Winter may be cold and intimidating, but its mesmerizing beauty makes it worth the challenge to capture its magic with your camera. Winter landscape photography has a truly dreamlike allure. Fresh snow leaves the landscape untouched and pristine. The sun creates a sparkle over the blanketed land. Mist rises from running water, trees shine in the sunlight and mountains stand more majestically with their snow-capped peaks. Cold temperatures lead many people to curl up inside, which leaves a quiet and serene world for those of us willing to venture out.
As my 40th birthday loomed several years ago, my one wish was to see the Tetons in all their winter glory. Although I had spent time in the Tetons almost every year since I was a tiny girl, I had never been there in the winter. My grandparents’ home in the valley wasn’t winterized, and they boarded up the house every October to June. Living in the Chicago area for over 20 years, I was very familiar with cold winters and the beauty of snow, but I longed to see the mountains I loved covered in white. As I flew into the valley with the Tetons in view, the beauty brought tears to my eyes. That trip with my husband was spent enjoying many of the winter activities that the Jackson Hole area has to offer, but it was also when I solidified my love of winter landscape photography.
Preparing For The Climate
My biggest fear on that first winter trip out to the Tetons was that I would get too cold and be unable to shoot for as long as I wanted. I especially worried about my fingers, as I had experienced the biting pain of frigid fingertips. I learned on that trip that the right gear is the key to enjoying winter landscape photography. With the proper gear, I was able to stay comfortable despite the cold. Preparation and planning are always important with landscape photography, but this is especially true in the winter as you prepare to brave the elements.
Choosing outdoor clothing and accessories that will keep extremities warm and protected is critical to staying comfortable in extreme temperatures. I always have my Heat Company gloves with me when shooting in the frigid cold. These have tight gloves that allow me the ease of use with the camera buttons and also a warmer outer mitten that I can put over my fingers when I’m not actively using them. They even have a zippered area to put chemical hand warmers. Regardless of which gloves you choose, working the camera with gloves on can feel clunky, so have patience.
Always wear a suitable hat to keep your head warm and wear insulated, waterproof boots with moisture-wicking socks. Choose tall boots to be prepared for deeper snow. There’s nothing like a scoop of wet snow in your boots to ruin a winter adventure. Dress in layers so you can remove clothing—it is possible to overheat even in the winter.
Two other pieces of outdoor gear to consider investing in for winter landscape photography are snowshoes and microspikes. In some locations, the snow can really pile up over the winter—up to your knees or waist. Snowshoes will allow you to get to places that would otherwise be impossible. Microspikes are metal cleats that you can put on the bottom of your boots so that you won’t fall on ice or slippery snow.
There are a few other helpful items to pack for winter shooting. Extra batteries are a must as cold temperatures cause batteries to run out more quickly. Keep an extra battery or two in an inner pocket on your body to keep them warm and charged. A microfiber towel or cloth is valuable for wiping off any moisture that gets on your lens or camera, and a rain cover provides protection from unexpected snow or freezing rain. Sunglasses are vital for protecting your eyes when the sun reflects brightly off the snow.
Creative Approaches To Winter Landscape Photography
Once you are prepared for the elements, it’s time to get creative and capture the magic of the season. There are a number of things that make winter landscapes unique and special. The first is the dreamy atmosphere winter weather can bring. While snowstorms and freezing temperatures create challenges for getting outdoors, they also create interesting and dramatic conditions for photography. Seize the opportunity to take advantage of fresh snow.
Get out early before the roads get slushy and others have had the chance to tarnish the fresh blanket of snow with their footprints. One of my favorite winter elements to capture is when the wet snow sticks to the trees before the sun melts it away. The simplest scenes, such as a forest trail, can be enchanted when the morning sun creates a sparkle in the trees.
Open or running water will often create a mist or fog in the cold temperatures. This lends itself to soft and ethereal images and also introduces a nice contrast with the texture of trees. The mist creates atmosphere in wider scenes and also provides a great opportunity to grab a telephoto lens to capture more intimate scenes. The image of fog and light in the trees in this article was made on a sunny, cold morning in Jackson Hole. To capture this intimate perspective, I used my Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | C at 400mm.
Another magical thing about winter is its beautiful light. With the shorter days, the angle of the sun is lower in the sky, so the soft light of sunrise and sunset is longer than in other months. Later sunrise and earlier sunset also make it easier to get out without sacrificing sleep, which is always a bonus. Sunrise and sunset light are especially beautiful in the winter as the snow-covered landscape reflects the colors of the sky. Additionally, with a predominantly white landscape, a pop of color like alpenglow on a mountain peak will stand out more strongly in the frame.
Winter offers an alternative perspective on the way we see a location most of the year. There is a wonderful simplicity in winter landscapes. A fresh blanket of snow covering the land obscures distractions and simplifies the landscape. Fewer people out and about allows for quiet, peaceful scenes, evoking a sense of calm and serenity. Many places that are crawling with people during the warmer weather months are now quiet and isolated. As an introvert, I love to be out photographing alone in nature, where I can hear myself think. There is no better time to do this than in the winter.
The minimized color palette adds to the simple beauty and also allows any color in the scene to pop. Even muted colors that may be drowned out in the green of summer or orange of autumn now have a chance to shine. Add a pop of color in the scene by capturing a colorful sky, building or even highways signs.
Winter has many wonderful details that add beauty and intrigue to landscape imagery. Look for the sparkle in the snow, hoar frost, bubbles and ice crystals that are often present in wintry scenes. These details can be captured with a macro or telephoto lens to isolate the details. You can also include them as part of a grand landscape scene. I love to get low and up close to the details to make sure they are a prominent part of the composition. In these types of scenes, use a tripod and consider using focus stacking to ensure a sharp depth of field from the foreground to the background. Some cameras have an automatic focus shift setting that will take multiple exposures, shifting the focus through the scene. To do this manually, simply set your scene and start with your focal point in the closest foreground and move it back into the frame over a series of exposures. Then use Photoshop to merge the images into one sharp image.
I used focus stacking to capture the ice crystals on Bow Lake. With my camera low to the ground, the ice was right in front of me, and I needed several exposures to capture sharp detail through the frame.
Technical Considerations For Snowy Scenes
As you look for the unique elements to capture winter’s essence, there are a few technical things to keep in mind when shooting. First, watch your exposure. Since the camera’s meter is set to meter for neutral gray, its tendency is to underexpose snow. To overcome this issue and capture truly white snow, you need to take control of your exposure manually. Consider using exposure compensation or manually overexpose your scene. I like to start with my exposure at +1 EV. Be sure to check your histogram to make sure it is not too overexposed or to see if you need to expose brighter. Turn on your camera’s highlight warnings if available to help you prevent overexposed highlights.
Bracketing exposures is also a great option to ensure you have captured a well-exposed image. I will frequently bracket three exposures 1 stop apart. In addition to checking the histogram for overexposed highlights, you should rely on your histogram instead of the LCD preview for exposure, as the LCD can misrepresent the scene depending on your screen’s brightness setting.
A second thing to watch is your white balance. I usually start with my white balance in the 6,500 to 7,500 Kelvin range, which is the “Cloudy” or “Shade” white balance preset. In really low light, it can be necessary to warm it up even more. In other situations, if the light is really warm already, you may want to cool down the white balance to maintain the naturally cool feeling of winter. I always shoot in RAW to allow me to tweak white balance in post-processing easily. Remember that a cooler or warmer white balance can significantly impact the mood of the image, so adjust with your creative vision in mind.
Consider using filters in the winter to enhance your creative expression. A polarizer is a great tool to increase the contrast and deepen blue skies. It will also help to cut the glare off the snow and bring more definition to clouds. Just be careful with the polarizer, as it is easy to over polarize the sky or get inconsistent polarization when using it with a wide-angle lens. A neutral density filter is a great tool for achieving long exposures of moving clouds or water. For moving water, I use a 6-stop filter, and for moving clouds, I use a 10-stop filter. Adding these filters to your bag gives you additional creative opportunities.
After shooting, protect your gear from condensation by putting your lens cap on and putting your camera in a sealed bag while it warms up. You can also let it warm up a little in a car or garage where the temperature is not as cold as outside but not as warm as inside.
Winter landscape photography may present some challenges, but planning and preparation make it worth the effort to get out and capture the magic of the season.
See more of Kristen Ryan’s work at kristenryanphotography.com.