Winter is a great time of the year. Some of my favorite images in my portfolio is winter photography. Summer is great, but brazing the cold in the winter for images is always worth it.
Why I Like Winter Photography
Same Landscape, New Look
Cave Point County Park in Door County, Wisconsin is a great example of this. It is a beautiful place to photograph in the summer, of course, but in the winter the way the ice forms up the clips and the snow settles on the rocks makes winter my favorite time to visit. The snow and ice never form in the same way so every year, and even every snowstorm, can give you a different look. This is true for any landscape during the winter.
Another reason winter is great for photography is because popular summer tourist locations are virtually empty compared to the summer season. If you go to Cave Point in the summer for sunrise, you will likely by joined by a crowd of other people looking for instaworthy shots. However, in the wintertime you can go to Cave Point, even on a Saturday, and be the only one there. It’s rare to see even one more person.
This is true for National Parks as well. Winter is usually the time of year I plan my trips to parks. Sometime’s you’ll read about traffic jams in Yosemite, the shuttle bus in Zion, no left turns in Bryce Canyon, and wildlife jams in Yellowstone. I am happy to say that I haven’t experience any of that when I visited those parks. I have been out for sunrise, even at popular spots, and felt like I had the whole National Park to myself.
Once Per Year Events
There are some events that only happen in the winter. In Sturgeon Bay, the winter fleet comes in to stay at Bay Shipbuilding for the winter. Every December-January it is common to see 1,000 ft freighters come right through the downtown bridges. It is always fun to capture these huge ships from up close.
Other examples of evens limited to winter is bald eagle watching on the Mississippi River and Yosemite’s firefall, and Door County ice shoves that show up late in the winter.
Winter Photography Tips
Now that I’ve given a few reasons why winter is a great time to shoot, here are a few tips for your winter photography outings.
The best winter images in my opinion are taken the morning after a snowfall of at least a few inches. The snow is untouched by footprints and the area almost looks undiscovered. A bonus is when the snow is a but wet and sticks to all the tree branches. It makes everything look almost magical! 🙂
Why Is My Snow Grey?
Snow can trick your camera. Your camera is always looking to make your image perfectly exposed. This means that it wants to put make your images exposure (or brightness) in the center of your light meter. This is a problem in scenes with a lot of snow that is common in the winter. Your camera will see all the white snow that dominates the image and think the correct exposure of the image needs to be middle grey. You now have an underexposed image and that is why your snow looks grey in some pictures. To fix this you simply need to “overexpose” your image. Set your exposure compensation to +1 or +2 and that will tell your camera to make your snow white again.
Watch your histogram though to make sure you aren’t clipping your highlights. If your camera has the option to turn on exposure highlight warning or “blinkies,” that will help you make sure you aren’t overexposing by too much.
Cold Weather and Your Gear
The first thing to say here is your camera will be fine in the cold. It’s easy to baby your camera but they are tougher than you think. I have been out in extremely cold weather with a windchill a few dozen degrees below zero and it hasn’t hurt one of my cameras. In reality, your body will stop working before your camera does. So don’t let worrying about this stop you from getting out there.
Having said that, there are a few precautions to take to make sure your gear stays in tip top shape. You want your camera to be protected from major temperature changes. People who wear glasses can attest to what happens when they go from a cold outside to a warm inside. It takes a while before they can see again because of their glasses fogging up. Well the same thing happens to your lenses.
It might be tempting to “protect” your camera by keeping it in your jacket so keep it warm. This will only make condensation worse so you’ll want to avoid this. You also don’t wan’t to blow or breathe on your camera as that will add instant condensation.
In order to further prevent condensation on your gear, you want to limit how quickly your gear changes temperature. What I do is keep my camera in my camera bag for a few hours after I’m out in the cold. The bag will act as an insulator and make sure your camera warms up slowly.
If you are really worried about this you can also put your camera in a plastic bag but I’ve never bothered with that. Usually your camera bag works just fine. Remember to take the memory card out of the camera while your outside so you can get working right away when you get home. But if you have to open your bag inside to get the card out of the camera before it warms up you will be fine. 🙂
As anyone with a cellphone knows, cold weather makes batteries die very quickly. This is no less true for camera batteries. I always carry a few extra batteries with me and carry them in my jacket pocket with a hand warmer. This keeps my spares warm and ready to go. Plus, if the battery you have in your camera dies due to the cold you can sometimes get them working again after warming them up.
I also keep my cell phone in this same pocket to make sure that doesn’t die on me either.
Cold Weather Clothing
Obviously you need to stay warm or you will have no fun out there. Layers are key. I wear multiple layers of long underwear depending on how cold it is. Then I add a sweater/sweatshirt and top it off with a good coat rated to below zero temperatures and snowpants.
The right gloves are important too. Wearing big bulky gloves definitely keeps you warm, but they also make it difficult to work with your camera. Luckily, now they have gloves that are designed for photographers. I have a pair that will flip the fingertips to the side and to allow me to change my settings while only exposing a small amount of skin.
If you are around ice (especially on cliff sides) be sure to wear something on your shoes to help with traction. I highly recommend Yaktrax to slip right over your boots. They almost negate all the the slipperiness (is that a word?) of the ice. In Zion National Park last winter by wife and I tried a hike on an icy trail and couldn’t make it too far. We purchased some Yaktrax and were walking over ice like it was a well salted sidewalk.
That hopefully will get you started and ready for your upcoming winter photography adventures. To finish off this post, here are some of my favorite winter images.