I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but where I am right now we’re still waiting for any sort of snow to show up on the ground. Usually, by this time of the year, I’m at least up to my knees in the stuff. But, this year? Here it is, December the 2nd, and still not a hint of it anywhere. It’s cold outside — real cold. But the grass is still green everywhere. There has been a couple of light snow falls so far that have dusted the ground with the chilly, white icky stuff. But it hasn’t stuck around.
Being someone who really is a summer person, I have to say that the whole no-snow thing we’re experiencing this year is pretty great! But, I know its coming. I know its just a matter of time. One day, very soon, I’m going to wake-up, go to my kitchen window, and find myself peering out onto a frozen, white wasteland. That’s usually the way it happens here for some reason — the first big snowfall of the year always seems to happen over- night, and surprise you in the morning when you wake.
Oh, well. I suppose one should always look for a silver lining in every cloud. And, if you ask me, the silver lining in the otherwise horrid concept of all things winter is the snowy landscape photography opportunities! Snowy landscapes really can make for some truly beautiful, stunning photographs.
I know a good number of photographers who are like me — they hate the winter. And, photography becomes a seasonal hobby for them. Photography trips to capture the fall colors are the last hoo-rah of the photography season. Then, once the winter weather starts rolling in, the camera equipment goes onto the shelf, where it will sit and wait for the first signs of spring.
It’s kind of sad though. If you don’t go out and shoot in the winter, you’re missing out on some great snowy landscape photography opportunities, and the chance to add some stunning pictures to your photography portfolio. There is an immense, raw and magnificent beauty in a pristine, snow-covered landscape.
Snowy Landscape Photography Tips:
So, here are a few quick snowy landscape photography tips you can use to improve your shots and make your trip out into the harsh, winter environment more pleasant:
(1) It should probably go without saying, but you should, of course, take care to wear the right clothes. There’s a saying in Norway: There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices. And, if there’s one thing the Norwegians know about, it’s the cold!
If it’s really cold outside, you should take care to cover every part of your body. Any area of skin that is directly exposed to the air can be both a source of discomfort and a funnel for heat loss. Wear gloves, adequate head-wear, scarves, etc. Even if its not super-cold outside, a bare head might not really feel all that cold to you, but you can lose a significant amount of body-heat through it. You can leave your home with a bare melon and feel as though you’re head’s not all that cold and you don’t really need any head-wear. But, by the time you’re at the perfect snowy landscape photography location, the heat loss that could have been avoided had you covered your bean could have you shivering — forcing you to cut your photography session short and not get the great images you’d hoped for.
Pay attention to clothing materials — cotton isn’t a good choice. It’s inefficient at retaining heat, and too efficient at retaining moisture. Real furs, fleece, down, are all much better choices. And, it is highly advisable to dress in layers — at least three — to create heat-trap pockets between the layers. Four fairly light layers of clothing is better than one, heavy jacket — even if the jacket is somewhat thicker than the combined four layers.
(2) Keep an eye on the weather! I’m always mindful of the weather forecast during the winter. Where I am, it’s common to get a couple of freak warm-snaps that will last for perhaps a couple days, spattered here and there throughout the winter months — even, sometimes, in the deadest cold periods of January and February. If I see these sorts of days coming up, I know to set aside some time for a snowy landscape photography trip to coincide with the warm stretch that’s coming through.
(3) Travel light and carry only what you need. Trudging through snow can be hard work, and it can make the weight of what you’re carrying seem like much more than what it actually is. You want your snowy landscape photography outing to be as little of a chore as it can be.
In the nice weather, I ardently go by the motto “It’s better to have it and not need it, than it is to need it and not have it.” I hate getting out to a location and saying “Darn! My such-and-such would be PERFECT for this shot! WHY didn’t I bring it?” So, I tend to lug along just about anything that there might even be a remote possibility I’ll use. My attitude changes, however, in bad weather. I carry essentials only, and there’s also the fact that, in the cold, the added room and reduction in weight that can be achieved by leaving some not-absolutely-necessary piece of photography gear at home will bring, can be used for other helpful items — such as a thermos full of hot soup, or coffee.
As an aside, here: If you don’t already have one, buy yourself a good, steel thermos. They’re well the worth the added cost. A quality steel thermos can last you a lifetime. Plastic ones are garbage. I’ve had a quality all-steel thermos that I bought around 1990 that’s gotten regular use since then — a quarter of a century. It’s been dropped off the back of a pick-up truck racing down a dirt road, tumbled down hills and cliffs — it’s dented, scratched and dinged all to heck. It still works great. No leaks, and it still does a better job of keeping hot things hot and cold things cold than any plastic thermos I’ve ever had.
(4) Keep a strong eye for detail in the environment. Snow and ice provide small, intricate details in texture and composition that are absent in summer scenes. Ice crystals, snow-pack, wet snow clumped to tree bark, etc. all provide potentially great visual opportunities for the snowy landscape photographer.
You’re out there for the purpose of capturing some snowy landscape photography, yes. But, there’s no reason to not grab some amazing close-up or macro shots while they’re available to you. And, a snow covered winter environment is often replete with such great photographic opportunities.
(5) When doing snowy landscape photography, composition is very important. Look for interesting and bold lines and patterns in the natural environment. Pay attention to foreground elements you can compose into the shot in order to add a sense of depth to the image. Be aware of light-angles and how shadows falling on the snow either distract or add to the visual dynamics of the image.
(6) Pay particular attention to your exposures. Snow scenes often offer exposure difficulties to photographers who don’t have experience doing snowy landscape photography. You shouldn’t trust your readings from your in-camera meter. Snow reflects too much light, and will confuse your camera’s meter.
Camera meters don’t know what they’re metering — they don’t know if you’re taking a close-up photo of a not-very-reflective hunk of black velvet, or a blindingly bright snow covered field. They don’t know what it is the camera is pointed at. They are calibrated to read and give measurements for the ‘average’ scene. Which, when it comes to the vast majority of photos you’ll ever take, is good enough to give you an exposure which is good enough.
However, a scene wherein most of it is comprised of bright, highly-reflective snow, is an extreme scene, quite radically far from the ‘average’ scene your camera’s meter is built to measure. If you take a photo of a snowy landscape based on your camera’s internal meter, your photo will come out underexposed. The snow will look an ugly gray — not the bright, crisp white you want for snowy landscape photography which carries real visual impact.
If you use a reflective hand-held meter, you’ll run into the same problems. The solution is to do one of three things:
(A) Use a hand-held ‘incident’ light-meter. An incident light meter doesn’t take a reading of the light that is reflected from the surface of whatever it is you want to be properly exposed. Instead it take a reading directly from the light-source that is illuminating what it is you want to be properly exposed.
(B) Use an 18% gray-card and use your camera’s built-in meter to meter off of that. This is simply a sheet of cardboard which you can obtain from any photography supply store. It’s painted 18% gray (which is what your camera’s meter assumes any scene it meters is) Place the card in the same light that’s falling on what you want to be properly exposed and meter off the gray-card.
(C) Use dead reckoning and bracket your shots. If you meter the snowy landscape scene, your camera, in most cases will underexpose the image by one to three stops — depending on just how much snow there is in relation to other objects in the scene. So, you can take a reading and set your camera to bracket at one, two and three stops below the reading.
And, of course, it’s a good idea to shoot in RAW mode when doing snowy landscape photography — especially if you’re using the dead-reckoning/bracketing exposure technique. That way, you’ve got a couple of stops to play with when processing the RAW images if you don’t get it exactly right in camera.