Winter Opportunities and Challenges
In photography, winter is the great simplifier. Details, like grass and leaves, are hidden, contours and edges are rounded, and the landscape is rendered to its most fundamental elements: line, shape, texture and colour. Even colour is more subdued and reduced in range from the vibrant green of summer, or the red, yellow and orange of fall, to the subdued blue of snow, sky and ice, or the browns of bark and dried leaf.
On overcast days in winter, the sky tends to be rendered as a large patch of bright, featureless nothingness. Landscapes are flattened because the diffuse light from the sky is reflected also from the snow reducing the overall contrast that we need in order to discern shape and line.
On sunny days the opposite is true. With the sun lower in the sky than in the summer, shadows are long and discernable all day long. In summer you may not consider shooting at high noon, but it's grand in the winter. The shadows help create line, shape and depth and impart visual interest to any object projecting above the snow.
Falling snow is beautiful to watch but difficult to capture well. The camera will likely focus on the background or some distinctive feature, rather than the falling snow itself. The movement of the snow also presents a challenge.
Other challenges for the winter photographer are keeping your own body warm and keeping your gear protected from the cold. On the coldest days, the electronics of modern cameras can fail completely unless precautions are taken.
The soft light of overcast days can cause the camera's autofocus system to struggle because it usually relies on some kind of contrasting feature to find a point of focus. So don't be surprised to hear your camera struggling to find something on which to focus.
Our cameras don't see the same as we do. Winter scenes illustrate this well. We think of snow and ice as white or colourless, and our eye-brain combination usually interprets it this way. But snow is rarely colourless. Only in flat, neutral light, is it white, or some shade of gray. Otherwise it is the colour of the light falling upon it, and this is how the camera sees it. Under a blue sky, snow is also blue. Warm evening light will impart a yellow, orange or pink hue. The shadowed side of a snow bank is the reverse or negative colour of the light source perhaps an intense blue, when the light source is yellowish, or even purple when the light source is orange.
Exposure is tricky in a winter-white scene. Our in-camera light-metres want to interpret the snow-covered landscape as darker than it is. This is why your snowy shots can look rather muddy rather than fresh.
Considering these characteristics and challenges of winter shooting, here are some ideas that might help deal with them:
- With the simplifying effects of snow-cover, "go with the flow" and make your compositions stark and simple based on line, shape and the contrast between light and shadow. Look for opportunities to bring out the mood of profound quiet and solitude.
- Look for lines including
- relaxing s-curves like those made by a winding road or path, a brook, snow drift or snow-shoe tracks that you can make yourself;
- diagonal lines that impart energy and depth to a photo or divide the frame into triangles;
- merging parallel lines that create strong perspective.
- Embrace negative space. Negative space is the area around your subject that is empty of eye-grabbing visual features. When the sky is overcast, the lack of colour and tonal contrast can make the earth and sky appear to merge. Use this to create an ethereal, abstract look that lacks perspective, perhaps with one subject - a tree, rock, or person in a sea of negative space.
- If the sky is bland and without any tonal character, minimize it in the frame or eliminate it all together.
- When the sky is beautiful or moody, let it dominate the frame.
- Notice how a frosting of snow can bring out the features and striations of a rock face or any other rough surface.
- Try to capture the lace-like quality of snow-covered branches.
- Look for interesting contrast between snowless tree trunks and snow-laden branches.
- When shooting a large landscape where you want both a sharp foreground and background, use a small aperture (e.g. F16, f22).
- Move around a subject noticing the changing effects of light direction and the background changes.
- Shoot at all hours of the day although the magic hours just before sunset and just after sunrise are still the best.
- Look for singular trees in the landscape, especially those with stark, graphic forms and make compositions with them small and near the edge of the frame.
- In a forest, use a wide-angle lens and point towards the light source to create radiating shadows from the trees.
- Look for some interesting detail such as a single icicle hanging from a berry or a few flakes of fresh snow on a fallen leaf and isolate it (with an aperture or f 5.6 or so to create a shallow depth of field).
- Look for backlighting opportunities with ice clinging to objects.
- If snow dominates the frame, over-expose by one to two stops, especially in soft light, to make snow look whiter rather than muddy gray as your meter will want to render it. Bracket to be sure. Watch your histogram and don't clip the highlights. If there is only a small amount of snow in the frame shoot it as metered.
- In hard light (bright sun), it might be better to shoot it as the meter suggests or even underexpose a bit. Hard light will emphasize texture and contrast. Also consider backlighting or sidelighting when the light is hard.
- Use a low view point at sunrise and sunset to bring out the texture of snow.
- With falling snow, turn off your in-camera flash. It will overexpose the flakes closest to the camera. Instead, use no flash or an off-camera flash over to one side or even pointed at an angle back towards the camera.
- Also with falling snow, you might want to manually focus on whatever you want sharp, either the falling flakes or some other subject.
- Find a position where falling snow stands out against a dark background.
- Use fast shutter speed to freeze falling snow. Or, use a slow shutter speed to allow falling flakes to blur in soft streaks. This will emphasize the falling motion. Either fast or slow shutter speeds can be effective. Try both.
- Use a telephoto lens to capture the feeling of falling snow. It will create an impression of more concentrated snow because of its tendency to reduce perspective.
- In very cold weather, wear a large parka and keep your camera inside it to keep the batteries warm.
- Do not blow on your camera to remove snow or other particles.
- Carry spare batteries and keep them in a pocket close to your body until you need them.
- When its especially cold and you want to walk around with your camera attached to a tripod (as I do), consider taping hand-warmers directly to the bottom of your camera. Also you can attach moleskin to the fixed parts of your camera that you will handle.
- Put foam pipe insulation around the upper part of your tripod legs to reduce the heat loss from your hands.
- Hold your breath when you are looking through your viewfinder to avoid condensation.
- If your shutter freezes up, return to the warmth until its function is restored.
- When you go into the warmth, prevent condensation by keeping your gear covered until it can warm up slowly.
- Use a lens hood to create some protection around the lens especially when it is snowing.
- Use well-fitting gloves that are not so thick that they prevent you from using your camera controls. Mitts with flaps the cover your fingers when you are not actually shooting are also beneficial.
- Check the forecast but don't be ruled by it.
- Loose the attitude that you would rather be indoors by the fire. Just get out there with a smile on your face.
One last very important point: do not disturb wild animals, especially in winter. It is a critical time for them when food is scarce and energy conservation is imperative.
Enjoy your winter shooting.