Temperatures are dropping, ponds are freezing over, and snow is falling. Winter is here! As winter’s chill sets in, don’t pack away your camera with your summer clothes. Winter is a magical time for outdoor photography, but you need to know how to handle the challenges presented by the season. So, bundle up, and head out there! Here are my top tips for getting the most out of your winter photography.
Want more winter photo tips? Keep reading!
Wait for strong, colorful light
Snow and ice can reflect up to 90% of the light striking it, which means it takes on the color of the light. So, avoid the winter grays! Overcast skies are your worst enemy, making a colorless winter landscape look bleak and desolate. Strong, colorful light really brings a winter landscape to life. Ice will reflect colorful sunrise and sunset clouds very well, behaving similar to water. Low angle light, such as side-lighting and backlighting, can reveal texture and three-dimensional relief, and transform a winter scene into something magical, especially at sunrise and sunset. When shooting winter landscapes, look for opportunities to juxtapose warm and cool tones, such as snow warmly lit by the setting sun next to the deep blue of snow in shadow.
Strong light brings winter landscapes to life, no matter what time of day. Grand Teton National Park, USA. Canon 5DII, Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens, ISO 100, f/13, 1/200 second.
Choose your winter exposures carefully
Winter exposures can be tricky. Lots of bright snow can fool your camera’s light meter, which will try to compensate by darkening the exposure. If your exposures are coming out looking too dark, Increasing exposure by a stop or two is usually sufficient to correct the problem. When shooting a winter scene in mixed light, be careful not to overexpose parts of the scene in direct sunlight. Make sure that you turn on your camera's highlight warning option (the "blinkies") to ensure that you don't accidentally overexpose important highlights in your winter photographs.
Be careful with your winter exposures, especially when there is a mix of shadow and direct sunlight on bright snow. Banff National Park, Canada. Panasonic DMC-FZ1000, ISO 125, f/8, 1/1600 second.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!
Heavy falling snow can set a wintry mood and transform even ordinary scenes into something extraordinarily beautiful. Take advantage of the soft, atmospheric effect created by shooting through a heavy snowfall to make moody and ethereal photos. But don’t let your thinking about snow end there. Fresh snow—and lots of it—is critical to many winter landscape scenes. Old snow gets stomped on by people and animals, melts off trees revealing unattractive bare branches, and often just looks dingy and unappealing. And too little snow on the winter landscape usually means lots of distracting objects poking up through the snow. If you wait to shoot after big snowstorms, you’ll be rewarded with landscapes that look fresh and photogenic. The outdoor landscape gets remarkably simplified when almost everything is covered in snow.
Fresh snow makes a winter landscape more appealing and photogenic. Grand Teton National Park, USA. Canon 5DII, Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens, ISO 200, f/11, 1/5 second.
Brave the cold for winter night photography
Cold, cloudless nights can produce some of the clearest skies you’ll ever see. Winter stars seem to twinkle with extra intensity, making them perfect for photographing long exposure star trails, or shorter exposure static star field shots (try ISO 1600 or higher, with your lens wide open, for 30 seconds or less to capture stars looking like points). Those far enough north can photograph the Northern Lights, a night-time light show produced when solar winds come into contact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Long winter nights are perfect for maximizing your chances of seeing the aurora.
The Northern Lights dance over the eastern fjords of Iceland. Canon 5DIII, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 800, f/2.8, 6 seconds.
Take advantage of winter atmospherics
Strange things can happen when cold air and moisture collide. Geothermal areas, such as Yellowstone National Park, become incredibly photogenic in the winter, as warm steam rising from geothermal features interacts with the cold air, creating abundant mist which coats nearby landscape features in rime ice. You can witness a similar effect in coastal and mountain areas, and near waterfalls that haven't frozen over, and localized inversion effects can occur over any winter landscape if conditions are right, which can create a thin layer of fog over the snowscape.
The sun sets behind snow-clad trees wreathed in geothermal steam, revealing stunning sunbeams. Yellowstone National Park, USA. Canon 1DsII, Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/22, 1/50 second.
Keep warm and dry
Nothing ruins a good winter shoot like chilled hands and toes, or worse—hypothermia or frostbite. Dress in layers so you can fine tune the amount of warmth you need depending on your activity level. Make sure you bring enough clothing to keep you warm even when you are standing still for long periods of time waiting for the perfect light for your photography. I recommend insulated boots to keep your toes warm, but keeping your fingers warm can be more difficult, as you must balance the dexterity needed to operate camera controls with warmth. I typically use a lightweight pair of liners coupled with heavy duty mittens made for extreme cold environments. I keep my hands in the mittens whenever I can, taking them out only when I need to operate the tiny buttons and dials on my camera. Whenever my fingers get cold, I stuff them back in the mittens, which warm my hands up in no time. Some people also use chemical or battery-powered hand and toe warmers to stay extra toasty. When photographing wildlife, you might need to have your hands on your camera more than with landscapes; I recommend an insulated camera cover with openings for your hands.
You're going to get cold when you spend several hours outside photographing in winter. So dress accordingly! Bring plenty of warm layers that you can adjust for activity level, but make sure to have enough to keep you warm even when standing still for long periods of time. Lake Superior, USA. Canon 5DIII, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/13, 1/60 second.
Protect your gear
Camera equipment can sometime have problems in the cold. Although lithium ion batteries perform well in cooler temperatures, extreme cold can nonetheless accelerate battery drain, so you should bring along a spare that you keep warm inside an interior pocket. All sorts of things—including shutters and tripod legs–can get frozen stuck. If your shutter freezes open or close, put your camera in a warm place and it should eventually get unstuck. If things get really cold, some equipment, like wired remote shutter releases or carbon fiber tripod legs, might get brittle (I've cracked and snapped carbon fiber tripod legs during cold winter shoots). Also, don’t bring a cold lens or camera into a warm room or car without covering it with some sort of insulation, as you might end up with fog on your lenses, eyepiece, or even your camera sensor. I keep cold lenses and cameras inside my camera bag, waiting for everything to warm up gradually before taking them out.
I slithered on my belly like a snake to get into this tiny "ice cave" along the shore of Lake Superior, USA. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/160 second.
Winter is a wonderful time for wildlife
Winter presents the wildlife photographer with many unique opportunities. Many species migrate during winter (especially birds), bringing new animals to your local area as summer migrants leave. In some places, migrating animals gather in huge numbers, creating winter wildlife “hot spots.” Also, you can effectively tell a story with your winter wildlife photos. When snow and ice set in, animals are locked in a struggle to survive. Photographs of fox or coyote mousing in a snowy field, bison and elk hunkered down during a snowstorm, or tundra swans huddled together on river ice can all demonstrate the harsh conditions animals endure during winter. Look for visual cues to help convey to viewers the challenges of winter living, such as snow or frost built up on an animal’s coat.
A polar bear traverses the wintry landscape of northern Alaska, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, USA. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 2500, f/5.6, 1/400 second.
Ice is nice!
When temperatures plummet, finding ice is easy. The trick is to find ice that is sufficiently photogenic, and to be able to safely get close enough for effective photography. Waterfalls are, of course, great places to find interesting ice. Ice formations on ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers can make great winter subjects. Look for interesting patterns and shapes, such as cracks (which make great leading lines), frozen bubbles, and stacks of broken ice piled high by wind, wave, or tide action. Consider taking a closer look and study ice patterns on a macro level—small bubbles and cracks in the ice can reveal tiny hidden worlds.
Water seeping through the rocks of an overhanging cliff creates a spectacular "ice cave" in winter. Lake Superior, USA. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/13, 1/320 second.
Ice is dangerous!
Be EXTREMELY CAREFUL when standing on or crossing over ice that forms over deep water; even thick ice can be weak in places, and a plunge into frigid waters can be deadly. If there is any doubt about the quality of the ice I am walking on, I carry an ice axe—the kind used by mountaineers—to probe the ice ahead of me for weak spots and to help get me out if I break through. I’ll sometimes even wear a dry suit over my winter layers to keep me dry and warm, just in case. For extra safety, don’t travel alone!
I probed the ice on this stream with my ice axe, which allowed me to safely get close enough to a hole in the ice to use the edges as the foreground for my composition. I got low with my camera to pull the colorful reflection of the background down into the water and ice. Banff National Park, Canada. Canon 5DSR, Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/50 second, focus stack blend.
Using a drone might be the ultimate way to safely photograph interesting ice. With a drone, you can photograph the brittles edges of an ice sheet or pack ice that is breaking up, and you never have to worry about the ice caving in beneath you!
I flew my drone over a drifting pack of ice floes. There's no way I could have walked across the ice to get to this place, but flying there was easy and safe. Lake Superior, USA. DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone, ISO 100, f/4, 1/160 second.
Search for open water
During winter, all too often everything freezes over, making it difficult to find interesting foregrounds for landscape photos. So, I spend A LOT of time searching for open water. Some fast-moving streams won't completely freeze over, and ponds and lakes will often have open water near inlet and outlet areas. These small areas of open water can be used to reflect the background scenery and the sky, and sometimes you can find compelling patterns in the ice at these edge areas which you can use as foregrounds for near-far compositions.
Even just a small area of water free from ice can be used to enhance your winter landscape compositions, creating foreground shapes and allowing you to reflect the color of the sky. Banff National Park, Canada. Canon 5DIII, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/8 second.
Despite its challenges, winter photography can be very rewarding. Stay warm, stay safe, and don’t stop shooting until winter is completely over!
About the author
Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, the author of numerous books and instructional videos, and founder of Photo Masters.