Photographing Frozen Beauty

Image of a rock with snow on top in a winter pond in Wyoming by Brenda Tharp.

Winter Pond, Wyoming

It’s so cold, the air sparkles with ice crystals. The atmospheric conditions of the night before created beautiful hoarfrost, and everything is literally be-jeweled with it. Even the bison have a powdered sugar coating on their fur. The whole meadow has been transformed into a fairyland scene. As I wander around Old Faithful Geyser Basin, streams slip by under snow-capped rocks, muffled by the thickness of the snow. There is a quietness to the land, a hush that comes from new-fallen snow. The golden rays of the morning sun are pushing through the rising steam and skimming the surface of the snow-covered meadow. It’s a photographer’s paradise, and it’s twenty-six degrees below zero–Fahrenheit!

Winter provides a plethora of opportunities for photographs. The hardwood trees are skeletal forms in their naked stance. Once-cluttered scenes can take on a whole new look when covered with a blanket of fresh snow. Ice-encased dried flowers, grasses, and berries provide frozen macro views, and boulder-strewn rivers feature “marshmallow” rocks with their piles of snow. Here and there, singular animal tracks tell the story of winter life. The low angle of the sun throws long shadows across the pared-down landscape, and with the lack of color, our images can become studies in form and shape.

With all the whiteness of a snowy scene, camera meters go a little berserk. Even the most advanced technology can’t correctly meter total white. The newest Canon and Nikon come very close, yet even they need something else in the scene for reference. (Their capabilities are pretty amazing, and more camera manufacturers may follow suit in new designs.) Even with that kind of accuracy, it is still very important to understand light and know when your meter is being fooled by the brightness.

Image of two Grey Wolves nuzzling in the snow in Wyoming by Brenda Tharp

Grey Wolves
West Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Photo of a snow capped wreath and fence in Wyoming by Brenda Tharp

Snowy Wreath
Ranch country, Wyoming

In the color zone system, “white with detail” is placed in zone VII. Therefore, to have detail in fresh-fallen snow, you would open up two stops if you were following this theory. However, I have found that oftentimes, 1.5 stops is sufficient. The difference depends on whether the setting is sunny or cloudy. On a cloudy day, two stops often works best. On a sunny day, 1.5 stops is sufficient. Yet, how often do we have just snow in our scene? The simplest way to meter when there’s more is to take a reading with just snow filling your frame and, using that as the base, adjusting 1.5- 2 f/stops, open from there. This can be more easily be accomplished on cameras with built-in spot meters, or with hand-held spot meters. If you don’t have a spot meter, use a telephoto or whatever you need to fill the viewfinder with just snow and continue the procedure. This will give you a great reading for the snow. However, you’ll still have to decide if that reading will cause overexposure on the non-snow parts of the image. Make a meter reading from the non-snow area as well, and calculate the f-stops difference to see whether your will be able to manage it. If the range is too great, you’ll need to decide what’s more important and adjust your exposure accordingly.

A gray card in your pocket can also be helpful, but remember that there’s a lot of reflected light going on, so to be more accurate, keep the reflections of snow light off your card when you’re reading it. This is also true of an incident meter when there’s so much bounce light. Since the zone system method is card-free, I prefer it.

Once you have your winter exposures under control, you can get into the creativity of making frozen images without having to think too long about the technical side of image-making. There’s no limit to the possibilities for winter photographs.

Photo of snowy scene titled "Face on the Riverbank" in Wyoming by Brenda Tharp

Face on the Riverbank, Wyoming

Dealing with the Cold

Each region in the country is unique when it comes to winter scenes. The only limitations–both for your equipment and yourself–come from dealing with the cold. Once those problems have been worked out, you can be comfortable outside for hours and trust that your camera will also function. There are five key factors to keep in mind that will make your winter photography easier:

1.) Avoiding Battery Drain

In cold temperatures, the energy from batteries drains more quickly, and their response is slowed. Oftentimes, you’ll lose performance even with new batteries. When this happens, remove them, place them in a warm pocket against your body, and put in a new set. Keep exchanging batteries as one set gets cold and starts to fail in performance. Another, more expensive, option is to purchase an external battery pack for your camera model. These packs slip into your pocket to keep warm, with a cable attached to the camera’s battery compartment. The only problem with these is that you’re now attached to the camera. If you’re working on a tripod, you’ll have to remember to detach the battery before walking away, or you could pull the whole thing over.

2.) Preventing Condensation

If you’re finished photographing for the moment (i.e. you need a bathroom or hot coffee break), DO NOT take your camera equipment inside anyplace heated without first enclosing it in a large trash bag and sealing it closed. Failure to do so will cause condensation on the lenses and mirrors that can take a long time to go away, and your photography is stalled until it clears. If you can safely leave your equipment outside, do so. Otherwise, always carry a large trash bag with you to be prepared.

3.) Keeping Your Equipment Dry

Getting snow and moisture into the camera and camera bag is a real issue in winter outdoor photography. You may be photographing while it’s snowing–a wonderful effect–yet it’s tricky to keep your equipment dry. A clamshell-type backpack allows everything inside to be exposed to the elements whenever you open it to extract just one item. Find a bag that allows you to have access to separate compartments, eliminating this problem. If you have a clamshell-type pack, use a waterproof pack cover to minimize exposure. I also use a waterproof ground cloth to place my bag on, which keeps my bag out of the snow. (In powder, this may not work as well, but most situations have been easily handled using the ground cloth idea.) Rain hoods, waterproof camera and lens covers, allow you to work in rain or snow without having your camera soaked by the time you’re finished.

Image of hoar-frost on a branch with a pine cone in Colorado by Brenda Tharp

Hoar-frost, Colorado

Image of a snowy scene at Soda Butte Creek in Wyoming by Brenda Tharp

Soda Butte Creek, Wyoming

4.) Keeping Yourself Warm and Dry

Okay, so your gear is protected. You¹ve thought of everything–right? What about you? In order to remain creative in winter, you must be properly attired for your comfort and survival. If you don’t have to do jumping jacks to keep your furnace going, you can spend all that energy creatively, producing images that reflect the frozen beauty of winter without your becoming a frozen part of it. The morning winter sun may cast a golden hue across the meadow, but there’s no warmth in its rays, especially in the northwestern corner of Wyoming. The temperature is a minus twenty-six degrees Fahrenheit, and I’m out photographing! I¹m connecting with nature and I’m not aware of a cold bone in my body. My hands and feet are “toasty,” and the rest of me is warm, as well. What¹s my secret? Nothing special, just some good outdoor gear that’s worth every penny I spent buying it.

In harsh conditions, your life depends upon being able to stay warm. There are all types of clothing that can work – here are just a few of my favorites from years of trial and error:

a. Use wool or fleece-lined waterproof boots. Sorrel® boots are great. Mine are rated for zero degrees Fahrenheit. With a polypro liner and a medium-thick, wool-blend over-sock, my feet stay dry and warm. Other brands similar to Sorrel® may work as well. The key is to have a warm liner plus a waterproof outer shell.

b. Buy yourself a great fingerless glove/mitten combination. Many are made with a patented windbloc® material that truly works! I wore only my ‘Glomitts’ that Yellowstone morning of twenty-six degrees below and had no problems. Only when I peeled back the mitten portion to use my fingers, did they begin to numb out, but as soon as I put the mitten portion back over them, they toasted right up again. Wearing a polypro liner under these would probably have prevented me from chilling even my fingertips. Other companies may offer a similar wind-blocking material, but windbloc is the best I’ve found yet.

c. Use waterproof, insulated leggings–such as a ski bib and parka ensemble. This allows you complete protection so you can sit down in the snow, lay down in it, etc. and not get wet on the inside.

d. No matter how much I like wearing hats, I don’t often wear them, because the brims get in the way of photography. In winter, thankfully, this isn’t a problem. I prefer a stocking-type cap with ear flaps for very cold weather. On more balmy days, I’ll often use only a fleece headband to cover my ears. Remember, if your head is warm, you’ll hold the heat in your body better.

5. Getting Around in Deep Snow

Getting around through deep snow can be challenging, even if you are in great boots. Light, fresh, powder simply won’t hold you up, and you’ll sink into it–possibly thigh-high. Snowshoes offer a great solution to the sinking-in problem. Although they take some getting used to, in relatively little time you can get around on them with ease and get where you want to go for your photograph.

Cross-country skis are another solution, although they take longer to master than snowshoes. The advantage of skis is that you can go deeper into the countryside/forest in shorter time. The choice depends on your photographic goals for that day. In either case, be sure you carry emergency survival supplies with you if you’re venturing into the landscape alone. A space blanket, mirror, magnifying glass (to help start a fire if needed), extra food and water, and a locator beacon are just some survival items to take with you.

If you follow the above suggestions, you can have a wonderful time outside photographing the magic of winter, and come home with terrific frozen images of your own.

by Brenda Tharp
Article and images: © Brenda Tharp. All right reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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