Winter Wonderland: Photographing Fresh Snow

Winter is a time of year that conjures up various thoughts for those living in snow laden areas. For some, the idea of shoveling driveways, scraping windows and slick commutes to work makes them long for the warmth of summer.

For others, such as photographers like me, it brings days of white-covered splendor, of animals traipsing belly deep through the snow, birds with snowflakes falling all around, and snow-capped mountain landscapes.

Red fire hydrant with snow piled on top by Andy Long.
© 2013 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

The transition in Colorado started early this year with the first significant snow coming in early October. This might be too soon for some people, but the beauty it has brought with it makes it time for photographers to switch gears and think about snow-covered scenes for the next handful of months.

Watching the weather patterns during this time of year can be more important than other seasons.

Yes, it might be good to know when a rain storm is coming through an area to put some raindrops on flowers or a chance to capture the colors of a rainbow, but knowing the predictions for a heavy snowfall followed by a very clear, blue-sky day can mean getting the gear ready for a magical day of shooting.

Photo of bird on branch while snowing by Andy Long
© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

Ideas on Composition

While great vista shots with a strong subject in the foreground are certainly beautiful, there are a lot of other compositions that can typically only be found with the white of winter snows.

Sunrise: A bit of pre-planning is in order so you know where a great spot is for a sunrise shoot. Scout out several areas. You may want to keep them within an hour’s drive from your home or lodging location, because you’ll want to be at your chosen scenic location and set up at least 30 minutes before sunrise.

You won’t want to miss that special light commonly called “the golden hour” as it is cast on the fresh snow.

After the sun has risen and there is light on the background subject, either a split neutral density filter is needed to balance out the exposure or multiple shots need to be taken for creating a high dynamic range (HDR) composite.

Photo of red barn in the snow using HDR by Andy Long

© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

Civil Twilight: These times during the day are defined as those times before sunrise or after sunset when objects in the distance can be recognized. At different times of the year and depending at what latitude you’re located, the length of civil twilight can vary.

More often than not it’s around 30 minutes, but I have seen it last over an hour and a half on the Oregon Coast for a sunset shoot in June. There are both websites and smart phone applications available for providing sunrise and sunset times for a specific location and they include civil twilight times.

To get the most out of your images during civil twilight, try this technique. Set up your tripod, use a cable or remote shutter release, and set your exposure time to between 20 and 30 seconds. You will probably need to consider setting your camera on noise reduction or plan on reducing noise with a post-production program.

What makes these situations wonderful for photographers is the extremely rich blue sky which can contrast beautifully with the foreground, especially when the foreground is snow. With no direct light on the subject, everything can be quite even in terms of exposure.

HDR techniques can also be used during the civil twilight period to really bring out the various colors and exposure ranges within the scene.

For compositions such as this, it’s best to shoot three to five exposures with either two-thirds or one-half stop between each shot to try and get the full range between the shadows, usually trees and buildings, and highlights, the snow.

Panoramas: And just after or before civil twilight, take advantage of your time prior to sunrise or after sunset and try some panoramas. Take them around 15 minutes before the sun rises or sets and you’ll be able to create some beautiful photos.

Panorama photo of mountain in winter by Andy Long

© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

Color Contrast: Contrasting colors is a basic design element where the viewer is easily drawn to the colorful primary area of interest.

When snow makes an early appearance during the colors of fall, as it can quite often in the high country of Colorado, you’re given a great opportunity to capture some stunning contrast in color images, such as the simplicity of a golden, orange or red leaf sitting on top of the fresh, white snow.

Photo of rock formation, green Aspen leaves and snow by Andy Long

© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

Photo of split-rail fence in snow with colorful Aspen trees by Andy Long

© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

And a coating of snow on trees, especially a variety of trees close to each other, really speaks to contrast. With the clear day providing a nice blue sky, the color combination of rich blue and white also work great together.

To really get a good pop of color, a polarizer can be used to accentuate the blue of the sky against the snow covered trees, but be careful here, as using a polarizer at very high elevations can make the sky look extremely dark.

Capture It Piled High: Newly fallen snow piled up on a variety of subjects is something else to look for either during a heavy snow or the day after. In areas where it stays very cold for long periods of time, snow will continue to accumulate and can make for some fun shooting with objects having several feet of snow piled up on top.

Fence railings, mailboxes, bird houses, fire hydrants in unique locations and even signs are some items for which to look.

Photo of wood fence and corrals in snow by Andy Long
© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

Patterns of White: The new snow covering trees creates some great pattern shots, such as zooming in tight on a group of snow-covered pines.

And don’t forget about the patterns in the snow itself. If there is a bit of wind during or just after the front goes through, it brings about some interesting shapes and forms. Keep an eye out for the contrast created by shadows.

Wildlife in the Snow: Besides landscape and nature subjects, wildlife during or after a snow storm can also make for a good shooting session. Snow on their backs, a snow-covered face from digging in the snow or flakes falling in the air around them lets the viewer know the setting in which the photo was taken and adds another element to make the wildlife image more interesting than it might have been.

Photo of tops of pine trees with snow on branches by Andy Long

© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

Photo of buffalo in snow by Andy Long

© 2011 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

For many wildlife shots in the snow, a monochromatic scene is probably going to be the result. This can allow for some post production work to fully turn the image into a black and white to accentuate the feel the snow adds to the scene. Adding contrast takes it up to another level if the proper techniques are employed.

There’s a certain purity and simplicity to photographing newly fallen snow. The surrounding noises are insulated under a blanket of white creating a sense of peace and quiet. The crisp crunch of the snow underfoot, the freshness to the air and the isolation it can give to a scene make a day of fresh snow photography a full experience.

by Andy Long
First Light Photo Workshops
All text & photos: © 2013 Andy Long. All rights 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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