Taking photographs at a travel destination in the winter can be challenging yet rewarding. One may see fewer photogenic subjects, but they can be found and be quite enjoyable to shoot with a little preparation.
Whether you go to Alaska, Argentina, or the Alps here are some basic facts you need to be aware of when setting out to photograph or shoot video in cold weather countries.
If you dress for the weather and pack a few extra items there is no reason you can’t go out on a cold day or even in a snowstorm and have some fun with it. Here in Canada I have learned to live with it comfortably.
By nature most of us leave our cameras at home on cold or bad weather days, yet this is where you might find some unusual, unique circumstances that produce great photography. Sometimes there are opportunities that can create a certain mood and trigger those emotions in your images we all seek, such as:
-The bleak and open emptiness of a frigid landscape.
-The festive lights and celebrations of the holidays under a full moon.
-Nature sleeping under a blanket of snow awaiting spring.
-Winter sport action under a crisp blue sky.
Here is the topic broken down into four categories:
Photo Opportunities, Cold Weather, Equipment, and Technique
Before you travel somewhere in the winter, first check if the weather is agreeable with your plans.
See what the average predicted climate may be as far as days with sun and rain /snow you may encounter. How cold could it get?
The winter season will have fewer hours of daylight per day and the sun will cross the sky at a lower angle. There are two extremes in lighting. You have your bright sunny days with white snow reflecting in all directions; a very high contrast scene. Then you have overcast days with low light level, no shadows, muted colors and low contrast.
So this is where you can find some photo subjects on your trip. In the city there are winter carnivals, ice sculpture displays, Christmas festivities, New Year’s Eve celebrations, to photographs right into the night time. Yes, with the short days consider shooting in the evenings, you’ll be amazed by the results.
Sporting events like hockey, skiing, snowmobiling, dog sled rides can make for great content for your slideshow and certainly the action is excellent when you shoot a few video clips.
If you go to a city park or out of town, there are photo opportunities to find interesting photos to take near water: shorelines, bridges, waterfalls, rapids. Look to add spots of vivid color in your monochrome scenes with buildings, cars or people wearing colourful clothing.
You could also eliminate much of the colour in your photos as an artistic style or shoot straight black and white pictures. Look for interesting shapes and patterns in nature and buildings; don’t forget to look at what the shadows are doing.
When the days are dark and glum, and there seems nothing to photograph yet you’re in the mood to shoot, think small. These are the days I point my camera down towards the ground to crop out that ugly gray sky and do some macro photography. Overcast days with no shadows are perfect for close-up picture taking.
Consider even on bad weather days there may be photo-ops. Heading out in a snowstorm can bag you some very unusual photos. After the storm can be good, when the trees are covered in snow or icicles. But act quickly because a sunny day will melt it all away by noon.
If you dress for the weather there isn’t a problem.
You need to be comfortable to enjoy and stay out in the cold of winter.
Wear layers to regulate your temperature so that you are neither chilled nor sweating. Sweating is bad because the moisture will make you feel cold eventually. Look for wool and polyester materials and wear layers to control your comfort.
I recommend good wool socks, tall waterproof boots, thin gloves plus outer mitts, long underwear, waterproof windbreaker (colourful, with lots of pockets), fleece jacket, hat. Also pack sunglasses, sunscreen and tissue.
In a backpack have a few dried snacks, a water bottle (that you’re trying to keep from freezing) spare socks, gloves, shirt in case they get wet.
For smart phone camera users, find inner gloves that have special fingertips that can control your touchscreen.
Cameras get cold in winter, so make sure the manufacturer rates your camera to still operate in that frosty weather abroad. Use lithium or Ni-Cad batteries and keep extra sets in warm pockets.
Moisture condensation is a problem once your camera gets cold, and you return indoors to a warmer environment. Plan to stay outside for a longer period and then keep your camera in its case or a plastic bag before going inside. There’s not much you can do but wait for your camera to warm up slowly. Here is where right away a second camera could come in handy.
To avoid the impact of the elements (snowflakes falling), use a lens hood / hand, keep the camera lens pointed down, use a plastic bag to cover the body and put a UV filter on your lens as protection.
If you carry a tripod the metal legs will get cold to hold on to. What I do is put water pipe foam insulation on one of the legs and use a carrying strap.
If you are going to be standing or sitting as a spectator or waiting for an animal to appear, bring a foam pad to stand or sit on.
The main problem of shooting in winter (that you may already be aware of) is getting the right exposure with all that white snow glaring everywhere.
Your light meter is calibrated for a mid-tone gray — in the middle between the two extremes of pure black and on the other end, brightest white. When you point your camera at a scene that has a lot of white and near white areas (highlights) the camera meter will make the photo darker than it was. The meter is calibrated to expose for an average scene that has those mid-tone shades of brightness. Snow, light grey skies (and white sand) all will fool your meter and you need to compensate for that.
Typically cameras have a setting for “snow and sand” that will help adjust for these whitish scenes. You can also manually expose by adding +1 – 2 EV stops by adjusting the shutter or aperture controls. Using spot metering and bracketing will help if in doubt.
You may find focusing delays if your scene has few contrast details for the autofocus to work with. Aim at something the same distance away that it can lock on. Hold that focus, then re-crop back to your shot.
Try experimenting using your shutter speed settings, to either freeze or blur snowflakes falling.
Shooting in the winter months may give you images and video clips that have a blueish cast, low contrast, weak colour saturation. If you are saving your photos as jpegs, try to correct this with your camera settings before shooting – white balance, vivid color, HDR. Shooting in a RAW file format gives you the luxury to tweak it back home on your main computer.
Now you’re ready to take on winter challenges and find those great winter wonderland scenes we all see on calendars.
Two final points to be made, one is to take care not to drop anything in deep snow; you may not find it again! And please tell someone where you’re going and when you’re going to get back if you venture out into the wilderness. Pack a charged cell phone, map and snacks.
Oh and take care where you stomp around in the snow, you may turn around and wish to shoot in that direction. Oops!
and stay warm…