For many landscape photographers, images of snowy landscapes often make up a very small portion of their portfolio. Depending on where you live, snow man be nonexistent or make the landscapes you want to photograph difficult to access. If you do have access to a fresh snowfall, do not miss out on the opportunity to get outside with your camera and capture a winter scene. However, photographing snowy landscapes does bring a few unique challenges that non-winter photography does not. Here are a few things to keep in mind when photographing landscapes in a winter wonderland, some of which I learned the hard way during a recent photography excursion out into the snow.
There are two types of traction to keep in mind when it comes to photography snowy landscapes: traction when transporting yourself in a car to the area where you want to be photographing, and travel on foot once you get there.
For those who aren’t familiar with how to drive in the snow, go slow and allow extra time to get to your photo location. Even with an all-wheel drive or 4×4 vehicle, traction will be much different than in dry road conditions. Plan on driving slow, taking corners cautiously, and try not to come to complete stop on a snowy incline if you do not have to (getting the car moving again may or may not actually happen). When in doubt, it’s better to stay near the main road and continue on foot if you are not sure whether your car will get stuck.
Speaking of traveling on foot, make sure your have the proper footwear when doing so. For deep, lightly-packed snow, snowshoes will help to distribute your weight and keep you from sinking in too much. For denser snows or ice, microspikes or crampons that attach to your boots will give you ability to access locations that would be impossible with basic boots or snowshoes. Keep the recent weather in mind when deciding which footwear accessories to bring with you to your shoot, a fresh-fallen snow may have you thinking snowshoes are the way to go. However, if that snow is sitting on a slick layer of ice, microspikes or crampons may be necessary, especially on an incline.
Hills are a totally different beast in winter than they are in summer. A hill that would simply require hiking boots in dry, warmer weather will likely require much more traction in the wintertime. If you are hiking downhill to get to your location, do not go too far without backtracking a few steps to make sure you will be able to get back up the trail. Trekking poles, which can distribute your weight and give you two extra points of contact with the snow and ice, can also be a very helpful addition to your gear.
When in doubt, pack more than you think you will need. I recently hiked short distances on popular trails to access two waterfall locations and almost left my trekking poles in my car. On both of those trails the trekking poles were the reason I was able to reach my location without having to turn back without getting the shot.
Know How to Access Your Location
When photographing snowy landscapes, having some familiarity with where you are going can make your trip safer and more successful. During my recent trip to shoot winter waterfalls, I was planning to hike two very short and popular trails. In summertime, the trails are well-worn to the point that trail markers and directions really are not necessary. In winter when snow covers the trail or the sides of the trees, trails can be much less obvious. For example, streams in that cut through the woods in the summertime look like trails in the winter. At one of the trails I recently hiked I had to guess which way to go, and it was not until I heard the sound of the waterfall I was hoping to reach that I was sure I went in the right direction.
This does not necessarily mean that you need to scout out a location in summer before you can go during the wintertime. Talking to locals, getting a hold of trail maps, or looking up photos and videos on the internet can help you figure out recognizable landmarks to let you know that you will be headed the right direction.
Your Compositions Might be Limited
I often try to avoid taking the obvious composition from a popular photo location. As a result, I will typically roll up my pant legs and cross a river or scramble up rocks to find a unique view of my subject. When a landscape is covered by snow, however, your movements may be much more limited that they are in summer. Rivers that are a bearable temperature in summertime are serious hypothermia risks in wintertime. Similarly, rocks that are climbable in warm weather may be slick with ice or even completely hidden under layers of snow.
During my recent hike to a popular waterfall, I found myself unwilling to stray from the obvious composition because I was hiking alone and could not tell where the boulders I would normally climb down on ended and the gaps in between them began. In summertime, a wrong step might have meant soaking my gear and needing to tap into my rock climbing skills to get back to land. In winter, however, it may have meant being trapped and letting the cold water turn me into a photographer-flavored Popsicle. Additionally, keep in mind that, due to how cornices form, the edge of the snow normally extends farther than the area that will hold your weight.
Look for Texture in the Snow
Snow has a way of acting like a big soft box, both in that it reflects light to eliminate harsh shadows and “smooths” out the landscape. Sharp gaps in between rocks may turn into a gentle depression in the ground, so finding foreground interest may take a bit more observing on your part. If the lighting is strong enough to highlight the textures in fresh-fallen snow, getting your lens close to the snow may be an option. Otherwise, examine the light and look at how it interacts with the surface of the snow. Gentle mounds of powder in the right light can create shadows that work as great leading lines towards your main subject.
Keeping Your Lens Dry Is Going to Be Tough
If you are going to be photographing your snowy landscape while it is still snowing, keeping the front element of your lens dry is going to be an uphill battle. Rain drops tend to be heavy enough that you can predict the direction that they are moving enough to position yourself or some other object between them and your lens. Depending on the temperature and wind, however, snowflakes can be a bit more fickle in their trajectory. A colder snowfall tends to yield smaller flakes that are easily moved by air currents, while temperatures closer to freezing cause fatter snowflakes that may fall more predictably. At the same time, however, those fat snowflakes will have a much larger effect when they hit your glass.
In an effort to keep the front of your lens dry, shooting wide enough that you can point your lens slightly downward can do wonders to get the flakes away from your glass. If that isn’t possible, using a lens hood, an umbrella, your hand, or another object is your next best bet. Should snow hit your front element, however, have a stack of microfiber cloths at your disposal. I was finding that during my recent trip, even a light flurry had me going through a microfiber towel every couple of minutes. When I eventually ran out of dry ones, I decided it was either time to change lenses or pack up and head back to the car.
Decide How You Want Falling Snow To Look in Your Photo
If the snowflakes are flying while you are taking your photo, you are going to have to decide how to incorporate it into your image. A slower shutter speed with big enough flakes will mean white streaks across your photo, while a fast shutter speed will yield white blobs. Each will take away some detail from your stationary subject, but each will also provide a different look and feel to the final image. The shutter speed that captures each effect will vary depending on lighting and focal length, so you will have to play around to see how the conditions and your settings dictate how the snow will look in your photo. I took the image below with a shutter speed of 1/320th of a second at f/10.
Your Hands Are Going to Get Cold
After two years of searching I have come to terms with the fact that there is no glove that both keeps your fingers warm while also allowing you the dexterity needed to operate your camera. I have a pair of the popular Vallerret photography gloves that allow the tips of my thumb and index finger to pop out of the glove. However, in sub-freezing temperatures, the slits in the fingers let in the cold air. Additionally, the gloves, although well-made, just aren’t thick enough to keep my hands warm on a raw, 20 degree Fahrenheit day.
Since a pair of photography gloves alone likely won’t be enough from keeping your hands toasty enough to keep working for hours out in the field, I suggest investing in a reusable handwarmer to hold onto in your pocket while you shoot. I have found through trial and error that the disposable hand warmers tend to only stay hot when they are in an environment that is warm enough that you wouldn’t actually need hand warmers, so spend a few extra dollars and spring for the real ones. Companies like Zippo make inexpensive warmers that require small amounts of fuel, while slightly more expensive options are rechargeable. Each option can last you a long day out in the field shooting.
Be Aware of the Colorful Parts of Your Scene
In snowy landscapes, color is an important compositional element to be aware of. In a landscape of fresh-fallen snow, the scene you will be capturing may be fairly monochromatic aside from an occasional rock, evergreen tree, building, or other colorful element. As a result, the placing of this colorful object in your frame may make or break your photo. Take the images below, for example. I didn’t recognize it in the field, but the rock ledge on the right side of the frame was really the only part of the scene exhibiting much of any color. As a result, my eye gets drawn to it and sticks there, ignoring the leading lines in the snow and the waterfall that I wanted to be the focal point of the image.
Once I convert the image to black and white, the composition works much better.
Bracket Your Exposures
If you are photographing a scene that is not completely snowy, the nearly pure while coloring of that fresh powder is likely going to cause for a very high dynamic range image for your camera to try to capture. As a result, try bracketing your exposures to make sure you are able to capture both the subtle texture in the snow and the darker shadows in rocks and trees. Keep in mind that if you underexpose your show too much you may risk sacrificing the bright white your snow should be for muddy grays, so be sure to take shots bright enough to get that vibrant white coloring in case you cannot properly get it back in post-processing.
Arrive Early and Work Back-to-Front
On a snowy day that is not forecast to have much of a sunrise, you may not be too inclined to get out of bed early. Keep in mind, however, that once someone else steps foot in the snow in your photo locations, your pristine landscape is ruined. It’s also important to note that that “someone” could be you, so take careful measure to start photographing your subject from as far back as you think you may want to go before stepping forward and trampling your untouched foreground.
On my recent waterfall hike I spent an hour slowly inching my way forward and trying every composition I could find to avoid inadvertently ruining a good shot. Most of the compositions are ones I won’t end up using, but I’m the type of the person that would rather be safe than sorry. If you are the type like me that won’t know for sure which composition works best until you get the photos loaded onto a bigger screen, better to start farther away from your subject just in case.
Watch Out For Chromatic Aberration
Depending on the quality of the lens that you will be using, snowy landscapes can create prime conditions for chromatic aberration (the purple fringing that can occur at high contrast areas, like where pure white snow meets a dark rock). While these fringes are typically easy enough to minimize in post-processing by desaturating the color of the fringing, bad enough examples can leave you with gray rings around these high contrast scenes. If you know the lens you will be using has an issue with chromatic aberration, stop down your lens aperture a bit to try to minimize chromatic aberration so you won’t have to fix it in post-processing.
As someone who usually tucks the camera away during winter months to catch up on backlogs of photos and just take some time to recharge, I normally avoid shooting snowy landscapes. However, during the dark months where trips outside can be few and far between, the occasional trip out into the snow to experience a landscape in a new season can be a great experience. If you are interested in heading out to capture a snowy landscape, make sure you are prepared and go have a blast.