Top 5 Tips for Winter Photography

Temperatures are dropping, ponds are freezing over, and snow is falling—winter is here! As winter’s chill sets in, however, don’t pack away your camera with your summer clothes. Winter is a magical time for outdoor photography—if you know how to handle the challenges presented by the season. Here are my top five essential tips for getting the most out of your winter photographs! 

1. Stay toasty! Nothing ruins a good winter shoot like chilled hands and toes, or worse—hypothermia or frostbite. Dress in synthetic fabrics which insulate even when wet, and dress in layers so you can fine tune the amount of warmth you need. A base layer of long johns should be the foundation of your winter dress, and down outerwear as well as a windproof layer should always be handy for extra warmth and wind protection. I use insulated boots to keep my toes warm. Fingers are the most difficult, as you must balance dexterity with warmth. I typically use a lightweight pair of liners coupled with heavy duty synthetic fill mittens (the kind used by Everest mountaineers). I keep my hands in the mittens, taking them out only when I need to operate camera controls. Whenever my fingers get cold, I stuff them back in the mittens, which warm my hands up in no time.     

Camera equipment can sometime have problems in the cold. Although most modern lithium ion batteries actually perform very well in cold temperatures (you should bring along a spare anyways that you keep warm inside an interior pocket), all sorts of things—including shutters and tripod legs–can get frozen stuck. If your shutter freezes open or close, stuff your camera in a jacket until it warms up and gets unstuck. If it gets really cold, some equipment, like remote shutter releases or even carbon fiber tripod legs, might get brittle, so handle with care.
2. Avoid the winter grays. When shooting ice and snow, overcast skies are your worst enemy. Flat gray clouds leave a colorless winter landscape looking bleak and desolate. Good light really brings a winter landscape to life, as snow and ice reflect light extremely well. Directional light, such as side-lighting and back-lighting, can reveal texture and transform a winter scene into something magical, especially near sunrise and sunset to take advantage of warm sunlight. The juxtaposition of light and shadow is particularly effective in winter, as shadowed snow and ice will be rendered blue. Ice in particular will reflect colorful sunrise and sunset clouds in the sky very well, behaving similar to water.
3. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! Okay, this is an exception to Tip #2 above. Heavy falling snow can set a wintry mood, and transform even ordinary scenes into something ethereal and beautiful. But don’t let your thinking about snow end there. Fresh snow is critical to many winter landscape scenes. Old snow gets stomped on by people and animals, melts off trees revealing unattractive bare branches, and often just looks dingy and unappealing. If you wait to shoot after big snowstorms, you’ll be rewarded with landscapes that look fresh and photogenic.
4. Ice is nice. Ice on ponds, lakes, waterfalls, and streams can make great winter subjects. Ice often has interesting patterns, shapes, and fissures that can make great leading lines. Consider taking a closer look and study ice patterns on a macro level—small bubbles and cracks in the ice can reveal tiny hidden worlds, and autumn leaves trapped in ice can be very appealing. Rime ice can often form when moist air (such as fog, or spray from waterfalls or waves) freezes on trees, creating living ice sculptures. Be careful when working on frozen ponds and the like, making sure that the ice is sufficiently thick to support your weight. I often don a dry suit and a lifejacket when working on a frozen lake, just in case I break through.  

5. Don’t forget the winter critters! Winter is often a great time for wildlife photography. Some species are especially active in winter, or engage in massive winter migrations, such as snow geese. In your local area, winter might bring a bunch of species that you don’t see during the summer. Look for opportunities to tell a story using winter weather: steam rising from a blackbird’s beak tells viewers about the cold temperatures, or a bull elk hunkered down in a snowstorm tells a story about the struggle animals face to survive in winter environments.      

P.S. With your help, I might be able to test these tips in the ultimate winter environment: the North Pole. I’ve entered Quark Expeditions’ “Blog Your Way to the North Pole” contest, with the grand prize being a trip to—you guessed it—the North Pole. It’s a social networking contest, and the five participants getting the most votes are eligible for the grand prize. Please consider voting to send me to the North Pole—I’d love the opportunity to represent the OP community at the top of the world. And please feel free to spread the word, I need all the help I can get!     

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