Winter Photography

By Brian Holness
Winter is my most favorite time of the year. There is so much to capture with a camera. Now this may seem a strange thing to say given that the days are short, the skies can be dull and gray, and that it’s a tad colder than mid-summer. Between the majestic snow-capped mountain peaks, the icicles, the crisp clear sky and all the opportunities our winter activities bring, there really are some wonderful photographic opportunities out there; you just have to be patient and prepare yourselves and your equipment appropriately.

The technical stuff

Personal preparation
Make sure that you are conversant with the conditions where you are going and prepare yourself and your equipment appropriately. Use the resources available to you through the internet and personal contact to help you plan your shoot. If I’m heading out on a shoot during the winter months I am dressed for staying warm and dry, I have energy bars and hot tea, and I am relatively well prepared for unforeseen eventualities with the equipment I carry in my truck.

 Because of the ice and snow or frozen ground, the distance I travel on foot may be less (bad knees), but I still want to have a good range of mobility when I’m shooting. I have a camera at the ready on my chest but I really try to keep my hands free while walking, just in case I slip. The rest of my gear rides in my backpack, giving me the freedom to pursue the angles and the elusive perfect shot. The cold does present some unique problems for the equipment we use.

The Equipment
There are significant temperature and moisture differences when you step outside from your nice warm vehicle or house. If you haven’t taken precautions with your camera equipment, condensation will form both on the outside and inside of your equipment. How many people have taken winter photographs where you’ve stepped outside, composed your shot, and pressed that shutter button only to be disappointed by this muddy looking image on the screen? This is condensation on the lens. It can form on the outer and inner optical surfaces of both film and digital cameras alike, and if it’s forming on the optics I guarantee you it will be forming on every other part of your camera as well.

Digital cameras are electronic. Electronics and water don’t mix. Condensation can cause communication problems on PC boards, contact assemblies, affect autofocus operation and the writing of the file information to memory cards. Over time, a precipitate can form on the PC board causing a battery drain or cause the camera to cease functioning entirely. It is preventable if you transport your gear to and from areas of extreme temperature change in a camera bag. The bag acts as an insulator allowing the equipment to acclimatize to the temperature changes at a much slower rate, greatly reducing the possibility of condensation. Leave the equipment for at least an hour before using it, if possible.

Cold affects batteries; all batteries. A simple way to offset the effects of the cold on camera batteries is to have a spare battery in your nice warm pocket. Swap the battery out when the camera battery indicator drops to one bar (the time this takes will depend on the temperature and how much the camera is being used).

Cold also affects lubricants and all cameras, film and digital, have components that use some form of grease or oil. Most manufacturers will guarantee their digital cameras reliability from 40 to -10 degrees C. If you start to experience problems when shooting, warm your equipment up. Just remember the issues with condensation.

Digital cameras are great but they have small buttons and when you are wearing conventional winter gloves it is next to impossible to change settings without removing them. My wife and I were out recently taking photos of some unique ice formations on a rock face, where the temperature was well below zero with a strong wind chill. I didn’t have my usual shooting gloves so I elected to go without. I could only manage 4 shots at a time before I had to warm my hands again and I almost dropped my camera twice. Find some gloves that work for you, use them, and keep your hands warm and your equipment in one piece.

The Fun Stuff
Winter photography presents some new challenges. If your camera is set in the green auto mode you won’t be able to override the majority of the camera settings to compensate for the errors. By setting the camera to the “P” mode the automatic operation of the camera stays the same but you can now override any of the camera settings. This also applies if you use your camera in the “A”, “AV”, “S”, “TV”, and “M” settings. Certain scene modes will limit what you can override.

 Shooting in snow can affect how your camera light meter reads, altering the exposure. A quick adjustment is to change the meter sensitivity to spot metering and meter off your subject. You can also bracket your exposures by increasing or decreasing the EV by 1/3 increments.  However, this does mean you are shooting a lot more frames and will take up more space on your memory card.

Snow can also look blue in your photos. Tweaking the white balance to “warm” up the image can make a so-so print a contest finalist. White balance is usually accessible with a button either on the back or top of the camera and is also accessible through the menu, usually under the “Camera” icon. Cameras that have “Snow” scene modes work exceptionally well to compensate for the light and colour shifts.

Using a flash to help illuminate shadow detail in daylight shots outside can really change the characteristic of a photograph. The built-in flash on the camera will add a little fill flash but will lose intensity the further you are from your subject (usually after about 8 feet). Externally mounted flashes provide more output and can cover longer distances. Try taking two shots, one with flash and one without just to see the difference. If you use a flash at night outside, use the flash EV adjustment to dial back the power so your subject won’t be overexposed.

Without flash.
With flash.
This is a great time to experiment with black and white. I have a soft spot for this type of photography because I started in this business shooting only black and white, processing and printing my images in my darkroom. The complexity involved in capturing the image and the visual impact of a black and white photo still excites me. You have to think in terms of contrast and grayscale even though what you see is colour. You have to predetermine the area of the image that you want to be the focal point and adjust your exposure, depth of field and composition accordingly. Most new digital cameras have a monochrome mode that produce images that rival the high quality B&W films of the past and present. The grays, blacks and whites of winter provide perfect shooting conditions. In one of the courses that I teach, we do comparison photos to see the impact of colour versus black and white using the same subject. The focus of the subject in the image shifts when compared to the same image shot in colour. Try it for yourself.

When I’m out walking I’m always looking at things to capture with my camera but I don’t always have my DSLR in my hands. I use a good quality point and shoot camera to capture the “Grab Shots” as I see them. A point and shoot has a distinct advantage over the DSLR, specifically the size. Most are pocket-able and use very good optics that rival a DSLR image and with the advances in the lens technology, they provide a very good zoom range to cover off most shooting conditions. The camera I use allows me to shoot in raw format so I have every pixel of information available to me. I can capture more subtle details on a raw file and I am able to push the capabilities of the camera.

There is colour with the cold; we just have to look harder for it. This time of year provides colour in the form of lights, sun on snow, and the rainbow of clothes that people wear. What we see and how it’s captured by our cameras may not be the same since the light of winter is different. The sun is at a shallower angle for those of us in the northern hemisphere and the light intensity is at its peak for much shorter periods. The early morning light and the late afternoon light has a warmer tone, and can really add a different touch to scenic snow scenes. Outdoor portraiture can be especially rewarding as you can capture the essence of the moment by the expressions on people’s faces, the activity they’re involved in and the variety of their attire.

The Christmas lights are always pleasing to see but can be very challenging to photograph, whether in a mall setting or outside. You need patience and practice to get the shot you want and there is no set formula that you can apply to everything, but here are a few tips.

Always use a tripod, indoors or outdoors.

Getting the right colour is a challenge because there are so many different types of light. Play with the white balance.

Use a rear curtain or delayed flash sync. The trick is to expose for the colour then fire the flash just before the exposure is complete to provide foreground illumination. Some great shots are possible.

If there are people moving in front of what you are trying to shoot, use ND filters to increase the exposure time and to remove the people from the scene.

Winter shooting will typically see you using much higher ISO settings than normal thus increasing the noise in the image, but good post process noise removal programs can make the image virtually noise free.

Even in the bush, colour still exists; the shades of green in the coniferous boughs, the dropped leaves from the deciduous trees, the winter flora and fungi. If you are especially lucky you can capture images of the local forest inhabitants in their winter finery. Using your flash in these settings can provide you with a new take on your subjects especially if you can shoot off camera flash. Experiment with off camera flashes and RF releases to paint with the light using diffusers, colour gels and spot illumination. Use the camera slow sync or second curtain sync settings to provide a different look to an everyday object. I’ll warn you though, once you start you won’t want to stop.

This is also the time where we tend to take a large quantity of photos of friends and family. Diffusing your flash does wonders to create soft shadows and even tones on the faces. If you are indoors, try bouncing your flash off the ceiling or using natural light coming in through windows to create soft light highlights and shadow detail. Play, you have the time. Good shooting and good holidays.