PSA Journal Online

Tips on Winter Photography

by Joe Rakoczy and Marie Rakoczy, BPSA, Photos © Joe Rakoczy and Marie Rakoczy, BPSA

Safety and Comfort

Your primary concerns when going outdoors to shoot photos of ice and snow should be safety and comfort.  Winter photography often involves overcoming challenges of severely cold temperatures and unsafe snowy and icy traveling conditions. Winter light and scenery can be magical to the point of distracting photographers who can get wrapped up with shooting and losing track of time or impending harmful conditions.

Before setting out on a winter photo adventure, make sure you’re in adequate physical condition.  Know your limits and avoid becoming overly tired. Keep in mind that cold can be especially stressful on the human body.  Be prepared: wear the right clothing for the conditions.  Remember, there are no fashion police when you are out photographing in winter! So prioritize warmth and comfort over show.

In the field know where you are and how to get back. Even if you’re visiting a place you’re familiar with, know that the environs may look entirely different in winter.  Familiar landmarks (like piers) may have been removed for the season, or boulders or sandbars may be covered with ice and snow.

Carry a fully charged cell phone but realize it may not work in some areas.  For longer treks obtain and use a trail map or take a cell phone photo of the trailhead kiosk map before heading out. Some trails are unsigned – know that a snowstorm can quickly cover and hide the trail you’re on and your tracks. 

Don’t go out on a winter photography adventure alone.  Set out early enough to avoid having to return in the dark and losing your way.  Temperatures can drop quickly with darkness, and winter days are short.  Keep well-hydrated and nourished.  Carry water and food (something easy to carry and eat like nutrition bars) and remember that calorie-rich foods will help you to stay warm. 

Avoid hypothermia and frostbite – learn about them and take them seriously.  And be aware that hypothermia can occur at temperatures well above freezing. Some photo ops may not be worth the risk; be smart and forego dangerous ones or return when it’s safer.  Follow weather reports and constantly watch the sky for changing conditions.

Photographing ice is often not easy and can be dangerous.  Be alert.  Watch for hazards like slippery, thin and sloped ice; deep snow; falling, shifting ice/icicles; snow and ice cornices and overhangs you may be standing on. 

And follow the Code of the North – help others in trouble if you can, even if it means just summoning help. 

Winterize yourself

Cold and wet are the enemy. If you’re not warm and dry you won’t want to shoot or you’ll shoot poorly. If you’re not dressed right, you’ll be at risk of hypothermia/frostbite and making poor decisions.  Keep dry and don’t overheat.

Dress in layers. Wear insulating, breathable, moisture-wicking clothing in lightweight, easily removable layers.   In cold weather the base layer is long underwear made of synthetic material (e.g. polypro, polyester, nylon) or wool or even silk.  Antimicrobial treated material tops and bottoms are available that wick moisture away from the skin and insulate better and dry faster.  A zippered or buttoned collar and front allows heat/moisture venting. 

The mid–layer can be fleece or a wool shirt with possibly an insulated vest.  You should wear wool or synthetic pants, or breathable snow or rain pants. 

The outer layer should include a parka/jacket made of Gore-Tex or similar breathable material – preferably with a hood, inside pockets, and large deep outside pockets roomy enough for gloves.  On your head, wear a fur-lined trapper type hat for windy, very cold outside temperatures, or where you’ll be standing for a long period of time. For higher outside temps, a lighter weight hat with earflaps and strap, or a snow cap should be fine.  Layer your gloves too by wearing light liner gloves with heavier insulated outer gloves or mittens.  "Fingerless gloves" are not as effective as layering your gloves because you do have to expose your fingers to the cold air.  Chemical hand warmers work well, are inexpensive and can be used in conjunction with your gloves.  A long synthetic or wool scarf or a neck gaiter is a must; and for extreme cold and wind, a balaclava to cover your face may be necessary, or you can wrap your scarf around your face.

Winter, waterproof Pac-boots or other insulated boots worn with heavy socks are a must for long periods in the cold. Lightweight boot gaiters will help keep snow off your lower pant legs and out of your boots.

We carry a duffle bag with extra gloves, hats, scarves and hand warmers in our car so that we are always prepared for the weather. Losing a glove without a spare can be disastrous in extreme cold.

For personal mobility to reach lakeside ice, gauge the snow depth and distance to your destination and use boots/gaiters alone or with snowshoes, or use cross-country skis. On level or near-level, bare ice, use crampons (metal teeth that dig into ice) on snowshoes or ice gripping devices gear that readily fasten on boots; e.g. Yak-Trax®, Micro-Spikes®, or similar.

Winterize your photo gear and your shooting technique

You’ll need to take some precautions with your photo equipment when shooting in cold weather with snow, ice, and the possibility of splashing water.

Use a weather resistant/gasketed digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR) or mirrorless interchangeable lens (MILC) camera.  To minimize lens changing in the field, opt for a wide-range zoom lens and/or carry an extra camera body with a wide or telephoto lens to cover the expected range of view.  

Prevent condensation when moving your camera from warm to cold and vice-versa.  Consider leaving your camera in the car overnight, but bring the battery inside.  If you bring your camera indoors, put it in a Ziploc bag or keep it in your camera bag so that it warms slowly. 

Avoid freeze-fogging your camera viewfinder, lens, screen, or your glasses/sunglasses with your breath. Inhale and hold your breath when looking through the viewfinder and shooting.  Use a brush or blower, not your breath, to blow snow off of your lens or viewfinder.  If ice forms on your screens, use a plastic credit card to gently scrape it off. You can keep snow off of your camera with a simple hotel shower cap or a lens/camera rain sleeve. To help protect the front element, use a lens shade.

Set out with fully charged batteries in your camera and keep an extra battery in a pocket close to your body to keep it warm.  If running low on battery power, avoid using battery-draining features like flash or image replay.

Use larger capacity memory cards (i.e. 16 MB or 32 MB) to avoid removing gloves and possibly dropping cards on the ice or in the snow when changing them in the field.  SanDisk® makes a line of highly-rated memory cards for extreme temperature conditions (Extreme Pro).

Use a tripod.  Not only does it steady your camera and lens for sharper images and allows for more careful composing, it can serve as a walking stabilizer on ice and in snow and a support to hold your equipment while you change clothing layers, eat or drink, hold your pack, etc. Insulate the tripod’s legs with foam pipe insulation to make it warmer to hold and more comfortable to carry on your shoulder.

Filters: a wide range (e.g. 10-stop) neutral density filter can be useful to yield long exposures for silky/dreamy looks of waterfalls or lake waves. A circular polarizer can remove reflections on water and glass and saturate colors; but be careful not to exaggerate the polarizing effect to the point skies turn overly dark/near-black, which can be easy to do with winter light. A polarizer, though, will cut down your exposure by one or two stops.    

What to Look for in Winter

Winter is a season of contrasts - ice against the sky, against open water, hanging from a colorful eave, coating trunks and branches. The complementary color “fire and ice” look of sun-gold lit icicles against blue sky or water is visually exciting. Winter is also a time when white snow covers nearly everything and foliage is gone, making color precious and vivid against a backdrop of snow and ice. Look for colorful light (sunrises/sunsets), clinging leaves, birds and animals, structures/barns, etc.  Tree bark with dull lichens that might not get a second look amid the color riot of the fall season, in winter might look positively vibrant.

Don’t overlook creating black-and-white, or even infrared, winter images to capture the beauty and harshness or starkness of winter. Winter photos almost always look better with trees and shrubs cloaked in snow, ice or frost. With an infrared converted camera (ref., chlorophyll-containing vegetation will appear near-white, so pine needles and other evergreen foliage can give the appearance of being coated in snow or rime.

And don’t ignore having people in your images, either struggling with or enjoying winter, or to add human interest or scale in winter landscape images.

Color/White Balance Settings

What color is snow/rime/snow-covered ice?  Snow is intrinsically white, or even blue, especially when densely compressed. But it’s highly reflective and will potentially show any color cast (snow next to a red lighthouse or barn side will have a red colorcast; blue sky will show blue in snow, especially in shadows where it’s not blown out by white).  Shoot in RAW with white balance set to Auto, Cloudy (to tone down blues), or the actual lighting conditions.  As long as it’s a RAW image, you’ll have much more flexibility in making appropriate white balance changes in post-processing.

Though the days are shorter in winter, the light angle is low and magic or golden-hour light for photography is more extended in comparison with other seasons. You also have a giant built-in light reflector -- the snow or ice cover -- to use offering beautiful light, and you don't have to worry about carrying it around or setting it up.

Exposing for Ice and Snow

Proper photo exposure can be tricky when shooting snow and ice, but it was much more of an issue in the days of using film when we didn’t have instant image feedback.  Typically, camera exposure metering systems are set for a neutral gray result. Taking pictures at the same camera settings of a black poster board or a white poster board will result in pretty much the same gray look. So since snow and ice are normally bright, use your exposure compensation dial to increase exposure (open the lens, if using aperture priority mode, as we usually do; or increase exposure time/decrease shutter speed in shutter priority mode) from ½ to 2 stops. Check your image on the LCD screen to be sure your exposure is correct and reshoot as needed to adjust accordingly. 

Or, better yet, use your histogram to check exposure and whether and how it needs to be adjusted to allow for the given lighting conditions. If your histogram curve is too far to the left or right to the point of rising on either vertical side, you’re either underexposing or overexposing, respectively, and losing pixel information. Use exposure compensation accordingly to get the curve in between the walls.  (If the scene’s lighting is so contrasty that you can’t do this with a single exposure, then it’s time for High Dynamic Range technique, which is beyond the scope of this article.) 

If it’s too bright outside for you to see the screen to check your image or its histogram (and you don’t have a screen viewer/loupe or shading head cover), then simply bracket exposures: i.e. take several shots of the scene at different exposures above and below your exposure starting point. Most cameras are equipped with features to be able to automatically do this on command.          

Unless your photo is severely underexposed or overexposed, you usually can "save” it in post-processing if you shoot in RAW.