Winter is a great time to capture unique, dramatic images. However, the cold season brings more challenges for your camera than any other time of year. We spoke to award-winning photographer Nicholas JR White for his advice on shooting in winter, including the best time to shoot and how to protect your gear.
How can I choose the best day to go outside and shoot?
Planning and preparation are the two key factors here, although many photographers working within the landscape would cite luck as being a third. The Mountain Weather Information Service is a fantastic resource for checking accurate forecasts in mountainous areas, including visibility, chances of cloud-free summits and several other useful pieces of information which can help you choose your time and location.
That said, I'm an advocate of allowing room for surprises. Sometimes just slinging your camera over your shoulder and heading out whatever-the-weather yields some fantastic results. The British winter offers some great photographic opportunities in even the worst conditions. My photography is generally project based, documenting stories or themes relating to the landscape and so the inclusion of "bad weather" is an integral part of that narrative. For me, just focussing on "good weather" wouldn't be an accurate representation of our landscape, and wouldn't truthfully communicate the experience of exploring it.
It’s worth mentioning that outdoor photographers spend a lot of time on the move, but once we've sniffed out a potential shot we also have a habit of standing still for long periods of time waiting for conditions/light to change. Bear this in mind when heading out in the colder months, and always carry extra layers.
What if it’s actually snowing on the day – can I still shoot?
In short, yes. I believe that you can always shoot in whatever the weather throws at you. The tough part is learning how to adapt to
changeable conditions to ensure that you get something usable, even if it's not the image you had in your head when you first set off.
If wind is funnelling snow in a horizontal direction, consider trying compositions that avoid it blowing directly into the front element of your lens. With your back to the driving snow or rain, not only are you acting as a wind break for added stability but you're also keeping the lens dry and droplet-free! Sometimes, the falling snow can become a distraction – especially when larger snowflakes fall close to your lens. To overcome this, try lengthening your shutter speed (more on this later). The long shutter speed will stop you from freezing (pardon the pun) the snowflakes mid-flight, and instead will make them simply disappear!
If the snow is really hammering down and the winds are gusting, perhaps that photo you wanted of a calming winter-sunrise over the loch won’t become a reality this time. Think quick, and resort to plan B. You never know, an unexpected dash for shelter in that remote copse you've never explored might throw up a big surprise!
How can I protect my gear in the cold weather?
I have a lot of faith in the build quality of my gear and generally have no qualms with taking it out in even the most gnarly of winter weather, but of course there are steps you can take to ensure your kit remains safe. I carry all of my kit in a F-Stop bag, optimised for photographers who require adequate space for cameras in addition to all of the necessary outdoor kit (clothing, fuel, food etc), and the bag also acts as insulation. Batteries lose their power quicker in the cold. I know many photographers who work in cold conditions who keep their batteries out of the camera and close to their body whenever they're not shooting, using body heat to preserve charge.
Another issue you might encounter is condensation, which occurs when you're moving between areas with extreme variations in temperature. For me, this is an issue when I've been shooting at first light outside in the snow before heading back inside a warm bothy. If I were to stroll into the bothy with my camera still attached to the tripod, the lens would fog up. This is where acclimatisation comes in. As mentioned earlier, padded camera bags are well insulated and so simply ensuring all your kit is packed away into your bag and zipped up before this change in temperature occurs will help in reducing the impact. I shoot film – and it's imperative that the film remains dry at all times. So as an extra precautionary measure, I wrap this up in heavy duty dry-bags and squeeze the air out before moving back into the bothy.
Oh, and if you forget all of this and the lens does happen to fog up, don't panic – but also don't try wiping it away with your lens cloth. This'll only create smears which you'll need to sort out later – give it time, the condensation will go once the temperatures regulate.
What are your tips for photographing bright snow?
Don't trust your camera’s meter 100%! Your camera doesn't see snow the same way our eyes do and that beautiful pure white will be rendered as an underexposed muddy grey due to your cameras internal meter attempting to compensate for the bright light being reflected from the snow. For this reason, shooting in Auto mode might not be the best idea.
If you're shooting in shutter/aperture priority mode then consider adding a couple of stops of EV compensation to effectively "over expose" the camera’s meter reading. Or, switch to manual and take full control of your exposure. Finally, if your camera has a histogram feature it will become your closest ally when shooting in snow. Sometimes your camera’s LCD screen can't always be trusted, whereas the histogram displays exactly what exposure you’re hitting. Reviewing the histogram and adjusting accordingly is the best way to achieve perfect exposure, and this applies all year round!
If you could choose one lens to shoot a winter landscape, what would it be?
Although many landscape photographers favour a wider lens, I’d probably swing the other way and opt for something longer like a telephoto. Standing further away from your subject and using a long focal length gives the illusion that objects in the distance are larger than they actually are, whereas a wider lens has the opposite effect. It works particularly well in the mountains.
What kind of settings should I use to photograph in bad light conditions?
We all have different ideas of what constitutes bad light. For some, an overcast day with rain and/or fog is bad-photography weather; for me, however, I'm a sucker for days like that and can't get enough of them. I personally dislike sunny days with blue skies, but I see flocks of photographers heading out with their cameras on days like that.
In landscape photography, I aim to try and get the entire scene in focus front to back. This involves using a smaller aperture which increases depth of field (the distance between the nearest and furthest objects that appear sharp). Using smaller apertures reduces the amount of light entering the lens, so to counter that you must increase your shutter speed (the amount of time the shutter remains open to allow the light through the lens). Longer shutter speeds capture movement; running water, trees blowing in the wind etc. The slower your shutter speed, the more movement you'll record and the need for a tripod increases. Shooting handheld with longer shutter speed will create a blurry mess! If you find yourself without a tripod in fading light, you may need to increase your aperture to allow more light in, trading off some depth-of-field in favour of getting something correctly exposed. You may not want to open the aperture up too much, so as a last resort you can increase your cameras ISO – which is the sensors sensitivity to light. Be careful not to get carried away with this, although many modern-DSLRs work well at higher ISOs, the higher you go, you'll notice a loss in image quality and an increase in 'noise'.
Thank you to Nicholas J.R White for his photography tips! To see more of Nicholas’ photography visit his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram. All photographs in this article are by Nicholas JR White.