Whether you’re looking to document winter wildlife, or trying to get detail shots of frost patterns, it’s important to know what steps to take—and when, in order to get that perfect winter shot. Here are a few things we recommend before braving the cold.
Form a game plan
For getting a stunning landscape
While the golden hour isn’t technically longer in winter, the angle of the winter sun gives you a bit more time to play around with diffused lighting during that part of the day. Know the local time for sunset (or sunrise) on the day of your shoot to maximise its potential. Arrive a little before the golden hour (or after, if you’re making an early morning of it) to get some really interesting landscape shots of winter shadows against the snow.
In a snow shoot, you’ll also need to plan your route through the scene in advance unless you want your boot prints in the shot. Boot prints in snow are not like footprints in sand; they have a messy look to them that may not add to your vision for the shot. It’s also hard to cover those boot prints naturally when you’ve got one hand full of gear. Start far away and shoot as you get closer to your goal, rather than walking all the way there and working your way back.
For a winter portrait shoot
If you’re planning for changes of clothing, know where that’s going to take place. A winter shack, park visitor centre, or oversized vehicle could all work well for this. For a commissioned shoot, put together a mood board with your client to decide on a silhouette and colour scheme that will work with the snow, not against it.
Look over your shot list and plan any action shots or snowball fights for the end of the shoot. Your model(s) will likely be wet, tired, and red in the face (we’ll talk about how to take care of redness in post-processing a little later) by that point. Get all the calmer posing out of the way beforehand while everyone is fresh and clean.
For capturing wildlife
To capture some shots of wildlife, you’ll need to scope out a spot to hunker down. You will be more visible in the snow, so choose winter gear that blends in. Keep a lookout for viewing hides as these will provide shelter and keep you out of sight, and they’re usually situated around areas where you’re likely to see wildlife already.
If shooting at a wildlife park, check in at the visitor’s centre to see if they have a sighting report listed. Mammals will move around, even in winter, so it’s good to have an idea of where you might start looking. Animal tracks stand out nicely in the snow, which gives you an advantage when you’re looking for the right vantage point.
Some animals lend themselves especially well to winter photography; foxes are especially good for winter wildlife shots, since they don’t hibernate and contrast attractively with the relatively monochrome colour scheme of winter. Chickadees are deceptively hardy winter birds who can be cooperative on a shoot, in fact it’s not unheard of for one to perch right on top of a photographer’s camera! Look for birds in the early morning, though some varieties will also sun themselves in the afternoon. And remember to follow your ear rather than their tracks. For owls and other nocturnal wildlife, stick to the golden hour or a moonlit night (for the extra boost in light).
For detail shots
Even if you’re not located in an area that gets good snowfall, you can still get in on the winter photography game. Frost patterns are great for macro photography. Just make sure you get out there in the morning before it has time to dissipate. To get the best results, backlight your frost. You can do this naturally with a sunrise or you can use your own lighting if it doesn’t get hot enough to affect the frost. Hold your breath as you lean in for the shot so you don’t melt your subject.
Create protection from the elements
Even if you’re not shooting in sub-zero temperatures, long exposure to cold weather can have negative effects on your health. It can also affect your equipment in sneaky ways. Before you head out with a full camera bag and high hopes, take precautions that will keep your body and your equipment in tip-top shape during and after your shoot.
Pack your sunglasses, even if it’s overcast
Even on a cloudy day, a winter scene can get pretty bright, and we can all agree that clear eyes are a crucial part of getting great photography. Don’t risk snow blindness by trying to squint your way through a snowy shoot.
Find the right gloves
The best protection for your hands is a solid pair of gloves, but on a shoot, you need manual dexterity for setting up your tripod, pressing the shutter button, and replacing batteries, among other things. A quality pair of specially-designed photography gloves can keep you warm while providing some grip so that you don’t fumble with your camera. You can also lift the tips of the glove off your index finger and thumb to help find the right buttons. If you’re shooting in especially frigid conditions, consider clipping a pair of hefty mittens to your kit to warm you between locations.
Choose your clothing by material
You will very likely work up a sweat on a winter photoshoot, so avoid materials like cotton, which is notorious for hanging onto moisture. You don’t want dampness blanketing your skin as you trudge around in the cold. It’s a sure-fire way to catch a chill or worse. Look for fleece, wool, or polyester instead, and wear layers that you can easily remove if you start to become warm after a lot of movement.
Snow boots paired with wool socks will keep your feet warm and dry. Consider removable cleats if there’s a chance you’ll be walking across ice.
Protecting your equipment
Your body isn’t the only thing that needs some extra TLC in winter conditions. The cold can affect your equipment as well, particularly during the transition from warm to cold and back again.
Keep your friends close, and your batteries closer
Most batteries do not function well in the cold. You can combat this by bringing several extras, but keep in mind that your spares could be getting just as cold (and useless) as your active battery if they’re zipped into an outer pocket of your camera bag. Store them in an interior pocket of your clothing, where your body heat can keep them nice and toasty.
Avoid letting moisture collect inside your camera
When you move suddenly from the cold outdoors to a warm interior, moisture can collect inside your camera. Combat this by slowing down the process for your equipment:
- Remove your memory card before going inside if you would like to look at your images right away.
- Zip your camera tightly into a freezer bag and/or close it into your camera bag to seal in the cooler, dryer conditions.
- Let your camera sit in the bag(s) for at least half an hour after the temperature shift, so that it can adjust slowly.
- Don’t turn it on again until the camera reaches room temperature.
Watch out for moisture while you are shooting, too. Most photographers don’t think about where their breath goes while they’re photographing until they can actually see it. When you have your nose sandwiched against your camera body, you’re exhaling warm, moist air straight at your equipment. Wear a ski mask or scarf to catch some of that moisture and avoid fogging up your lens.
If you’re shooting during a snowfall, clean off your camera regularly to keep the snow from melting onto (or into) it. Use a microfiber cloth or, if you’re feeling brave, compressed air—just not your fingers. Keeping your lens cap on whenever you’re not actively shooting and using a hood can protect your lens from errant snowflakes. You can also look for a rain or snow cover for your camera.
Use the right settlings
You can take all of the precautions in the world, but unless you know how to actually shoot your winter scene and edit it, you may still find yourself disappointed with the results. Here’s what you need to know:
Shooting winter photography
Your camera’s light meter wants to find you a nice middle grey, so when you meter for snow it’s probably going to come out looking dingy. You’ll need to consider some extra adjustments to get an accurate exposure:
- Spot meter the sky to avoid letting the snow take over your metering.
- Increase your exposure compensation by +1 (or +2 if necessary) to compensate for your camera’s mis-metering.
- Bracket your exposures so you can evaluate them inside, away from glare.
- Use exposure lock if you are shooting in a priority mode. This will keep your exposure settings from changing on you as you switch up your composition.
- Don’t rely on your eyes. They’re trying to expose the scene just like your camera. Check your histogram for more objective facts.
- If it’s feasible, you may benefit from using a grey card. A grey card can help your camera see what middle grey actually looks like in a lighting condition.
It goes without saying that you should shoot in RAW for post-processing flexibility. Bring enough memory that you won’t feel the need to delete images while you’re out in the field. Your eyes may not see the preview screen with their usual accuracy under ultra-bright circumstances—and deleting images straight from your camera is not good for your card anyway. Do your culling later in an editing software.
Sometimes the exact thing you’re trying to photograph will be the thing that gets in your way. Winter surfaces can have a lot of shine to them, which not only masks the beauty of the landscape but can throw off your light balancing. If you’re shooting a lot of ice, a polarising filter will help you manage glares and undesired reflections. This is especially good for icicles and large, frozen (or freezing) bodies of water.
Shooting during a snowfall is a romantic idea, but the falling snowflakes have a tendency to create dark blotches in your foreground. If you’re working with a tripod, a long shutter speed will clear that up. You can also shoot under a covered area to get faster shots of a snowfall without letting it obscure the view. Look for an awning or a tree with a decent overhang, or simply hold an umbrella over your tripod.
Post-processing winter photography
Once you’ve shot your scene, you may find that you still have work to do. For example, falling snow can wash out colours far away from your camera. If this is the case, you can utilise a Levels Adjustment in Affinity Photo to add a little contrast and definition.
You may also find that your white balance is a little off. Snow and ice tend to come across on the blue side, so try warming it up slightly with a Colour Balance Adjustment.
Speaking of colour, if you’re using models you may run into some redness on their noses, cheeks, or hands. To fix this, use the Selection Brush Tool in Affinity Photo to select the red patches of skin. Select Refine and choose Output>New Layer or Output>New Layer With Mask. The red tones can then be toned down by choosing an HSL Adjustment Layer clipped to your new layer. You can now go to your reds in that layer to adjust them. You can probably manage them well enough by simply lowering the Saturation slider, but you if you end up with a slightly mismatched effect, leave the saturation alone and go for the Hue slider. Move it by very small degrees until the colour in your selection blends seamlessly with the surrounding skin.
The snowy season comes with some unique challenges—it can take quite a toll on both the equipment and the photographer. But by following these steps, you’ll be better equipped to brave the elements in search of that perfect, snow-covered landscape shot.
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.