Winter’s Sparkles

Let It Snow, Let Me Go! • Crisp Winter Night Sky • Technology As A Hindrance

Ice By Design. The delicate patterns of ice that form along the edges of small waterways are favorite winter subjects. George Lepp photographed these along a creek in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with EF 180mm macro lens, 1⁄8 sec. at ƒ/16 on a tripod.

Let It Snow, Let Me Go!

Q As a longtime reader of your column and one who lives in a very cold environment, I'd like to know what kinds of subjects you look for during the winter months. Do you have any problems with your cameras when photographing in low temperatures?
S. Nick
North Pole

A While the scenes and subjects of spring, summer and fall are seemingly limitless, winter conditions offer some unique opportunities for outdoor photography, and some of these are genuinely amusing. If you're fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to live where it snows, it helps a lot to see each flake as an opportunity to be creative.

To begin with a truly desperate idea, I've been generating some laughs by capturing time-lapse while using my snow blower to clear the driveway. I set up the camera on a tripod, program it to take one image every second and get to work. The end result looks like pure fun, even if clearing the driveway isn't actually that much fun. You can view an example of this type of a time-lapse that I posted on Vimeo (www.vimeo.com/86268199).

My favorite winter subject is probably ice details, from snowflakes to the crystals that form on dried plants and seed pods, and sometimes on windows, and icicles on structures. Look for close-ups of crisp patterns and designs along the edges of streams, rivers and lakes. It can be a bit risky to work on a snowy bank with a macro lens, so I do most of this photography with a telephoto, or macro telephoto, such as the 180mm macro lens, to give some safe working distance. Ice structures are complex; I incorporate a lot of stacking techniques to get the added depth of field these images demand.

Winter is my preferred time to photograph in Yellowstone National Park. No crowds, beautiful landscapes and interesting wildlife images await those willing to don gloves and long johns.

The ubiquitous GoPro is key to documenting fun and drama in the snow. Do you ski? Attach it to your headgear and capture action selfies, or take video of the path you follow so others can experience the ride from the safety and warmth of their home offices. GoPro now offers a dog harness, so if you've got one of those fearless canines that likes to sled with the kids, everyone can experience the ride the way Fido did! I suppose it would work on a reindeer, too.

Extremely cold temperatures can affect camera function, although because I don't usually work in extreme cold, let's say below 0º F, I've had few such problems in the digital age. The things to be concerned about are that batteries don't have as much capacity in low temperatures and LCD screens may be sluggish in really cold situations. Furthermore, the photographer's hands and feet won't function as expected when they get cold and/or circulation is restricted by tight gloves or socks. One of the most frustrating cold-weather issues is that lenses and viewfinders (also your glasses) can fog up and then freeze, making you unable to capture that beautiful buck bounding through the snow. Other than that, winter is a great time to be a photographer!

Some of the best winter subjects, migrating or over-wintering birds, are serendipitously found in abundance in more temperate climates. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico is a fabulous setting for geese and sandhill cranes in November and December. Klamath Falls National Wildlife Refuge in southern Oregon hosts geese, eagles and swans throughout the winter. And, if you're really dedicated, you'll need to head south to Florida in February and March for nesting egrets, spoonbills and herons. I know it's hard, but someone has to do it.



George Lepp using the CamRanger to evaluate the exposure as he sets up to photograph an eagle's nest.

Crisp Winter Night Sky

Q I've been waiting for clear winter night skies to do some Milky Way and star trails. Any helpful hints for getting the best results?
G. Herman
Via email

A First, choose a location free of light pollution and a time when the moon is dark. The most interesting night sky images are grounded in some way by an evocative mountain peak or stark foreground object, such as a dead tree. So location matters, and it's not likely to be in your backyard. That means you need to prepare for several hours outside on a clear, cold night; photographing night skies takes time.

Dress warm, including gloves that allow you to free some fingers to operate the camera while keeping the rest of your hand warm. You don't want to be stumbling around or have your hands occupied with a flashlight, so get a headlamp, ideally one that takes a red filter; you'll quickly lose your night vision with a bright white LED light, and if others are working around you, they will appreciate the dimmed red hue.

Take a loupe with you to focus your camera in Live View from the LCD rather than the viewfinder. Set the Live View to maximum magnification to make the pinpoint stars larger. Most of the imaging you'll be doing is accomplished with the lens at its widest aperture, or close to it. It doesn't take much to miss the focus and record fuzzy dots instead of crisp stars. The loupe will allow you to see the faint points of light on the back of the camera and get them dead-on. Another great tool is the CamRanger, which wirelessly connects your camera and displays the Live View image on your smartphone or tablet. The larger display helps to achieve precise focus, has a red hue mode to save your eyes, works with Bulb settings, and allows you to capture images and change settings on the camera without touching it.

The standard capture method for star trails is to set one looooong exposure. The problem with this strategy is that you generate a lot of noise in the image and you have to wait until it's completely dark to begin. That eliminates any foreground feature you wanted to include and emphasizes any random light at the horizon. A better way is to capture a series of images at 30 to 60 seconds each, and later composite them in Photoshop using the "Lighter" or "Lighter Color" blend mode to render the trail. This will generate less noise in the higher ISOs and you can begin the series while there's still some light on the foreground; the later images in the sequence will add to that base.

Extremely cold temperatures can affect camera function, although because I don't usually work in extreme cold, let's say below 0º F, I've had few such problems in the digital age. The things to be concerned about are that batteries don't have as much capacity in low temperatures and LCD screens may be sluggish in really cold situations. Furthermore, the photographer's hands and feet won't function as expected when they get cold and/or circulation is restricted by tight gloves or socks.

The goal with images of the multitude of stars in the Milky Way is to record bright, sharp points of light. Use a high ISO (usually 1600 or 3200), depending on the speed (maximum aperture) of your lens. An ƒ/2.8 or faster lens is ideal. The latest cameras with excellent high-ISO capabilities will give the best results. If you're using a fast 35mm or 50mm lens, the exposure should be less than 30 seconds in order to get sharp points of light versus a streak because Earth's movement is magnified by the narrow field of successively longer focal lengths. A full 30-second exposure works well with really wide lenses, such as a fish-eye or 16mm focal length.


Light painting is a creative way to illuminate an interesting foreground feature while capturing long exposures of stars. Keep a flashlight moving over the subject during the exposure, and check the results on the LCD to see if adjustments are needed to achieve the effect you want.

Technology As A Hindrance

Q Does it seem to you that the artistic aspect of photography is greatly diminished by all the technological aids available today?
K. Minden
Via email

A Tools in the hands of an artist yield art. If the artist adeptly uses technology to complete or expand his or her artistic vision, yielding a compelling composition that speaks to the viewer's emotion or aesthetic sense, then technology has abetted, rather than obstructed, art. On the other hand, a mundane, albeit technically perfect, composition may demonstrate the photographer's mechanical skills without displaying any artistic quality whatsoever.

While photographic technology puts the means for creative expression in more hands (and that's a good thing), I think the mass distribution of unedited images (often accompanied by self-praise thinly disguised as instruction in the form of unedited blogs) is what drives the idea that photography as an art has been compromised by the digital age. The successive filters (photo and content editors at publications and agencies) that once prevailed to separate the art from the chaff are rarely wielding their influence on the flood of images saturating today's media. Are we capable of making these discerning choices ourselves? Perhaps. But who has the time to waste?

That said, I recently had the honor of serving as a judge for the NANPA Showcase, the annual competition of the North American Nature Photography Association. The field of entries was replete with jaw-dropping, mind-expanding, drop-dead gorgeous photographic art. It's well worth your time to see the highly edited results of the Showcase at www.nanpa.org beginning in early January.

See George Lepp's new website for new images and content at www.GeorgeLeppImages.com.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

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