Five Tips to Photograph Winter Like a Pro

Author: Gina Yeo

One thing I know a lot about is photography during the winter months. In and around Banff National Park, we can see snowflakes at any time during the twelve months of the year. I’ve rolled fresh snow into a snowman in August! Usually, summer snowfalls don’t stick around for long, but once the calendar turns over to the month of October, any fresh blanket of white will likely hang out until May. 

Come November, when most of the population is wrapped up in a cozy blanket, warming by a fireplace, and drinking hot cocoa, you can find me stuffed into layers of winter clothing, ready to relish in the beauty of winter’s wonderland. Winter is gorgeous; those frozen touches can be a photographer's dream. However, winter photography comes with unique challenges, so before you venture into the cold tundra of the great outdoors, dive into the landscape photography tips below so that you can photograph winter's beauty like a pro!

1. Preparation Considerations

      A landscape photographer should always be properly prepared when heading out into nature because preparation is one of the great keys to success in this genre. The winter months come with hazards and risks not found during warmer weather, and if you want to enjoy the beauty within the winter season, it’s important to prepare for a worst-case scenario. 

      Dress in layers: Your body must be comfortable when immersed in winter’s great outdoors. Dressing in layers is the best way to ensure you are not too hot or cold.  

      Pro-tip: Moisture-wicking clothing, merino wool, fleece, and packable down or breathable synthetics are my favourite combinations for a winter photography adventure. The Heat Company are my favourite winter gloves for photography.  

      Do Accessorize: I know…you’re already carrying heavy camera gear and have stuffed yourself into snow pants and a winter jacket after layering up with heat-retaining clothing, but you really don’t want to leave home without a few vital winter accessories. 

      Pro-tips: When venturing into a winter landscape, I never leave home without ice cleats, snow shoes, and chemical hand and toe warmers. 

      Always have a plan in place: Winter can be beautiful, but it can also be dangerous. It’s really important that a photographer is aware of hazards and has a plan for them. 

      Pro-tips: Always check the weather before heading out into a wintry landscape. This includes temperature conditions and avalanche reports when heading out into the mountains and backcountry. Share your plans with a friend or family member and adhere to check-in plans. 

      2. Gear Considerations

      Alright, photographer, let's talk gear. I often get questions about best-preparing camera gear for the cold. Here are a few suggestions to keep your camera in tip-top working condition when the mercury dips below freezing. 

      Do practice camera gear acclimation: Subzero temperatures are common during winter, and condensation can be an issue when temperature changes abruptly occur, especially when moving a cold camera and lenses into a warm environment. I always make sure that my camera cools down and heats up slowly. I habitually store my camera and lenses inside an insulated camera bag (I highly recommend f-stop camera bags) when not using them. Removing cold camera gear too quickly into a warm environment can result in condensation development, and we all know electronics and water are not friendly with each other. 

      Pro Tip: Are you excited to access your memory card when you get home after a wintry photo adventure? Remove your memory card from your camera before you store the gear in your camera bag. That way, you can leave your gear alone while it warms up slowly when you transition into a warmer environment. I rarely open up my camera bag until the next day after I’ve moved it from an outdoor to an indoor environment. 

      Watch out for atmospheric moisture: I’ve already established that electronics and moisture are like oil and water. Moisture also comes in the form of freezing rain, fog, sleet and snow during winter. Protecting your gear from these watery elements is a good idea. Avoid changing your lenses in precipitating environments, or use an umbrella or cloth over your gear if a lens change is mandatory.   

      Pro Tip: Consider using a rain sleeve to keep your camera and lenses dry and protected from the elements. If it’s snowing, I also like to use a lens hood to prevent snowflakes from falling all over my lens glass. Also, always have access to a lens cloth. Microfibre cloths will be useful when a stray snowflake lands on your lens.

      Keep your batteries warm: Most camera batteries do not enjoy cold weather and will drain a lot faster during the winter. I always make sure I carry extra batteries with me when I’m out and about shooting during the winter months.

      Pro Tip: Consider keeping batteries close to your body in the inner pocket of your coat to keep them warmer and in a top-notch functioning condition.  

      3. Exposure Considerations

      Use manual exposure mode: Snow is usually one of the brightest elements in a winter landscape. It can be tricky for your camera to manage the best exposure settings in an automatic or semi-automatic setting. Overexposed snow will result in loss of details, leaving a whitewash mess. Underexposure can result in grey, grainy and poor-quality images. To preserve those beautiful snowflake details, use a manual exposure mode and choose your aperture, shutter speed and ISO based on the brightest part of your image. 

      Pro Tips: If using a tripod, choose your camera’s lowest native ISO. This is usually ISO 100. Choose a mid-range aperture like f8, f9, f10 or f11. Set your shutter speed while keeping an eye on your in-camera histogram so that the reading is pushed to the far right side of the graph but not climbing the wall. 

      Become friends with your histogram: A photographer’s best friend should always be the in-camera histogram. Reading a histogram will help you expertly choose the best exposure triangle settings for solid straight-of-the-camera landscape photos. 

      Pro-tip: When your camera can capture the full dynamic range in a landscape setting (all details in shadows through highlights), adjust your exposure triangle settings to push the histogram to the far right side of the graph wall but not climb the graph wall. 

      An example of a solid-looking histogram with a full dynamic range

      4. Light Considerations 

      Light makes photography.  We photographers have all heard this. One thing I love about winter is that the sun is typically a lot lower in the sky all day long, and it’s easier to find good light during most of the daylight hours; however, light will present itself in different forms even during winter so here’s a few ways you can create photos in any light.  

      Full Sun: Managing full sun during the winter can be tricky; however, it’s doable. Look for landscape settings in which you can focus on the play between light and shadow in a full sun setting. 

      Overcast Light: Overcast light during the winter often comes with a ton of mood and can include atmospheric elements like fog and snow. Embrace this flat light by focusing on the atmosphere and unique environmental elements like frozen bubbles.

      Golden Light: The most sought-after light in landscape photography is golden light. With those later sunrises and earlier sunsets, winter is the ideal time to head out and be ready for that soft, colourful winter golden light.

      Nighttime: Days are short, and nights are long in winter. Don’t be afraid to embrace landscape photography at night during winter. Moonlight adds a beautiful touch during the winter, as snow reflects the light illuminated by the moon into a landscape setting.

      5. Composition and Creativity 

      Here’s where things can get really fun. In my experience, Mother Nature likes to show off her artistic flair during winter, which is perfectly fine by me! Frost flowers, icy details, and snowy features can all be used to create unique and eye-catching foreground elements in a winter photograph. Look for the opportunity to use these compositional elements in your winter landscape photography. 

      1. Use of line: Strong lines can lead a viewer’s eye in and through a frame.  They can also be used to create depth within an image.  I like thinking outside of traditional lines and getting creative with technique, especially during the winter months. 

      2. Framing: Framing your subject is a powerful tool that can help draw a viewer’s eye into a scene and towards your main subject. Look for opportunities to frame your wintry subject with elements in the setting.

      3. Layering with unique features is another favourite compositional element that I look for in my landscape photography. It creates depth within an image and can be fun to include nature’s unique creative elements. 

      So happy winter to you, photographer! With a little preparation and consideration for the frosty winter weather, you’ll be ready in no time to head outdoors into winter’s wonderland to enjoy all that winter has to offer. 

      Interested in enjoying the winter wonderland in Banff and the area in a small group setting? Join me and co-facilitator Daniel Tremblay as we tour and focus on teaching you the technical and creative landscape photography approaches to capturing winter photos during our Winter Wonderland Workshop.

      To learn more about this and other online and in-person landscape photography workshops, visit Gina Yeo Photography.

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