For years, I’ve undeservedly ignored winter as a photography season. Christmas is just around the corner, the days are short, and it’s freezing outside. It’s so much more tempting to stay home and enjoy some mulled wine while going through the year’s photos than to go out into the elements. And yet, a part of me never stopped being fascinated by this wonderful snowy season. Indeed, you can get truly stunning images if you know how to approach it. So this year, I decided to up my game and give it a proper shot. For the past few weeks, I went out several times, shooting in various conditions. Today, I’d like to share what I learned and give my tips on winter landscape photography.
Tip #1 – Always Look for Snow
Well… duh! Sounds pretty obvious, but it’s also utterly important. Not everyone has the luxury of living in a really snowy area. With global warming, many places in Europe, for example, are seeing less snow every year. It is warmer, perhaps, but let’s be honest – it is also painstakingly dull. Snow and ice are what really makes winter so magical. An otherwise boring landscape instantly turns into a beautiful shiny fairytale. And for us photographers, that’s just what we want.
In Stuttgart, where I live, we are not used to seeing a whole lot of snow. A couple of times a year, maybe. And then it’s all gone in just a few days. If you are in the same boat, you need to travel. The good news is that often you don’t need to go anywhere far. Your best bet is the mountains of course, but that’s not always possible. However, in many cases, all you need is a small hill or an elevated area. That half a degree lower temperature you get higher up might just be enough to keep the snow from melting. And then it’s game on.
Trust me, I’ve seen it many times over the last weeks. There is seemingly no snow anywhere, but as soon as I drive out of town, patches of it start to appear. A little bit further south, and it’s all white. So, know your neighborhood and keep an eye on the snowfalls.
Tip #2 – Go Out no Matter the Weather
If you are used to shooting in the summer, know that winter landscape photography is a very different beast. A lot of rules don’t apply anymore. My favorite example is the weather. As landscape photographers, we tend to be very picky about the right conditions. However, the truth is, there’s simply no bad weather for winter landscape photography. With snow everywhere, you can always find incredible compositions.
On a grey overcast day, snow smoothens everything. Where there used to be a cluttered foreground, there are now amazing undulating snowdrifts. Where clouds and fog used to ruin the shot, there is now a white vastness that makes for amazing minimalistic shots.
On a bright day, clear blue sky that photographers often loath otherwise, contrasts beautifully with the solemn white foreground. You can almost feel the chill of the crispy winter air on your face by looking at those images. And if you show up for sunrise or sunrise, you will witness an amazing palette of colors that you won’t be able to catch any other time of year. It truly is spectacular.
And of course, don’t forget the snowstorms. Blizzards are remarkable for landscape photography, plain and simple. Yes, it’s not the most pleasant of times to be out, but believe me, you will get shots unlike any other. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, just listen to what Thomas Heaton has to say about it.
Tip #3 – Take Care of Yourself
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On that note, an essential tip for winter landscape photography is to always take care of yourself. To state the obvious once more, subzero temperatures can actually be deadly. You need to be warm and comfortable. Proper clothing and high-quality shoes are essential. Clothing-wise, dressing in layers is the best way to regulate your body temperature. For shoes, pick up a pair of good mountain shoes. Yes, they are expensive, but they will keep your feet warm and dry. Personally, I use Lowa Cadin (and love it), but anything with Goretex and an insulating layer should do the trick.
Comfortable gloves are imperative. You need warm hands to be able to operate the camera. Fiddling with buttons and settings while wearing gloves can be a real nightmare, however. So if you are serious about winter landscape photography, consider buying a pair of dedicated photographer gloves. These will allow you to comfortably use your gear while keeping your hands warm. I use and recommend Vallerret – it’s one of the most renowned photography glove manufacturers, and their products are fantastic.
Finally, be prepared. Study the weather forecasts and learn about the conditions in the area you are heading to. Winter is the season of avalanches and unpredictable weather. Be ready to face the elements if you have to. At the very least, pack water, snacks, a headlamp, and a whistle. And wherever you go, be careful. Snow smoothens the landscape, but it also conceals treacherous pits and crevices.
Tip #4 – Take Care of Your Equipment
The same way winter colds can be brutal to people, they are unforgiving to the equipment. In winter photography, it is vital to also take care of your gear. There are a few simple rules to follow here. First of all, don’t let it get wet – mixed rain and sleet can cause moisture on your equipment. Many modern cameras are water sealed, so normally it shouldn’t be a huge issue. However, it is always a good idea to have a towel or wiping cloth just to be on the safe side.
Another way for moisture to accumulate on your gear is through abrupt temperature changes. That usually happens when you enter a warm building after being out for a while. A sudden change in heat levels can cause condensation on and even inside your lenses. That’s not something you want. So, after shooting in the cold, make a habit of not opening your bag for a few hours. With the chilly outside air still trapped inside, the temperature rise will occur much more gradually.
Here is another thing that I learned the hard way just recently. When using a tripod, double-check that your camera is well attached to it. Operating the knobs and locks while wearing gloves can be a little tricky, and it’s easy to screw something up. I was shooting a waterfall in the Black Forest and at some point wanted to move the tripod a bit. But the moment I lifted the tripod, my Sony A7III slid out of it and went flying right into the stream. Turns out, the plate knob was loose. Ouch. So, always double-check – it’s a lot easier than having to deal with repairs afterward.
Tip #5 – Watch Your Batteries
Another thing to remember with winter photography is to keep an eye out for your batteries. In lower temperatures, they lose juice much faster, especially those that aren’t brand new. So charge your stuff and have enough spares. Rather than keeping the batteries in the bag, it helps to put them somewhere closer to your body. If your jacket has internal pockets, try those. That way, the batteries will stay warmer and won’t lose charge so quickly.
This applies to all your gear of course, not only the camera. I recently had an uneasy moment when flying my drone in subzero temperatures. In a split-second, the battery level dropped from 65 to just 30 percent. Luckily the drone wasn’t too far away when it occurred, so I had enough time to land it safely.
I would also suggest buying a power bank. A reliable portable charger doesn’t cost a fortune but is a real life-saver if your phone dies or all of your camera batteries are depleted. Believe me, sooner or later it happens to everybody.
Tip #6 – Look for Isolated Subjects
While all the general rules of composition still apply in winter landscape photography, one of my favorite techniques is to look for isolated subjects. With snow covering and concealing most of the landscape, it is super easy to focus on a single entity within the frame. That makes for simple yet powerful and impactful shots that tell a beautiful story.
Isolated subjects also tend to add contrast to the image, something you might find yourself struggling with. When most of the frame is filled with white and grey, you’ll want every bit of contrast you can find.
Tip #7 – Know Your Equipment and Use a Good All-around Lens
Winter landscape photography isn’t really bound by any specific focal range. One moment you need to go wide, the next – zoom way in. That’s why I prefer an all-around lens such as 24-105mm. After mine took a swim with the camera, I’ve been using a combination of a wide-angle and a telephoto instead. With that, I found myself constantly swapping lenses. And when it’s cold and windy, it’s frankly a bit of a pain.
And while we’re at it, another potential source of pain is fiddling with the camera settings on the go. Make sure you understand how to change anything you might need to change quickly. Likewise, configure everything that you won’t be changing at home, before heading out. Trust me, digging through the menu in an attempt to figure out why your back-button focus doesn’t work is no fun in the middle of a snowstorm. Been there done that.
Quick Bonus Tip – Wear Contact Lenses
This will not apply to everyone, but if you’re like me and wear glasses, do yourself a favor and pick up a set of inexpensive daily contact lenses. When it’s cold outside, glasses tend to gather moisture and get all foggy, making it really difficult to see through the viewfinder. What’s worse, there is no easy solution for that in the field. I’m no big fan of the contact lenses myself, but this is one of those cases when they absolutely shine.
These are my 7 tips for winter photography. Hopefully, they will help you get better at capturing this amazing time of the year. If you think there’s anything important missing, let me know in the comments. But above all else, get out there and shoot! Believe me, it’s great fun. If there is one season that can make you feel like a kid again, it’s the beautiful snowy winter. And of course, check out other articles on this blog, come and say “Hi” on Instagram or Youtube, and stay in touch!