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The Beauty & Challenge Of Winter Storms

Difficult weather produces uniquely compelling conditions for photography, as well as dangers that need to be observed

Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park

While many are cautious about going out in inclement weather and potentially hazardous conditions, photographing winter storms provide remarkably uncommon imagery. In contrast to the subdued palette you’ll often find in desert landscapes throughout the rest of the year, these scenics offer plenty of otherworldly visual elements like dramatic backdrops in skies, pristine snow cover, freezing waterfalls and bodies of water that steam and fog in rapidly changing conditions. Above: Rime ice covers trees against a backdrop of fog in Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

The view out my window was pretty lousy! Sunrise looked to be dull and dark with thick clouds obscuring the sun. But, if you don’t try, you’ll never get the image, so I loaded up my gear and trekked to a location in the Alabama Hills, where interesting foreground rock formations provided leading lines to the majestic, but very dark, snow-covered Sierras. I set up my camera and waited.

Yosemite FallsSnow covers Yosemite Falls and Lost Arrow in a winter storm that’s clearing from Yosemite National Park, California.

Magically, the clouds opened slightly to the east and the Sierras lit up with a beautiful magenta alpenglow. I captured the image and made it back to the car before my face and fingers froze.

Winter landscapes incorporate ominous skies, fantastic storm clouds, dramatic light, God rays, eerie mist, fog and snowstorms. These severe weather elements provide great opportunities for spectacular landscape images, but you must be prepared to deal with extreme weather conditions and also be knowledgeable about the photographic techniques needed to capture striking images.

Photographing storm elements as part of the landscape takes preparation. Do you want to feature the elements of the storm or make them an integral part of, but not the centerpiece of, the landscape itself? Evaluate the weather conditions to frame compositional considerations.

Dark, ominous skies are strong elements, but somewhat featureless, so you need an anchoring landscape element to give your image structure. Look for a hoodoo, mountain, tree, ridgeline or some geological feature, hopefully that adds color to make it stand out, when composing your image.

Yellowstone RiverThe Yellowstone River cuts through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with Lower Yellowstone Falls almost frozen over, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Look to the west at sunrise when clearing sunrise storms often create magnificent, pink-colored clouds or alpenglow on the mountains. If you photograph in thick cloud cover with flat light, emphasize any strong elements of color using color-corrected or polarizing filters.

If you have a strong graphic image but no significant color, capture the image anyway and convert to a powerful black- and-white image using a black-and-white conversion software program like Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. Trees in snowstorms become dark silhouettes against bright backgrounds that translate into great black-and-white images. Winter mist and fog often create ethereal monochromatic conditions and softer light that you can use to create subtly toned and deeply moving images.

Bryce Canyon National ParkA winter sunrise and the resulting snowbow captured from Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Check your exposure histogram when photographing these elements as your camera meter underexposes these scenes, creating dull, muddy images. Add exposure compensation to auto exposure or overexpose by about one stop nominal on manual to correct this. Slower shutter speeds often create soft, dreamlike images in foggy conditions. Snow and rain soften distant features in a storm and create a three-dimensional effect of elements fading in the distance. Try a slower shutter speed, depending on conditions, to create a slight blur in the drops to add dynamic motion to the image.

Clouds are often the most dramatic elements of a stormy winter scene. When magnificent, dark and foreboding cloud-filled skies dominate a stormy landscape, anchor your image with elements like hills or trees along the bottom third or less of your image to give it structure, but not overwhelm the clouds.

You may not realize it, but you can get a rainbow, called a “snowbow,” during a clearing snowstorm. I photographed one of these rare events on a very cold sunrise morning at Bryce. Rainbows are truly beautiful and often stand out against those dark, violent storm skies. They add spectacular elements to an image. Because rainbows occur at a 90º angle to the sun, be careful using a polarizer to photograph them. It’s easy to make a rainbow disappear when using a polarizer to darken the sky. Watch the effect through your eyepiece and adjust accordingly. Capturing lightning is challenging, especially when the strikes are prominent, but far apart, time-wise.

General Information
North American Nature Photography Association
The Weather Channel
Weather Underground
Lightning Trigger (Stepping Stone Products, LLC)
Nik Software
Photomatix (HDRsoft)

It’s hard to keep the shutter open for long periods and not overexpose the image. Variable neutral-density filters from Singh-Ray and other companies can solve this problem. Another solution I use is the Lightning Trigger from Stepping Stone Products, LLC. Attached to your camera’s cable release port, with your exposure settings on manual, it has an amazing ability to capture lightning strikes even from great distances. All my lightning images were made with this device.

Storm light can be soft and diffuse or harsh and high contrast with several stops of tonal range between shadows and highlights. Be prepared for either condition. Diffuse light can often be shot straight on with little compensation.

Harsh light requires additional effort. You can use a split neutral-density filter to even out tonal range. Or, shoot multiple images of the same composition at different ƒ-stops with your camera locked down on a tripod. Combine these images using an HDR software program like Nik Software HDR Efex Pro 2 or Photomatix Pro from HDRsoft to narrow the contrast range and bring out the best elements of your image.

When photographing storms, if you concentrate only on the grand landscape, you may miss those superb, intimate scenics that are at your feet or right behind you. Check the area around you for intimate scenics that you can convert into striking images.

dave welling photography

The winter sun moves across the sky at a lower angle than summer, so sunset light often lasts longer and can be very subtle. If the storm clears, don’t pack your gear. You may get that magical subdued evening light, giving you the opportunity for beautiful softly lit, color-saturated images with a completely different theme than your violent storm-filled images.

To see more of Dave Welling‘s photography, visit his website at

How To Find Them

Heavy snowstorms in Yellowstone, the Tetons, Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite usually occur in January and February. Winter weather creates dramatic images anywhere, but in the desert Southwest, the arid landscape makes a stunning contrast against a snowstorm. Places like the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Zion, Bryce and Arches in Utah are particularly popular photo destinations.

Many national and state parks, and national wildlife refuges include weather information on their websites. You also can call the parks and refuges and speak with people there about the conditions.

When you narrow down a time window, check forecasting sites like, NOAA weather and Weather Underground. Try checking three or more sites to get a forecast consensus to improve your chances.

Relying on only one site, I made several “winter storm forecast” trips to Bryce when it looked great for snowstorms and got skunked several years in a row. Then, I expanded my site searches and also called the park when things looked promising to get a local perspective. The North American Nature Photography Association has 2,000 members scattered throughout the U.S., and they often share information on local conditions.

Be prepared and flexible, so you can chase storms on short notice. Using these tricks on my eighth trip to Bryce, I photographed some of the most spectacular storm light and conditions I’ve ever seen there. Also, scout your destination for those great image locations.

Finding the perfect photo site before dawn in a snowstorm can be frustrating. I missed the best image of winter sunrise alpenglow on the Tetons I’ve ever seen because I couldn’t find the right turnout in the deeply plowed snow.

How To Survive Them

Photographing in storms can be very rewarding, but also challenging—and potentially dangerous—for the unprepared photographer

When photographing in an active storm, always check local area forecasts. Make sure you have basic emergency items in your vehicle such as flares, a cell phone, a tool kit, a shovel, a short board to use under tires that get stuck in mud or snow, water, a first-aid kit, warm clothing, food and a portable radio, in case your car radio doesn’t work.

If you hike into a remote area during storm weather, take warm gloves, a waterproof, insulated coat and hat, waterproof boots, water and energy bars, and consider adding a personal locator beacon. Tell someone where you’ll be and the dates of your hike and that you’ll contact them upon your return.

You may be driving icy or rain-soaked roads, so make sure your tires are up to it, carry chains, and make sure you know how to put them on your tires. Check you vehicle’s fluid levels and take extra radiator water and engine oil. If you don’t have experience driving wet or snow-covered roads, stick to the well-traveled, paved interstate and major state highways.

When photographing in these conditions, carry a rain cover for your camera and lens, plus spare batteries, if it’s cold. Keep the spare batteries inside your coat. Take a large trash bag with you and put your camera and lens in the trash bag and seal it up before taking your equipment into a warm room from the cold outside. If it’s extremely cold and you get into a warm vehicle with the heater on, do the same thing. Condensation, which your gear is susceptible to in these conditions, will form mostly on the bag and not on or inside your lens.

Strong storms can provide the most dramatic elements for photography, but also can bring violent wind gusts, which can wreak havoc on a tripod/camera setup. Make sure you anchor your tripod well. If possible, hang your camera bag from the center column to add more stabilizing weight. Keep one hand on your tripod at all times to steady it. Be especially careful in powerful storm cells that include embedded lightning. While quite rare, severe winter storm cells can produce lightning, and you don’t want to be on an exposed hilltop when lightning strikes. Head for shelter when you hear thunder. Avoid tall trees; they’re lightning magnets.