Winter brings sub-zero temperatures, the threat of frostbite, and permanently red noses. For those of us looking at the world through the lenses of our cameras, it also brings a fresh coat of snow that makes everything sparkle.
At first, you might enjoy how that glimmer of sunshine makes everything look like a winter landscape postcard. But you’ll soon learn better. That same sunshine throws off your exposure, drains your battery and even confuses your auto-focus. It can make photographing winter landscapes a real nightmare.
But with a few tricks (and a good pair of gloves), this post will show you how to capture wall-worthy winter landscape shots and relieve that cabin fever. Here’s how.
Photographing Winter Landscapes: The Gear
For winter landscapes, you’ll need the same gear that you would use to shoot a summer landscape. This includes your camera, a wide angle lens and, for long exposures, a tripod. But as soon as the temperatures drop, you’ll want to dress in warm layers and add a few more items to your bag:
- Gloves – The best gloves for shooting winter landscapes must allow you easy access to all the buttons and dials. Working your camera with mittens is next to impossible. My favourite option is using a pair of fingerless gloves with a mitten cover.
- An extra battery – Cold weather wreaks havoc on lithium-ion batteries. I always carry a spare battery, but the only times I’ve ever actually needed it were when the temperatures dropped below 20°F (-7°C). Also, keep your spare in your pocket! It prevents the cold from draining your back-up too.
- A small towel – If there’s snow falling, your camera is going to get wet. Bring a dry towel to wipe off the front of the lens.
- Other accessories – Filters like a polarizer or neutral density filter are also helpful, but not among the must-haves. Polarizers will make the sky appear more blue, while neutral density filters allow for long exposures.
Photographing Winter Landscapes: The Steps
1. Plan Ahead
How that winter scene looks will vary based on a number of different factors. Planning ahead will help you avoid spending unnecessary time in the cold weather.
Watch the weather to find a fresh coat of snow rather than brown slush. Along with watching for snow, ice storms can make great winter landscapes as well.
During the winter, the best time to shoot is often early, before the wind has knocked the snow off the trees and before the sun has a chance to melt the frost. Earlier shoots also means a low sun, which creates a soft orange glow.
On the flip-side, if you shoot with the sun in the sky, you may risk losing the frost, but it tends to make the sky appear more blue than early morning.
2. Tread Carefully — and Keep Your Gear Protected
On scene, avoid that over-eager need to traipse around the winter wonderland — you’ll mar the fresh snow with footprints. Do explore, but make sure to shoot as you explore and choose your path carefully to keep unwanted footprints out.
As you trek out, remember to keep your batteries warm and your camera cold. Keeping the spare battery in your pocket gives you a backup if your other one gets too cold.
Moving a camera from warm to cold temperatures quickly will also create condensation, which may even freeze on the lens. Keep your camera in your bag until you are outside to avoid that initial condensation — and don’t breathe on the front of the lens.
3. Set Your Exposure — but Don’t Rely on the Meter
A digital camera’s built-in meter uses colour to estimate a proper exposure. That means when everything is covered in white, your camera thinks the scene is brighter than it really is. Left alone, a camera on auto mode or a manual shot set exactly to the meter is going to look a little dark.
If you’re comfortable in manual mode or a semi-manual mode like aperture priority, great. Let the meter guide you using the spot metering mode, then overexpose a bit. Take a test shot to check the exposure and continue adjusting from there.
Another option is to use exposure bracketing and allow your camera to take three different exposures in a row. This will increase your chances of getting the proper exposure. Remember, use a larger f-number to keep more of the scene sharp, or a smaller number to create more background blur.
Shutter speed typically only comes into play when shooting landscape photography if you’re trying out a long exposure. But during the winter, you shouldn’t ignore shutter speed.
If snow is falling, a fast shutter speed will freeze those flakes, while a slow shutter speed will create streaks of snow. Neither one is right or wrong, but it’s important to recognize the final effect and determine what look is right for your shot.
Not a manual shooter yet? While I strongly encourage learning exposure settings, if you haven’t crossed that bridge yet, use exposure compensation to brighten up the image. This control is usually adjusted by pressing a +/- button and turning the control dial on a majority of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.
4. Set Your White Balance
Exposure isn’t the only setting thrown off by all that white. White balance (ironically) is often affected as well. There are a couple of ways to ensure you can get a proper white balance.
You can either choose the cloudy day preset, or manually set the white balance using all that white already in the scene or a white balance card.
To make any white balance errors easy to fix later (as well as small exposure errors), adjust the file setting to RAW. This is a “digital negative” that will give you more control over the edits, including easy tweaks to the white balance.
5. Look for Light
With a coating of snow over every surface, chances are, nearly everywhere you look, nature is going to catch your eye. Armed with the right exposure and white balance settings, let the ambient or available light guide your composition.
Sunlight makes snowflakes sparkle, so let yourself be drawn in by that sparkle as you shoot. Backlighting, or shooting with the sun behind the subject, can also work well for making snowy foliage pop.
Shooting on a cloudy day means you have free reign of the scene — look for patterns and lines to inspire your shots. With white on the ground and covering every surface, looking for contrast or a pop of color is also a great way to add interest to a winter landscape.
Shots that show seasons converging — like snow on a flower or a colorful leaf — also make great subjects.
Just like the meter works on colour, most camera’s autofocus systems rely on contrast. If you are shooting a snow owl in a snowstorm, the scene will have very little contrast for that autofocus to grab onto.
To help get a sharp focus, use single point autofocus mode and place the point on your subject. Or for a more traditional landscape with a majority of the image in focus, place the focal point a third of the way into the scene. Only use continuous autofocus if you are photographing a moving subject, like wildlife.
In the trickiest scenes, you may need to use manual focus. But most of the time, using a single point autofocus helps the camera find focus even with limited contrast.
7. Shoot — and Adjust
Once you’ve settled on your composition, shoot — and then troubleshoot. Check the LCD for the most common winter landscape issues, including exposure, white balance and focus.
- Too light? Decrease the exposure or exposure compensation.
- Too dark? Increase the exposure or exposure compensation.
- Snow blue — or yellow? Adjust your white balance.
- Image lacking contrast? Make sure you lens isn’t fogging or adjust your composition.
- Subject too soft? Make sure you are using single-point autofocus, and if necessary, try manual focus.
8. Warm Up and Edit
After you’ve finished shooting, make sure you dry off your camera before putting it away. Tucking a camera or lens with condensation on it back into your bag can damage your gear.
With a hot chocolate or mug of tea by your side to unfreeze your fingers, now it’s time to use your favourite editing program to tweak your shots.
That tricky exposure and white balance can be perfected with software. This post has so far shown you how to take the proper steps while shooting to get the shot as close as possible.
Winter landscapes can often also use a contrast boost. Rather than artificially boosting with the contrast option, lighten the highlights and whites, and darken the shadows and darks. This will add more pop to your photo.
While white may be the most prominent colour in a winter landscape, don’t ignore colour edits. White balance can be further fine-tuned not for accuracy, but to create a mood. Adding a hint of blue makes the image feel colder, for example.
Adjusting the luminance values of a single colour, particularly if you used colour to guide your composition, can also help give the image a specific feel.
For example, in the photo of the evergreen, I lightened the greens for a softer, lighter look using the Hue Saturation Luminance or HSL panel in Lightroom.
Photographing winter landscapes is a great way to spend those cold months. You can capture stunning views of a white wonderland and relieve cabin fever while keeping your photography skills fresh.
Cameras will act differently in the winter, so proper preparation is necessary. Understanding how the snow affects factors like metering, white balance and focus is essential to making that cold trek worth those numb fingers. Grab a pair of good gloves, several layers and your camera — and go create that winter landscape.
If you’re too cold to brave the outdoors or just taking a break from winter landscapes, you can try your hand at some DIY indoor photography with photoelasticity.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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