A cold wind blows down from the North, and every breath falls to your feet in a puff of condensation. You press your frozen fingers into a set of animal tracks, and they come away wet with snow. The tracks are fresh—the animal likely passed through here only minutes ago. You follow the tracks up the riverbank and listen. The river trickles musically beneath the ice, and the wind whispers gently between the frozen pines. Nothing else stirs. You can’t remember the last time your feet were this cold.
And then it happens. Something moves in the trees upwind of you. Dark fur and white antlers briefly separate themselves from the shadows before melting into the shade again. Your heart beats faster. After a long morning of searching, you’ve finally found what you were looking for. Camera in hand, you crouch behind a sagebrush and sink into the snow. Slowly, the moose steps out of the trees. His warm breath settles against his fur and forms tiny ice crystals along his nose. You raise your camera to your eye and hover your frozen finger above the shutter. Slowly, he lifts his head to sniff the frosty air. His antlers raise like a crown above his ears, snow falls gently from the tree branches overhead, and you know this moment is worth all of the hours spent in the cold.
If you ask me, there’s no doubt about it. Winter is my favorite season for wildlife photography. Freezing conditions can make for a dramatic scene. Frozen breath lingers in the air like smoke. Frost crystals cling to dark fur. The drama of a winter scene tells the story of how hard wild animals have to work to simply survive the cold months and offers an intimate insight into their world.
In order to be where the wild things are in winter, you have to be prepared. Some of these tips may seem like a no brainer, but I stress them nonetheless. There is nothing more frustrating than missing the shot after putting in the work because inadequate preparations force you to turn in early.
Layer up. Dressing in layers when exploring the outdoors is a great idea year-round and even more important in winter. I suggest shedding a layer when you’re on the move searching for wildlife and putting that extra layer back on once you’ve found your subject. Because you’ll be mostly stationary while shooting, it’s essential to make sure you’re bundled up, so your body temperature doesn’t drop uncomfortably low.
Check the weather. Make sure to check for impending weather conditions before leaving the house. Snowstorms, high winds and ice storms can move in quickly and may leave you stranded in the field or on the road home after your shoot. It’s wise to check weather satellites before you leave, and if you’re headed to an area where you may not have cell service, I advise you to check again before you lose reception. Snow and ice storms can add a wonderful element of drama to your photos, but only if you are prepared. Being caught off guard by winter weather can be a disaster waiting to happen.
Acclimate your gear. Condensation on lenses and camera bodies can be a huge inconvenience if you’re shooting in a damp, cold environment. Taking your camera gear between a warm house or car and into the elements can cause the glass components to fog up. If you can manage it, consider storing your gear somewhere where the temperatures are similar to where you’ll be shooting—the cabin entryway, car or garage are all great options if there’s little to no risk of the gear being stolen. If that’s not an option, consider leaving a little earlier to allow time for the condensation to clear. If your gear is not weather sealed, consider wrapping it in waterproof protection to keep it safe from snow and ice.
Be safe. Winter is wild. And like all things wild, it can be dangerous and unpredictable. Weather changes rapidly, terrain can be treacherous, and storms can turn dangerous quickly. It’s smart to avoid venturing out alone into wintery conditions. If you can’t find a companion or two to join you in your excursions, consider staying in areas where you will have cell service or bring along a satellite phone to stay in touch.
A Waiting Game
The wet snow soaked our faces as two friends and I walked out into the field where two bull moose were bedded down among the sagebrush. There was no sun and no promise of it returning today. Sunset was only an hour or so away. Visibility was extremely low. The snow blanketed the moose’s backs, and as it fell, they appeared to burrow deeper into it to find shelter from the storm. We waited and waited for them to stand up. My hands were freezing inside my wet gloves, and I slowly squatted and paced to generate a little more body heat.
Finally, right as the evening began to give way to the blue hour, the moose stood up. The snow started to fall harder as the light faded, and it was clear the conditions were not ideal for photography. However, we stayed and watched in awe. One of the two bulls was the largest moose we’d seen in this region. His enormous antlers were coated in snow, and he swung them around as he challenged the smaller bull moose to spar with him. Their antlers clacked as they slammed against one another in the storm. It was a powerful skirmish. We lingered, watching until dark.
By the time we returned to our cars, it was clear that the driving conditions were exponentially more treacherous than when we’d arrived earlier in the evening. A sheet of ice almost an inch thick had formed beneath the snow on our windshields and the road. It took the better part of an hour to clear our windshields and defrost the cars, and when I was finally able to get on the road, it didn’t take long for my car to spin out on the ice. Luckily, the road was all but abandoned that night as most people avoided traveling in the storm. I was fortunate enough that my car didn’t slide into the ditch, and I still made it back to town safely, but it served as an important reminder that conditions can change rapidly, and the drive home is usually considerably more dangerous than any animal you may face in the field.
Footsteps To Follow
Animal tracks in the snow have a story to tell. The idea of tracking wildlife can certainly be intimidating. It calls to mind images of seasoned mountain men with decades of bushcraft knowledge and hunting skills. But winter provides a gift to wildlife photographers, and for a season, wildlife tracking is so easy that anyone with a little understanding of animal behavior and determination can do it. The stark landscape provides great visual contrast between tracks, fur and other animal signs, which are as simple to read as a map pointing you in the right direction.
Look for paw and hoof prints. When you find them, take a moment to determine how recently the animal has been in the area. Older tracks appear less defined than fresh tracks; if they’re really old, they may just look like a series of holes in the surface of the snow. These are not the best kind as the animal is likely long gone from where the tracks lead, but they do offer reassurance that you are at least in the correct general vicinity to find animals.
Fresh tracks are defined imprints and easy to identify. If you move quickly and carefully enough, they will likely lead you right to the area where your subject is.
Keep an eye out for animal body imprints in deep snow. Animal tracks will occasionally lead to an imprint where an animal bedded down for the night. These “beds” are typically found in dense brush or trees, or below a cliff band or natural feature that provides some degree of shelter from the elements. If you can determine where an animal has been sleeping at night, you can plan ahead to be in the area in the early morning or evening to photograph them before they move on again.
Learn to recognize other signs that an animal has passed through. The snow provides bright contrast for spotting animal urine or feces, which are great indicators as to where and when an animal has been in the area. A soft pile of scat that is still warm enough to steam in the cold air means you should get your camera ready because your subject is not far ahead.
Insights For Composition
On snowy days, composition is key. While winter is a spectacularly beautiful time of year to photograph wildlife, it is true that the bright snow and strong midday sun during the shorter daylight hours can make it challenging to expose your images properly. It can also be tempting to satisfy your survival instincts and rush your shots so you can hurry back to your warm house or car. You worked hard to find your subject, so remember to slow down and maximize your time with them to capture their image and story in the best possible way.
Think carefully about your framing. The midwinter landscape can be noticeably devoid of color compared to summer and autumn. Without vibrant colors that easily make your setting interesting, it is up to you to thoughtfully frame your subject to maximize the potential of the winter setting.
If you’re able, move slowly around your subject without disturbing them to find the best angle from which to shoot. Shooting with a pile of snow or a small branch closer to your lens can add a level of depth to the shot and provide a natural frame that will highlight the animal while showing a bit of their environment.
Try crouching low to the ground to photograph your subject from an eye-level perspective. Being at eye level adds intimacy to your photo, and an intimate perspective will make your subject stand out against a bleak backdrop.
Embrace the imperfection. Be ready for less-than-ideal compositional conditions with heavy or blinding white snow. The conditions can make it easy to overexpose your shot and lose all texture and detail in the landscape.
Instead of being disappointed by these challenges, consider how you can embrace them and incorporate them into the image. Intentionally shooting a brighter exposure can make your subject pop in a way that isn’t possible any other time of year.
Zooming out a bit and incorporating more of the driving snow and landscape can compensate for the lack of detail in the animal itself and tell the bigger story about the relationship between subject and environment during a brutal time of year. These challenges are unique to winter, so embrace them while you can.
Work for proper focus. When the snow comes down hard, the thousands of snowflakes between you and your subject can make it nearly impossible to autofocus on the animal properly. Consider switching to manual focus so that you’re able to take control of the situation. If your camera offers focus peaking, be sure to enable it before you hit the field as this feature will make it much easier to dial in focus on a heavily snowy day.
Even without snow, winter offers unique composition opportunities. While fresh snow and big snowflakes make for an easily appealing image, winter is a fantastic time of year to shoot, even if you’re in an area without snow on the ground or in the forecast. Most wildlife prepares for the cold months ahead by growing a new winter coat each winter. The fullness of their winter fur makes the animals much more charismatic and visually appealing than the sleek, thin and often patchy fur they sport through the summer months. Moisture in the air freezes to their thick fur overnight, and if you’re able to catch them in the early morning, the effect of frost fur can be especially beautiful.
Protect Your Subjects
No matter the season, proper ethics are forever the most important aspect of wildlife photography. This is especially true in winter. Heavy snow, extreme weather and lack of food can have a strong effect on wild animals’ ability to move throughout their environment. Animals may be tired and stressed as they fight to survive the harsh months. It is important to keep these facts in mind and remember that no photo is worth affecting an animal’s life. Know what a population of animals may be up against—and perhaps choose to stay home if you know they are experiencing particularly difficult conditions.
In the field, always keep your distance and avoid directly approaching animals. Instead, be patient and predict where an animal is probably going to move, and position yourself where they may pass. Keep your body language slow and small in order to allow them to relax in your presence. Consider that their mobility is often limited in deep snow and avoid making any moves that will force them off of the path of least resistance.
When I look back at the images I have captured in harsh winter environments, I am forever impressed by the conditions these animals must endure to simply survive.
Follow Brooke Bartleson’s work on Instagram @brookelittlebear.