Winter is a fantastic time to get out and take great pictures. A blanket of snow adds a dramatic element to landscape photos and leafless trees make stark shapes against a slate-gray sky. Additionally, with the sun lower on the horizon, the light is often better for longer stretches in the morning and afternoon. Unlike the summertime, winter gives you more time to enjoy the golden light.
Of course, if you aren’t well equipped or prepared for the cold, photographing in winter can be a miserable experience. It is essential to gear up before heading out into the snow and cold. Here are a few tips to make your winter photography experience a more pleasant one:
Dress warmly and bring extra clothes: Although you may be exercising vigorously to get to your photographic destination, once you get there, you’re likely to be standing around composing your shot or waiting for the right light. To stay warm, be sure to bring extra layers of warm clothing and put them on as soon as you arrive and before you get cold. It’s much easier to retain heat than to generate it when standing still.
Insulate your tripod: If you have a tripod with metal legs, your tripod will get very cold out in the elements and be unpleasant to carry around or adjust. Veteran winter photographers will wrap the top of their tripod legs with foam to provide an insulated grip to protect your hands against the cold metal.
Bring extra batteries and keep them warm: Cold saps battery power very quickly, so bring several spares and keep them in a warm jacket pocket. As the battery in your camera begins to wane, swap the cold battery with the warm one. As the cold battery re-warms, the power will return. That said, try to keep your camera cold. Otherwise, warmth and humidity will fog your lenses and viewfinder as soon as they are exposed to the cold.
Now that you’re well equipped for the winter weather, here are a few aesthetic tips for capturing winter’s brilliance.
Get out in the elements: The cold, snow and wind infuse your photos with a mood that cannot be captured any other time of year. Heading out with your camera in the storm or cold, rather than waiting for the weather to clear, gives your pictures a sense of atmosphere.
When doing so, be sure you’re packing a camera that can handle whatever weather Mother Nature throws at you, like the Stylus Tough series of point and shoot cameras or the award-winning OM-D E-M5, which is well-sealed against the elements.
Watch the sky: If you’re composing a landscape photo around a foreground element, you’ll want to avoid including the sky in your composition. High overcast skies lose detail and instead become a large white blob in your photo, stealing the viewer’s attention away from your primary subject. Instead, either select a high vantage point and eliminate the sky entirely, or find a unique foreground element to silhouette against a cold and wintery sky.
Cherish abstractions: The wind, cold and shadow that define winter also make for powerful abstract photos. Look for the shapes, shadows and textures snow drifts create, particularly among the trees that cast unique patterns on the snow's surface.
Take a trip: In my opinion, winter is the best time to visit our National Parks. Even the busiest parks are devoid of visitors at that time and winter’s coat provides a unique photographic twist to oft-photographed landmarks and overlooks.
As an added benefit, the Parks’ true residents, the wild animals, are easier to photograph as they come out from the depths of forests to forage for food. The wintery white and bare trees also make them easier to spot.
Winter Portraiture: It’s no coincidence that in the world of painting, many of the world’s classic portraitists hail from Northern European countries. The long winters and gray skies make stunning light for portraits. North-facing window light has long been a favorite of artists for portraiture. Use the pale winter light to your advantage. On an overcast day, position your subject near an unshaded north-facing window. The soft, low-contrast light is great for revealing subtle colors and textures making for a telling portrait.
Adjust your white balance: The color temperature (the color of white light), as well as the ambient temperature, is cool in the winter time. In the winter, the light trends toward blue for most of the day, particularly in the shadows, with a swing toward yellow and orange around sunrise and sunset.
As a result, your photographs will have a slight blue color cast to them if you don’t adjust your white balance. This blue color cast is particularly noticeable in skin tones and gives people an unflattering pallor to their skin.
Switching your white balance from daylight to cloudy will add a little bit of orange to counteract some of the blue in the environment and make the colors in your photos more closely match the way you see them with your eyes.
Expose Carefully: Particularly on high overcast days, your camera will have a tendency to underexpose snowy scenes.
Your camera’s histogram is a valuable tool to be sure your exposures are correct.
A histogram is a simple graph. The horizontal axis of the graph, from left to right, is a display of pixel brightness, from shadows to highlights. The vertical axis shows the number of pixels with a given brightness. Peaks within the histogram indicate a large number of pixels with that brightness value. When judging your exposure, look to these two things:
- The overall distribution of the histogram. A histogram shifted heavily toward the left is a cue that unless you’ve photographed primarily dark objects; your picture is underexposed.
- Cliffs to the left or right indicate that the extreme highlights or shadows have lost detail with the current exposure settings. This sometimes happens on a bright sunny day on the ski slopes.
The brightest patches of snow may lose detail as the camera tries to retain detail in the shadows.
If your photo is over- or underexposed, you can use your on-camera Exposure compensation feature to correct the problem. You’ll want to check your owner’s manual for instructions on how to adjust your camera’s exposure using this feature because the location and steps vary by camera model.