Winter is one of the most magical seasons for photography. There are snow covered mountains, trees, frozen lakes, and frigid temperatures, all a great recipe for amazing photography opportunities. While photographing in cold weather may be challenging, there is a true sense of accomplishment after shooting in extreme weather. And, if you are located in higher latitudes, northern hemisphere photographing in winter is often rewarded with warm light or sightings of Aurora that produces stunning photos.
Here are few winter photography tips to help you capture some awesome photos and to protect your gear from the elements:
Tip #1: Stay Warm during Winter Photos outing
Simply put, take care of the essential needs: warmth. There is nothing more frustrating than being cold to the point where you cannot stand it any longer or, even worse, experience frostbite. If space allows, it is better to pack too much than not enough. Normally, I dress in three layers. A wool base layer, a middle layer, and the outer shell. For my feet, I have a set of wool winter socks and winter waterproof hiking books. More recently, electric heated gloves and socks have become popular, and can really help in very cold environments. Also, I have a set of crampons/ice cleats for my boots. For my hands, I wear a pair of base layer gloves along with mittens; the mittens provide more warmth because they keep my fingers are together. For my face/head, I have a balaclava face mask and a winter beanie. Lastly, I have hand and toe warmers.
Once I am warm, I can focus on my photography.
Tip #2: Be Prepared for Extreme Conditions
Winter weather can create unsafe conditions for nature photographers. Starting from the basics of transportation, if you are renting a vehicle, make sure it has winter tires. A 4×4 is even better. Also, have appropriate tools in the car for snow/ice removal.
When hiking in snow and ice conditions, your crampons provide extra grip to help with slip and falls. If you encounter a frozen lake, be sure it’s solid before walking on it. Lakes go through stages of freezing and you need to be sure the ice is thick enough to support your weight.
Tip #3: Winter Photography Equipment
I shoot with the new mirrorless Nikon Z7ii and for landscapes, I primarily use the 14-24 lens. I also carry the 24-70 and 70-200. I have a RRS tripod with and L bracket and ball head mount. With the new mirrorless system, working with filters has been great. I use Kase filters which is magnetic and round. With the variety of my shooting stylers, I carry a 10-stop, 6-stop, and a few graduated filters. I house all of this in my Atlas Athlete camera backpack with is extremely light weight and made for mirrorless systems. Other items that I carry in my pack include: headlamp, snacks/protein bars, microfiber towel, and a camera shell for shooting in the rain.
Depending on the extremity of the weather, there may be some special considerations to take into account:
- When temperatures fall well below freezing, the breath you exhale freezes. It also freezes on the camera, such as on the LCD screen. Your breath can also put a coat of frosting on the lens, so never exhale on the glass.
- Camera batteries lose their normal output in colder temperatures. One method of prolonging them is to stick a hand/toe warmer on the outside of the battery compartment. Also, the extra batteries can be kept in pockets closer to your body.
Real Life Winter Photography Workflow
Star Trails with Northern Lights, Albert Canada
This photo above is special to me because it was the first time I ever saw the northern lights. This is at Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. The exposure settings for this photo were: 30s@F2.8, ISO 2500. I was shooting longer here because the lights were a bit faint. I set it up with a little bit of water in the shot and the main peak in the center to give the image balance. After taking a few shots, I had the vision to combine the Northern Lights with star trails. So I hooked up my intervalometer and set up a program to take 200 continuous shots, one second apart, and with a 30-second shutter. This gave me the final result with the circular star trails.
Winter Photography from Grand Tetons, Wyoming
The Grand Tetons with their jagged peaks are a spectacular mountain range. When arriving to this scene, I had pretty good sense of how I wanted to shoot it. There were these massive clouds moving swiftly, so I knew I wanted to capture the motion of the clouds. At the time I was shooting, there was still plenty of daylight, so create the motion in clouds, I needed to shoot with a relatively long exposure. I setup my filters, and used a 10-stop ND filter. After several attempts and exposure settings, I landed at a shutter speed of 71 seconds for this image. In order to keep as much light out of the sensor, I dropped my ISO to 50, and with an aperture setting of f/22.
This gave me the final result with dramatic movement of the clouds above the Grand Tetons. In terms of other basic workflow items, when setting up the tripod, I make sure the image is level, so less cropping and alignment needed in post-production.
Icebergs at Diamond Beach, Iceland
Iceland – just the county’s name screams it’s cold there. Shootings these icebergs at the Diamond Beach takes proper planning to get the best results. This is a sunrise shot at the beginning of winter, taken while going in an out of the water. The best advice for shooting any seascapes in cold water is to wear light weight fishing waders. I travel with these anytime I’m going to Iceland, or other cold destinations with oceans. I used the RRS tripod for this long exposure photograph, with the following camera settings: Focal Length 14mm, Exposure: 0.8 seconds at f/20, ISO 31. When shooting seascapes, I’m taking many photographs as the water recedes back into the ocean. The key is getting the right composition.
In summary, winter photography is simply awesome. The different elements of weather make it more unpredictable which creates opportunities for being more spontaneous.