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How to make winter landscape photography

Four seasons is an incredible gift of Mother Nature to landscape photographers, at least in some parts of the world. Winter is not an easy time to photograph, as you might have to deal with some extreme conditions. Among other issues, low temperatures can lead to discomfort for photographers and also make battery life much shorter. Winter, however, has several benefits for landscape photographers that we often forget about:

  • The sun does not rise as early as in the summer;
  • Don’t forget to enjoy the atmosphere and try out what comes to your mind;
  • Snow and frost can substantially transform the atmosphere in many locations;
  • Snow and ice can be very photogenic;
  • The same landscape you have photographed during other seasons completely changes in winter;

Always look at the weather forecast and prepare for it with appropriate clothes. You have to pay attention to temperatures, wind speed, and air humidity. As a landscape photographer, you should arrive at your shooting location around 30-45 minutes before sunrise, as the pinkish sunrise clouds can appear in the sky pretty early on. Sunset photography can be slightly more weather-friendly in the winter months. However, as soon as the sun disappears below the horizon, temperatures drop very quickly too. That is why it is critical to wear proper shoes and clothing that will help you maintain your body temperature. Here are some recommendations before going out to shoot winter photography:

Dressing in layers

Staying warm and dry while out in the cold weather is very important. If you are warm and dry, you will enjoy being outside shooting for more extended periods. Dressing in layers is the best strategy for cold winter weather. Wearing layers will make it much easier to regulate your body temperature. You can remove some layers when the day warms up or when doing physical activity such as hiking raises your body temperature, preventing you from overheating. In addition, dressing in layers will keep you dry and much more comfortable. The most critical layer is the one that stays the closest to your skin. Make sure to wear synthetic materials, merino wool, or down fabric for your layering system.

Hands and feet

It doesn’t matter how warm the rest of your body is. The shoot will not last long if your hands or feet get cold. Soon enough, you will have to run home or somewhere you can get a hot beverage and chill yourself from the cold weather.

A good pair of gloves is vital when heading out into the snow. Also, remember to wear a pair of waterproof, insulated hiking boots.

Put your camera in a backpack and let it acclimate before start shooting

Moving photography gear directly from the warmth of home to the cold outdoors, or vice versa, can cause trouble for your equipment. The extreme temperature change will cause condensation on or inside the camera and the lens, which can be bad news. At best, the lens is fogged when you go outside, and you must wait for it to clear before shooting. In the worst-case scenario, humidity formed inside the camera causes damage to the electrical components. You can prevent this by placing your gear inside the camera bag before going outside. Place the bag outside for 15 minutes or so, leaving it closed. Being inside the backpack will allow the camera and other gear to slowly acclimate to the cold temperatures before taking it out to begin shooting. Of course, it would help if you did the same before moving the camera from the cold weather to the warmth of the house.

Keep the camera and lenses cold

After getting your camera and lenses acclimated to the cold temperatures, keep them out until you have done shooting. It may be tempting to put the camera inside a coat to protect it from the weather, but that will warm it up and cause the lens, viewfinder, and other components to fog up. So, if it rains, you can cover your camera with a shower cap. It really works.

Bring water and snacks

Bring along some snacks and a water bottle. Staying hydrated is essential, even when it is cold outside. Cold weather tends to trick our bodies into thinking we are not thirsty. However, taking a few sips every so often is essential, even if you feel you don’t need it. Staying hydrated helps your body regulate its temperature and will make you feel much better, even in the middle of the winter.

Photograph during the blue hour for dramatic winter landscapes

The blue hour is the time just before sunrise and after sunset when the sun sets below the horizon, and the world has that blueish tone.

You still have enough light to shoot, yet nothing is in direct sunlight. The light is soft and gorgeous.

And it works perfectly for winter landscape photography.

Go on the field early

Try to get out as soon as possible after a snowfall. It would be ideal for getting out while it’s still snowing. If you wait too long, the lovely fluffy snow may be in the past as people or animals have walked through it. After overnight snow, plan to head out for sunrise. The snow will still be in good condition, plus you will have great light to work with.

Bring plenty of fully charged batteries

It would help if you did this no matter the time of the year, but it is crucial during cold weather. Batteries lose their ability to power the camera much faster when cold outside. So be sure to bring along plenty of extra batteries and ensure they are fully charged before leaving home.

Keep batteries warm

Carry the extra batteries in a pocket close to your body to keep them warm when not in use. Taking your battery warm will ensure that the new battery is ready to perform when you need to switch them out. 

Don’t let the snow fool the camera

If the landscape is white, especially if it’s snowing, a winter image can benefit from being a stop or two brighter. 

It gives an interesting, even spooky, sense of atmosphere. Plus, it provides a sense of incredible calmness.

When the camera ‘sees’ all the white snow, it will immediately compensate by darkening the exposure when it shouldn’t. This will happen automatically if you shoot in aperture or shutter priority modes (or another auto mode). If you are shooting in manual mode, the light meter will tell you that the scene is overexposed. Letting the camera do the work will make the images with snow looks gray, so don’t let the camera be fooled by snow. Instead, make the necessary adjustments: If you are shooting in an automatic mode, apply about one stop of positive exposure compensation and go from there. Do the same in manual mode, setting the light meter to about one stop overexposed. The snow should look white in the scene without being blown out.

Ice can look great

Search for interesting ice formations to include in your composition. It could be anything from icicles to sheets of ice formed on a natural surface. Mother Nature makes some fascinating sculptures. Take some time to find them and see how you can capture them in your landscape photographs.

Keep frost off your lens

If you decide to stay out late and take some night landscape photographs, you may need to fight the formation of frost on your lens. When the temperature drops and the lens surface cools below the dew point, moisture in the atmosphere may cause frost formation.

Look for color

Winter landscape photography is fun – and it doesn’t have to be complicated, assuming you know the proper techniques. After a heavy snowfall, the landscape is entirely white: white trees, white lakes, white mountains, and (usually) a white sky. 

There may not always be a lot of color in a winter landscape. Trees without leaves and snow create mostly a monochromatic landscape. 

You can look for contrast, color contrast, where you find a splash of color against the white or tonal contrast, such as a bit of darkness against the bright snow.

Luckily, contrast is easy to find on snowy days because it’ll catch your eye just the same as a photo viewer’s eye. So you can go around with your camera, looking for an eye-catching element or two.  

If you can work just a splash of color into the scene, it can make a big difference in an image. Wintry landscapes are generally quite cold, not only in temperature but also in color. Look for things to include that contrast well with blues. A touch of golden light from the sun could be all you need to change the result completely. If that doesn’t work out, look for other things on the color wheel’s yellow to the orange side to provide some nice contrast and visual interest.

Choose white balance

You can choose your white balance in camera or post-processing if you’re photographing in RAW. Both these options work well, though sometimes it’s better to see a preview of the white balance in the camera, so try doing it. Winter is cold, so a beautifully freezing white balance looks perfect.

Shoot black & white

Often, there isn’t much color in a winter landscape. For example, if it is covered in snow, then most of what you see will be white, and everything else may be different shades of gray and brown. Don’t be afraid to shoot in black and white if that is the case. This way, you can pay more attention to light, shadow, and different tones in the image. Changing your camera’s picture style to black and white will allow you to see what an image will look like while shooting in the field. Then you can adjust settings and frame for a more dramatic capture and balanced composition.

Use fresh snow if you can 

A field of freshly fallen snow can make some stunning images. However, be careful how you move around a scene, so you don’t track through the snow and ruin an otherwise serene image. One exception could be a single line of footprints leading into the distance. The footprints can act as a leading line and add mystery and intrigue to an image.

Experiment with white balance

Taking pictures of a snowy landscape with clear blue skies overhead can create an image with a lot of blue, especially in the shadows. Blue is often associated with cold, so this may not be an issue. However, try experimenting with different white balance settings to create something different. 

Use a tripod

Using a tripod is a great idea when shooting landscapes, as it slows you down and allows you to focus more on compositions. 

Get your tripod ready for the cold

If the legs of your tripod sinking into soft snow is a problem, you may want to try a set of tripod snow shoes. They attach to the feet of the tripod and help the legs not to sink, having a broader base. You could also find a spot where your tripod struggles to keep balance because of the ice. In that case, the tripod snow shoes help.

Take advantage of the low-angle sun

The sun’s lower angle can create dramatic light and shadows and make it possible to shoot all day, or at least for way longer than you would be able to during the summer months. Another significant advantage of the sun hanging lower on the horizon is that it is easier to include the sun in your landscape images at different times other than sunrise and sunset.

Don’t forget the details

Remember that there is more than the wide scenario of mountains and fields. There are so many other minor details to shoot. It could be anything, like the light hitting a tree or part of a mountain, light on the ice, frozen bubbles in ice on a small pond. The possibilities are infinite and only limited by your imagination.

Storms can make dramatic images

Head out into the storm to look for more exciting image opportunities. Clouds can give a landscape photograph much more emotivity. Falling snow or blowing winds can also create a much more dynamic scene. Try dragging the shutter to show some movement.

But if you can’t go on the field…

Winter landscape photography can be a lot of fun, and you can take unique images. Try to get outside and shoot, but don’t feel too bad if you cannot pack your staff and get out for the adventure. Instead, use that time to stay warm and dive into some photography knowledge.

Write down some of these tips but remember to have fun, I know it is cold, and you would rather stay inside, but the best thing you can do to take an awesome landscape photograph is to wear a warm coat, grab the camera, and get outside. The images will be worth it and also the experience. Winter is freezing but is also beautiful. Enjoy the view and feel alive.