Re-Think Your Winter Landscape Photography

Tips for creating a portfolio of winter landscape images that showcases a variety of creative approaches

I’ve photographed the Alabama Hills for over 30 years and have seen snow on the granite boulders exactly once. When I heard snow forecast in nearby Lone Pine, I grabbed my photo equipment and drove 180 miles in time for sunrise after the first snow to do some winter landscape photography.

Winter landscape photography: snow-covered cactus

Snow-covered cactus below Mount Whitney and the Eastern Sierras in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California.

I captured a stunning scene at sunrise with white snow blanketing the reddish boulders. The grand vista was great, but I wanted to capture a different feel. Re-thinking my approach, I looked for unique elements to interpret the landscape in an alternate way and found a beautiful mound of cactus. You seldom see desert flora covered in snow, so I made the cacti the prominent element of the scene. These two critical elements, rare snow on this landscape and snow-covered cacti, gave me my alternate perspective.

Winter is the season when nature photographers freeze their fingers off to capture images of frozen water on the landscape. Don’t rush into the snowbank with your finger on the trigger. Re-think your approach. You might be surprised at the new look a little forethought could bring to your images. Consider isolating elements within the grand, snowy landscape to give your images that “different feel” and make them stand out.

Wandering Yosemite Valley in January, I was surrounded by vast landscapes. But what caught my eye was a large oak tree isolated from other trees. It was striking with its snow-covered, dark branches. I used a medium telephoto lens to isolate the tree and reduce the depth of field. The tree became the prominent element, producing a different feel to the scene. Grand landscapes are great, but take the time to search for strong elements that stand on their own and add new perspective to your winter portfolio.

Winter landscape photography: black oak in snow

Black oak in Yosemite Valley.

The quality of light is critical to successful landscape photography, especially in winter when dull, dark light often bathes the scene. Don’t give up. Re-think your situation. When I was in Yellowstone one winter, the light was never right for grand vistas around Minerva Springs. The springs are made up of layers of mineral deposits that form amazing abstract shapes. So, re-thinking my grand landscape plan, I isolated a section of the springs, maybe 5 feet long, in even, soft light. Using as much depth of field as possible, I aligned my wide-angle lens parallel to the formation. Low light and large depth of field required a tripod, mirror lock-up and a cable release. The extra time needed was worth it to capture a truly abstract interpretation.

Winter landscape photography: Minerva Springs, Yellowstone

Minerva Springs abstract, Yellowstone National Park.

When faced with less-than-ideal light, don’t stay in your tent. Discard your pre-conceived grand landscapes and let your mind wander. Look for intimate scenes or abstract impressions you can isolate to create entirely different images. You won’t be disappointed, and you may find new ways to see the land.

If you have great light, by all means, capture those gorgeous winter landscapes. With spectacular light and clearing storms, you can create images of iconic locations like Gates of the Valley in new, unique ways. For example, stop and consider different exposure or shutter speed settings. I underexposed my image of the Gates of the Valley in Yosemite to add mystery.

Winter landscape photographer: Gates of the Valley

Winter sunset at Gates of the Valley, Yosemite National Park.

Winter light is fleeting—dark one minute and soft and bright the next. Don’t let unfavorable conditions drive you away. Re-think leaving. Instead, rely on the nature photographer’s greatest virtue: patience. During my Yosemite trip, as I passed Gates of the Valley, I saw amazing rime ice formations in the Merced River. However, the light was horrible. I started to leave for other spectacular landscapes down the road when I noticed the cloud cover opening up. I decided to wait. After a half hour, the clouds parted and sunset light struck El Capitan, reflected in the Merced River. By re-thinking my choices, I captured one of my best images of Yosemite.

Winter landscape photography: Rime ice pillows

Rime ice pillows in the Merced River, Yosemite National Park.

After photographing Gates of the Valley, I considered what to pursue next. Should I continue on with grand landscapes or think “smaller” and look for intimate details that could tell a story about the spot I was photographing? I looked around and down, searching for mini-landscapes. The Merced River provided my next opportunity, miniature landscapes of frozen bubbles. Now I had intimate details and grand landscapes photographed from the same location.

Winter landscape photography: close-up image of frozen bubbles

Bubbles in ice on the Merced River, Yosemite National Park.

Do you return to the same locations every winter? Why not re-think your choices. While snow-covered hoodoos, and maybe a snow-bow, always make Bryce Canyon a top priority winter location, think outside the box for new places to expand your winter portfolio. Research the less-photographed winter locations. For example, the Columbia River Gorge does get snow, and frozen waterfalls make great subjects for a winter landscape portfolio. While you see a number of winter images from places like Bryce, you don’t often see winter scenes from Columbia River Gorge. Capturing unique locations like this can make your portfolio stand out from the crowd.

Winter landscape photography: Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls in winter, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.

If you do go back to your iconic standbys, don’t just return to the same tripod holes at the same great landscapes. Re-think your visit. What other features are around? Put the icons on hold and open your eyes to new possibilities. While in Sequoia one winter, I included the General Sherman redwood on my list of photo subjects. But I changed direction, started wandering and found this spectacular ice cave. The curving ripple effects in the roof line gave the image an abstract quality. This cave was only a few feet high and formed when snow melt slid off the corrugated roof of the visitor’s center and re-froze.

Winter landscape photography: Ice cave

Ice cave in Sequoia National Park, California.

What about photographing wildlife in winter? Do you automatically go for the frame-filling portrait of the snow-covered bison or elk? Instead, make the animal part of the scene, not the whole subject. Expand your vision to include photos of wildlife in their environment. Images like these are informative to your viewer. They may also look just as great as your grand landscapes but with an important new element.

Winter landscape photography: Bison at Yellowstone

Bison feeding in a snow-covered meadow in Yellowstone National Park.

Winter is also a time to re-think your equipment and clothing. Wet, freezing, cold, uncomfortable; all are descriptive of how I felt at one time or another standing in 2 feet of white slush waiting for the light to finally break over the landscape. Weatherize your gear. Carry spare batteries in the warm pockets of your parka. Pack lens cleaning cloths to remove rain, snow or dew from lenses and wipe down your camera. Consider shroud protectors that cover your cameras but have openings for lenses, flash and your hands to work the controls.

Your clothing is equally important. Cold-weather boots, socks and liners make all the difference, and a waterproof, warm hat is mandatory. Remember, winter can be very cold, and the light constantly changes, so it may take longer to set up and compose your image. You won’t think clearly if you are cold and wet. Bright snow can be blinding, so bring dark glasses or eye shades. Gloves flexible enough to work your camera controls are critical. You also need to stay hydrated.

So, now that you have done all this re-thinking, make a plan to head out and enjoy the fun of winter landscape photography.


See more of Dave Welling’s work at strikingnatureimagesbydavewelling.com.