Perhaps this makes me a lousy Canadian, but I’ve never been a winter person. I hate being cold and see snow as an inconvenience that serves only to make my commute exponentially longer. Winters have always been for hibernating, reading books and binge watching Netflix…until now. I’ve just learned a secret. It turns out winter IS good for something, after all. Winter is an amazing time for photographing wildlife!
I stumbled upon this fact recently when I decided I needed a little getaway. Limited by an expired passport, I wasn’t going anywhere warm. At this point in my life, there’s no such thing as a vacation that isn’t centered around photography, so I decided to head north to Algonquin Park. It’s been a mild, dull, grey winter in Toronto, with little to photograph (unless you consider mud photogenic). I dreamt of snow laden trees and starry skies. Who knows? Maybe we’d even see a moose! (This is a joke, of course. Despite our extensive Canadian travels, we NEVER see moose. Well, there was that one in Newfoundland, but it was dead in the back of a pickup truck).
My expectations were modest, but I was blown away by the variety and abundance of wildlife we were able to photograph. I found myself planning our next winter getaway before we were even on the road home. Seriously, folks – put down the remote, get off the couch and head NORTH to photograph wildlife in winter.
Why Photograph Wildlife In Winter?
I know, it's so much more comfortable on the couch. You'll go outside when it's summer, right? I hear you, believe me, and that brings me to the first reason for photographing wildlife in winter. I think we may have a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Maybe we need one of those headlamps that simulate daylight. Or, maybe we just need to get outside for some fresh air, exercise, and sunshine. Other reasons include:
Wildlife Are Easier To Find
It is so much easier to find wildlife in winter than it is at any other time of year. The lack of foliage is one reason. Spotting a bird or a marten in a leafy tree or shrub will be next to impossible. Getting a good photo of it will be even harder. Bare trees and branches allow a clear and unobstructed view of animals that are usually well hidden. Backgrounds and compositions are automatically simplified.
Snow is another factor. You can't beat a solid white background for contrast, and unless you head up to the arctic, most of our native species are not well camouflaged. They also leave tracks. Really obvious and easily identifiable tracks that can help you determine where to set up to increase your chances of success.
Lastly, decreased human traffic and increased pressure to find food may bring wildlife closer to roads, trails and campgrounds where you are more likely to encounter them.
Mammals Tend To Look Their Best In Winter
Most mammals have thicker, fuller coats in winter, making them more appealing to photograph. Females nursing young, in particular, tend to get a bit ragged and scruffy looking during the summer months. Many animals, but especially the hooved ones, will shed their coats in patchy clumps in Spring and Fall. One notable winter disappointment is that the bull moose sheds his rack every winter, so if you are hoping for a photo of a moose with magnificent antlers in a snowy forest, then you'd best get there early in the season before they drop.
Birds, on the other hand, often have duller winter plumage. Some notable exceptions that stick around and still look fabulous in the colder months are Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Evening Grosbeaks. Winter can also be a great time to photograph birds we don't see in the summer, like snowy owls. For them, Southern Canada and the Northern United States ARE a southern migration from their winter homes in the arctic.
There Are Fewer Pests
One big point in the favor of winter: no bugs. Also, no snakes (if you are bothered by those). You won't have to worry about bears trashing your campsite…or worse, that you might inadvertently happen between a sow and her cubs. Of course, that one also belongs in the “cons” column, because it is always fun to see a bear from a safe distance.
It's A Novel Point Of View
Even common backyard animals, like squirrels or black-capped chickadees, get a boost of novelty when photographed in winter. As photographers, we spend a lot of time trying to find a unique point of view that will set our photos apart, in an over saturated market. We get down low in the mud for that unusual perspective. We use drones to capture an aerial view that few would ever see with their own eyes. If we're smart, we get out and photograph wildlife in winter, because that commitment in the face of discomfort is what sets our photos apart. Don't believe me? Go to Flickr and do searches for “squirrel”, “fox”, and “blue jay”. All very common animals that can be seen year round. How many of those photos were obviously taken in winter? Not. Many. Parks and campgrounds that are packed in summer will be all but empty in winter, which is proof in and of itself that you will be capturing something that will be exotic and out of the ordinary to many people.
There is just something about the light in winter. If it isn't snowing, there tends to be a crispness and clarity that is frequently lacking on hazy summer days. Beyond that, overcast skies act as a giant softbox, diffusing the light, and softening harsh shadows and bright highlights. Those dismal, grey skies might not be doing your landscape photos any favors, but are easily left out of your wildlife photos. If the sun is shining, a blanket of snow on the ground can act as a giant reflector, providing fill light from below. Of course, that “magic hour” light is always best during the hour after sunrise and before sunset. In the winter, the sun actually rises at a reasonable hour and sets in time to get you home for dinner. It's a lot easier to schedule sleep than it will be in June.
Now You're Convinced, What Will You Need To Get Started Photographing Wildlife In Winter?
Proper Winter Clothing
Lots of layers that can be easily added to or removed are essential to your winter comfort. Hiking, snowshoeing and cross country skiing will heat you up fast, but you will get cold quickly as soon as you stop. If you overheat while on the move, or if you are not wearing breathable, moisture wicking base layers, you will become damp and prone to hypothermia as soon as you stop moving. Not a situation you want to find yourself in, especially if you are still miles from the car. Investing in a good quality parka and a decent pair of winter boots will go a long way towards keeping you safe, comfortable and focused on photography, rather than misery. If snow is deep, you will need snowshoes or skis, or you won't get very far. A trail with heavy traffic may be packed enough for you to walk with boots, but any inclines will be slippery and you will need something like these cleats for traction. Falling is bad. Falling with thousands of dollars of camera gear is worse.
If you are planning to hike any distance from your car or the nearest shelter, make sure someone knows where you are going and when you'll be back. An emergency foil blanket and a firestarter should be part of your essential gear, along with a first aid kit. Not to be all melodramatic, but you can die of exposure and hypothermia in summer, so you must be extra careful in winter. Stay hydrated – keep your water bottle inside your parka, so it doesn't freeze. You are more prone to hypothermia if you are dehydrated. If you are not a very experienced outdoors person, winter isn't the time to go out unprepared and test your skills. If you are not sure, hire an experienced guide, they will keep you safe and an added bonus is that they will likely know some good spots to look for animals.
For most wildlife, you will need a long telephoto lens. The “faster” the lens is (the wider the aperture, letting in more light and enabling a faster shutter speed), the better, but you can absolutely get usable shots with a telephoto kit lens. If you have an entry level camera, don't despair! Your smaller, “crop” sensor can be to your advantage in this situation, providing you with some extra reach. A crop sensor camera body gives you 1.5-1.6x the focal length of the lens when compared to a “full frame” sensor (depending on your camera system). In other words, a 300 mm lens gives you about the same “zoom” or reach as a 450 mm lens on a full frame body.
If you are using a heavy telephoto lens, you will need some extra support. I suggest a monopod, but a tripod with the legs extended but not separated will do. Most of the time when you're photographing wildlife, you will want more mobility than you have with a fully set up tripod. If you don't have either available, try to lean your camera against a tree, prop it on a railing, or find some way to take some of the weight off of your joints. My arm has not yet fully recovered from a nasty case of tennis elbow I developed three months ago, photographing birds without support.
What Camera Settings Should You Use?
Animals in general and wild ones especially have a tendency not to keep still. Camera settings are always a bit of a juggling act between getting the depth of field you need, with a fast enough shutter speed for action, while trying to keep your ISO low enough to avoid excessive noise.
- For smaller animals and birds that are far from your lens, go ahead and open up to the very widest aperture available (the lowest f-stop number). You shouldn't have to worry about depth of field unless the animal is either very close or very large (like the mythical moose).
- To avoid blur caused by camera shake, keep your shutter speed at least 1/(focal length) of a second. In other words, if you are using a 300 mm lens, you will need a shutter speed of 1/300th of a second. If you are on a crop sensor camera, you will need to compensate for that extra reach that I mentioned and increase your shutter speed accordingly. If your lens has image stabilization or vibration reduction, that's great but it's not going to help you much in this situation. You need a faster shutter speed anyway because the animals will be constantly moving. I suggest a starting point of 1/500th of a second or faster for most mammals (except sloths) and 1/1000th or faster for birds.
- Now you will need to set your ISO so that you can achieve that shutter speed. It will almost certainly be higher than you would like, but you may be able to fix the noise in post processing. You will not be able to fix the motion blur caused by the animal moving and too low a shutter speed. Life is all about compromise. I don't care for it much, either, but there it is.
- If you are using one of the automatic modes, understand that it is calculating your exposure based on trying to achieve an average of 18% grey. This works fine in many situations, but if you have a snowy scene that is supposed to be white, your camera will underexpose that scene (by trying to make it grey). You will need to add +0.7 to +1.0 in exposure compensation to make up for it.
- For moving subjects, such as these, set your camera so that focus tracking is on and enable shooting in bursts. You need your focus point to move with the animal automatically, rather than trying to move it manually yourself. You will not keep up. Burst mode (as opposed to single shot) means that holding down the shutter takes multiple photos in a rapid burst. You will quickly come up against the limitations of your camera's buffer, so try to stick to short bursts of 3 or 4 shots, pause for a second and try another burst. There is nothing more frustrating than having an animal in front of you, perfectly framed and in focus, and your camera won't take the shot because it is buffering, like a big baby.
Keeping Your Camera Happy
In extreme cold, your camera may not be able to function, but this article is for sane people who are not going to be out in THAT kind of weather, anyway. We may still experience shorter battery life in our cameras and almost certainly will in our cell phones…which we may need to use to call for search and rescue, and so must be preserved at all costs. Keep your phone and spare batteries close to your body, in an inside pocket. If a battery does die due to cold, it can often be revived by warming and you may still get a bit more use out of it.
Beware of condensation that occurs when moving between extremes of temperature. At best, you may end up with a fogged up lens at a crucial moment. At worst you could end up with moisture inside your lens and camera body, causing permanent damage. Try to make changes between environments gradual, leaving your camera inside its padded bag to warm (or cool) slowly. If that is not possible or practical, place your camera inside a large, plastic Ziploc-type bag so that condensation will form on the bag, rather than the camera. Whenever I purchase something that comes with those little silica desiccant packs, I keep them to stash in my camera bag for these types of situations.
How Will You Find Wildlife?
Well, that is the million dollar question. There is no foolproof answer because animals are infamously uncooperative. There are online groups and forums that can be excellent resources, especially for birders. People are often more hesitant to share locations of mammals, for the animals' safety. Mammals also tend to be less predictable in their movements than birds, so information on where the animal was seen three days ago might not help you much today. Many parks have visitors centers and these often have boards where wildlife sightings are recorded. Park rangers can also be a wealth of valuable information.
In my experience, talking to other photographers is the best way to gather intel. Some will be stingy with their knowledge, and that's their right. Move along and try chatting up the next person with the huge lens…and the next. Another advantage to photographing wildlife in winter is that there is an added sense of camaraderie that is missing in milder weather. There are so few people willing to brave the elements. You're automatically assumed to be serious about nature photography and that makes other photographers more likely to share with you.
Be An Ethical Wildlife Photographer
Don't feed or harass wild animals. Teaching animals that humans are a source of food causes them to lose their fear. The fear that keeps them out of a hunter's sights. The fear that keeps them off the road. The fear that keeps them from becoming dangerous to humans, hurting someone and being destroyed. Harassing animals can stress them out to the point where they abandon their young, and yes – many of them do start having their babies in winter. Keep a safe and respectful distance, use a telephoto lens.