing animals with snow blowing through the frame adds an exciting element to the photo.
GETTING AROUND IN THE WINTER
Getting around during the winter months can be a problem due to deep snow. So we often wear snowshoes which permits us to walk virtually on top of the snow no matter how deep. Just don’t fall over backwards while wearing a heavy camera backpack because its very difficult to get back up.
Also, snowshoes are worse than useless when the snow is very wet. They slice right through melting snow; with every step, you’ll have about 5 pounds of wet snow sitting on top of your snowshoe.
Cold, dry snow that has had a few days to pack down is the best for easy snowshoeing. Iverson’s Michigan Trapper Model snowshoe has worked well for us for many years.
Arctic Cat snowmobiles that feature extra long tracks for better traction in deep snow have been enormously useful to us for more than a decade. Today, we both drive 1995 Arctic Cat EXT EFI Mountain Cat models.
This model is designed to carry a single rider over deep snow and the electronic fuel injection system is great in the mountains where changes in altitude of thousands of feet are normal in a days outing. We carry our photo gear by wearing a large camera backpack like a Lowe Pro or Sundog. The bottom of the backpack sits on the seat like a second rider.
Frequently, we attach a small sled to a hitch on the back of our snowmobile. You have to drive slower when using the trailing sled, but it works well when we wish to take both 35mm and large format cameras at the same time.
We would really rather not disturb the awesome silence of winter with our snowmobiles, but it’s often the only reasonable way to reach waterfalls and other scenic areas that are many miles from the nearest plowed road. Frequently, we drive our snowmobiles more than 100 miles in a day over unplowed roads and snowmobile trails to fabulous scenic locations in the mountains around our home and in nearby Yellowstone National Park.
Modern snowmobiles can easily cruise at 50-60 mph if snow and trail conditions permit, so you can cover a lot of territory if necessary.
COLD WEATHER TIPS
Cold temperatures are tough on your equipment. Batteries are notorious for going dead when the temperature drops. If the temperature isn’t below 15 degrees F, a couple sets of new batteries usually keep the camera working.
Just keep the batteries that aren’t being used stored on the inside of your coat to keep them warm. Then change batteries when needed. A much better way to maintain battery power, especially when the temperatures approach zero, is to use a power pack that accepts rechargeable NiCad batteries. NiCads hold their charge in cold weather better than regular alkaline batteries so this is the best way to go.
Chilly temperatures can damage your equipment when you take cold camera gear into a warm room. Cold equipment makes the warm air inside your house reach the dew point causing moisture to condense on and inside your camera gear in a very short period of time.
Since water is bad for camera gear, it’s best to avoid this problem. We leave our equipment outside all day long until we know it isn’t going to be used anymore that day. Before bringing the gear inside, we put all of our equipment inside a plastic bag and then squeeze as much air as possible out of the bag.
Then we put the bag in the coldest part of our home which is normally the unheated guest room. Keeping our guest room unheated serves the dual purpose of providing a good place to warm our camera gear up slowly to avoid condensation problems and discourages guests from wanting to overstay their welcome–just kidding!
HOW TO STAY WARM
Finally, you won’t be able to really take advantage of everything winter has to offer the photographer if you are cold yourself. And it’s not true that some people’s blood is thicker than others. Although we have lived our entire lives in snow country, the cold affects us just like anyone else. The secret to staying warm and comfortable during the winter is dressing properly.
The increasing interest in snowmobiling and other winter sports during the past two decades has encouraged clothing manufacturers to create clothes that are far superior to what used to be considered proper winter attire. Special winter clothes are now available that allow snowmobilers to stay quite warm while riding their snowmobile at 60 mph in below zero temperatures. So snowmobile dealers are a good place to begin looking for real warm clothing.
We both wear a complete Arctic Cat snowmobile suit which protects us from the biting cold temperatures. A decade ago, snowmobile suits were rather bulky and tended to restrict your freedom to easily move around as you look for subjects to photograph.
But, modern snowmobile suits are now light and streamlined eliminating the problem of bulkiness. Underneath the suit, we wear some long underwear, thin cotton pants and a shirt, and a wool sweater. You can buy even warmer underwear that is made of synthetic materials like polypropylene, Thermax, or Capilene.
These materials wick away sweat from your body without chilling you in the process.
Snowmobile suits work best for photographers who are spending a lot of time in a winter blind sitting still or taking rather short hikes from their car or snowmobile to take photos. The suits are so good at keeping you warm that overheating is the most serious problem you’ll have if a lot of physical exertion is required to take your photos.
Unzipping the front of the suit will help to cool you off somewhat, but if you really get too warm, your only choice is to take the entire suit off which isn’t easy in the snow and puts you at risk of chilling too quickly.
If you are an active nature photographer who thinks nothing of hiking 3 miles through deep snow to your favorite waterfalls, then dressing in layers is the best way for you to proceed. Dressing in layers enables you to shed some of the outer layers as you heat up during strenuous exercise and then put them back on as you cool down. The key to successfully dressing in layers is to pick the proper garments so they keep you both warm and dry.
The first layer to put on is the long underwear which should be made of synthetic materials like Capilene, Thermax, or polypropylene. These materials are great at drawing sweat away from your body keeping you dry which is the key to staying warm. Avoid cotton underwear because once they get wet, they tend to stay damp, exactly what you are trying to avoid.
The second layer functions as insulation. A heavy cotton shirt covered by a wool sweater or down parka works great for the top half. Beneath the waistline, wear medium weight cotton pants and cover that with a heavier pair of wool pants or insulated Gore-Tex pants.
The third or outer layer functions to protect you from bad weather like wind, freezing rain, and snow. This layer must be waterproof, but still should be breathable so moisture from sweat can be wicked away from your body. Parkas and jackets made from Gore-Tex fabric that is lined with Thinsulate insulation are terrific for this purpose.
Although your local clothing store may not carry these high-tech clothes, many mail order catalogues catering to hunters carry plenty of information and choices. Call Cabela’s at 1-800-991-9958 and ask for their free fall hunting catalogue. Their 1996 catalogue has about 10 pages devoted to clothes that will keep you warm and dry under the worst possible weather conditions.
Keeping our feet warm is another matter entirely. We wear a couple layers of wool socks, then put on rubber boots (Sorels) that have replaceable felt insulation liners. Many different manufacturer’s make these kind of insulated boots. You can also try snowmobile boots.
Keeping our hands warm during the winter and still free to manipulate the tiny buttons and levers on cameras is a real problem. Barbara wears thin silk or nylon glove liners all the time. Then she puts on warm acrylic mittens that are designed with a slit in them so her fingers can stick out the ends of the mittens when she needs to work the controls on her camera.
Her hands are still protected somewhat by the liners which are thin enough that she can easily work the camera’s controls while wearing them. John prefers to wear snowmobile mittens which work better than gloves for keeping hands warm.
When he needs to work his camera controls, he just takes off the mittens and works barehanded, braving the cold air for short periods of time. Avoid wool mittens because they are prone to shedding fibers which might get caught in the back of your camera and ruin your photos.
Do not overlook the importance of keeping your face, throat, and head fully protected from the cold. A lot of body heat can be lost here. Balaclava’s are great for keeping your face and neck warm. These can be purchased through companies that specialize in sporting goods.
Wool stocking hats with a polypropylene liner work great for keeping the top of your head warm. Properly protecting the upper part of your body from unnecessary heat loss will do a lot for staying comfortable in very cold temperatures.
Winter is truly a special season for photographers, offering enchanting images only possible when the land quietly sleeps under a blanket of fresh snowflakes. Once you acquire the proper clothing and open your mind to the possibilities, you’ll find it to be one of the most photographically productive seasons.
So there is no reason to put your camera away when the first snow flurries of late autumn arrive, get out there and have fun. You’re certain to find plenty of exciting images to make. And perhaps in time, you think of winter like we do as a season to eagerly look forward to and wish spring would hold off just a little longer.
Hope you have enjoyed these great Winter photography Ideas
by JOHN GERLACH