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An Exhaustive Guide to Winter Photography

INTRODUCTION

Sometimes it will be hard to resist. Sometimes you’ll ask yourself who made you do it, or why you are doing it. Sometimes you’ll think you’ll be freezing to death in that harsh, unwelcoming environment, which doesn’t matter if it’s 3 minutes from your home or 3 continents away.
You’ll think “that’s enough, I quit”. But then, as if by magic, you’ll find yourself again in that same cold environment. And again.
Winter is for sure the most challenging season for photographers, as 99% of the times you’ll have to fight the elements every time you go out shooting, but it’s also one of the most rewarding: when you manage to get the shot you wanted, after have “suffered” the harsh conditions, you’ll be more satisfied and proud of yourself for sure.
Oh, and don’t even get me started about the magical, enchanting atmospheres that you can find in winter!
In this article we’ll try to cover all the most important arguments you should know about winter photography: as a climax, we’ll start from the basics like equipment, settings, etc to finally arrive at the most creative part like winter photography ideas and experiments. I’ll give you also some tips along the way about how to deal with the typically harsh winter conditions!

Snow in the Dolomites during a Photo tour

1. Equipment

A good way to test your equipment is to go shooting outside during the cold season; I know that “winter” doesn’t mean just snowstorms and freezing-to-death temperatures, but sometimes it is exactly like that. And since I’m currently writing an article about winter photography, I’ll give you advices for the worst (or best, depending on how you see it), harshest conditions you may find out there. And your equipment should be ready for those conditions too! Let’s see now, piece by piece, what is recommended to bring with you when you plan a shooting during the cold season.

1.1 Camera

Your camera will work perfectly even in the most difficult conditions, you just need to keep it as dry as you can: if it’s snowing, try using a cloth to not make any water get inside the body and if it’s raining, try to use a cover or put a nylon bag around it (rain will get inside the camera more easily than snow).
One more thing you should pay attention to is when you get inside/outside of buildings or your car: be sure to have it in your backpack or stored somewhere in order to avoid condensation. Make the camera acclimatize before you take it out of your bag, otherwise humidity will get inside.
Last important tip when we talk about cameras are spare batteries: in winter they tend to die really fast, so be sure to always have a spare battery with you if you want to shoot for a long time. Keep the spare ones in your pockets or in other warm places, otherwise they’ll die even before being inside your camera!

1.2 Lenses

The advices that I just gave you in the previous paragraph about the cameras are applicable here too: your lenses will work without any problem even in the coldest, harshest environment, you just need to check that water is not getting inside them. And again, be sure to keep them stored with your camera for a certain time after you get in/get out of warm places, so that they can acclimatize and humidity won’t get inside.
The last tip about lenses, is to continuously check also the front lens, as it may get humid, wet, or with some water drops over it: my suggestion is to always have a cloth in your pocket to easily clean it every bunch of shots. It takes 5 seconds and your won’t have any surprise when you’ll accurately view the photos later at the computer.

1.3 Filters

It won’t be hard to use filter in the cold winter conditions, but the last tip I wrote about the front lens should be applied here too: the bigger the filter, the more you should pay attention to it, since it will catch more raindrops/snowflakes. A cloth will help you keeping it dry and clean, so be sure to have at least one always with you!

1.4 Clothing

If you’re camera or your lenses won’t suffer the cold, it doesn’t mean that you won’t suffer neither, right? Actually, it’s the opposite: during winter the hardest challenge is staying outside for a decent time in freezing temperatures, without suffering too much.
A common saying goes “There’s no such a thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”, and it couldn’t be more true. With the right clothes, you won’t fear any kind of weather conditions.
Let’s start from the basics: the dressing code for winter shootings is “layers”, and I don’t mean the Photoshop ones. You should dress with as many layers as you need, and always think, before you go out, about how much time you’ll spend standing still and how much you’ll spend moving around, walking, etc. Why? Because if you must wait a lot in the cold, without moving, you’ll have to use warmer clothes, while if you’ll hike/walk for the whole time you better use some lighter clothes if you don’t want to sweat too much. The inner layers should be made with transpirant materials so that your skin will stay dry, while the outer layer should be waterproof and heavy to protect you from rain, wind, etc and keep you warm.

Winter at its best.

Dolomites are special in winter, when a white layer of snow covers the landscape. Come with us in this 7 days photography workshop!

Dolomites at sunrise in winter photography workshop
dolomites winter photo tour
Dolomites winter photo workshop
venice photography workshop
Fresh snow on the Dolomites during our late autumn photography workshop
Snowy peaks of the Dolomites during a winter photo tour

2. Camera Settings

In this chapter we’ll talk about the settings that work best for winter scenes: some parameters will be the same as for shooting during the other seasons, while you’ll have to accurately change others to capture the particular winter mood.

2.1 Manual Mode

The first recommendation is about switching your camera to manual mode: during winter, and mainly with snowy conditions, the automatic mode of your camera wouldn’t probably be able to perfectly read the scene and set the best exposure for it, and it may have some issues with focusing as well. This is why manual mode is suggested for winter shootings: in this way you’ll have the complete control on the situation and you’ll decide what exposure fits best the specific scene.

2.2 Exposure

As I was just writing above, the exposure is the trickier thing to get right in winter; snow generally tends to mislead the exposure meter of your camera, as it’s completely white and so brighter that the other subjects in the photo.

2.2.1 Light Metering

First thing we should worry about when shooting outside in winter conditions is to get the right exposure; I barely look at the exposure meter of the camera in these cases, as I was writing above it’s not rare that it’s not reading the scene correctly. The best way here is to make a couple of test shots, and regulate the settings from there; in this way you’ll know exactly what to expect when using the parameters you’ve chosen.

2.2.2 Bracketing

A quite popular technique when we talk about winter shootings is the bracketing: basically, by taking multiple shots with different exposures you’ll be able to get the full dynamic range of the scene, from the brightest of the highlights to the darkest of the shadows.
The reason why this technique is necessary is simple: as I told you above, the white color of the snow will “confuse” the exposure meter and you may have an hard time not clipping that white while mantaining some details in the shadow parts of the frame. That’s why, if you take more than one shot, it’ll be easier to get a full detailed final image.

2.2.3 Histogram

The general rule when shooting winter scenes is the same that applies throughout the whole year: “expose to the right”. What does that quote means? Basically, by exposing to the right you’ll concentrate all the details of the photo (in an ideal shot) in the upper-midtones/highlights part of the frame, while keeping some space in the left side (which is where the shadows are). Remember always though not to clip any of those highlights, otherwise you won’t be able to recover them in postproduction. We also tend to “expose to the right” because shadows can be recovered with RAW developing softwares much more easily than the highlights!

2.2.3 Histogram

If, for some reason, you can’t use manual mode of the camera, you can put the exposure compensation feature of it to good use. How does the exposure compensation works?
Let’s say that you are shooting in aperture priority mode: the camera will think about the shutter speed and you’ll deal with apertures, right?
If the camera read the scene wrongly and it’s over/underexposing it, you can correct that wrong exposure with the compensation function of your camera by setting +/-⅓ stop (or more): in this way, for every shot you’ll have already automatically corrected the “wrong” exposure that the camera read in the first place.

2.3 White Balance

Even if the white balance can be easily corrected with any post-production software, it’s nice to get it right from the very start. Again, your camera may get a completely wrong white balance if there’s some strong color dominant in the frame: if you are shooting snowy scenes at sunset, your pictures may result way too red; if you are shooting a snowy cityscape at night and some artificial light is present, the snow will probably look reddish in the whole frame.
I can’t give you a magical kelvin number to set for all the winter shootings, but I can tell you that if your camera has an “Incandescent” or “Fluorescent” white balance mode, select one of them: they are the settings that try to takes out yellows and warm hues in general, so if your snowy shots are too red, try to set these white balances. If your photos are too blue instead, try to use the “Cloudy” or “Shade” modes of your white balance, which are the settings that eliminate cold color casts.

Venice in winter is magical.

Did you know that winter is the time of the year when you have higher chances to catch fog and great sunrises in Venice? In this two-nights photo tour of Venice we’ll make the most out of the winter weather!

3. Common Problems with Winter Photography

You should know by now that winter photography is equally beautiful and complicated.
There are two ways though to learn how to capture great winter photos: the first one is the hard way (like I did), and it basically means going out and take photos, encountering an incredible load of hassles along the way and spend another load of time learning how to fix them. The second one is to read this brief guide, in which I’ll tell you exactly what you should do and how to behave if you encounter some of the most common problems. Which one you prefer to go for?

3.1 Autofocusing

First problem you’ll likely encounter while shooting in a cold, white-out environment, is the autofocus: the snow, by being so contrast-less, will give an hard time to your camera gear to find the right focus.
There are two ways to avoid getting blurry photos:
- The first one is to go manual focus: in this way you’ll have the complete control over the focus of your camera/lens. Be sure to use the live view mode and zoom in on your camera display to be 100% sure that you’re getting the best possible focus.
- Manually choose a focus point where there’s at least little bit of contrast. If you are shooting a snowy landscape with some mountains in the background, try to select the point where the mountains are touching the sky, since there should be some contrast there. If you are shooting a portrait, no need to say that you should select the focus point near the eyes (if that’s what you want in focus) of your subject, and so on.
If you manage to find a spot in the frame where there’s contrast, you should have any focusing issues.

3.2 Cold Weather and Batteries

Second problem that I already mentioned along the article is the cold weather and batteries: remember always to have some spare batteries with you, and to keep them in a warm place like the inner pockets of your jacket.
To give you an example, during my winter trips I always bring with me 7 spare batteries: I’m probably exaggerated, but I think it would be fair to have at least 3 batteries available with you for a multi-day trip, while a couple of spare batteries are enough for a day trip, depending on how much you shoot obviously.
It’s hard to understand how fast they die out there in the cold when you have never experienced it.

3.3 Moisture and Condensation

The third and last of the most common problems of winter photography is condensation inside your camera and/or your lenses. How can it get inside them? When you go from a warm place to a cold one (or viceversa), the temperature drop/rise creates moisture (in an incredibly simplified version of what is actually happening, but I’ll leave that to physicists) and you’ll find those annoying water droplets all over your front lens (or even worst, on the inner side of the front lens).
Even if there’s not a magic solution which will fix this annoying issue at a 100% rate, we can mitigate the effects of condensation by making the temperature drop/rise “smoother” for the camera gear: you can for example keep your equipment in your bag for some time after you got in (or got out) of your house or car.
If you let the gear acclimatize to the new temperature, you won’t have to deal with moisture problems!

4. Tips for Winter Photography

My goal for the last big chapter of this article is to give you some valuable tips about winter photography: how to correctly plan your shootings? What are the best times of the day and what conditions you should look for? Keep reading to find out!

4.1 Planning

No matter what genre of photography you are doing, planning is always required and a crucial part of the process that leads to producing a great picture. Always study the location and the subject in advance, consider the variables that you may find when you are shooting and most of all you have to know what the final image should look like. What you have pictured in your mind. Planning makes sense only if you have something to plan, otherwise it will be just wasted time.
Oh, and in case you’ll be shooting outside, always remember to check the weather forecast and what’s the best time of the day to be on the location!

4.2 Golden Hours in Winter

Uh, that’s one of my favourite sides of winter. I’m always been more of a sunset guy than a sunrise one, but I have to admit that watching the first lights of the day appear is something that keeps attracting me and makes me wake up at impossible hours again and again. Winter makes it less painful! During the cold season, sunrise is generally at a way more reasonable hour compared to the rest of the year, which allows you to sleep in a bit more. You’ll have to deal with the fresh breeze typical of winter mornings, but it’s not something that a warm tea or a cup of coffee won’t be able to heal. And sunset hour is great too, since it happens generally in the late afternoon, so that you’ll be home just in time for dinner.

4.3 Overcast Weather

While during some of the other seasons an overcast day can easily ruin your shooting plans, in winter low clouds and colorless skies could be just what you need. As a matter of fact, the pristine snowy scenes typical of winter fits perfectly the winter mood; for some types of shots it’s even better to have an overcast day rather than sunny one. Check out the shot below here: I wouldn’t have been able to do it if the weather was sunny. Luckily I was there on a moody, foggy day and the atmosphere was just surreal! My tip here is to always go out, even if the conditions aren’t promising, and shoot!

4.4 Photographing Wildlife in Winter

Shooting wildlife in winter is equally rewarding and painful. It’s no surprise that wildlife photography is made of long waits, many attempts and probably some failures. In winter, you’ll have to deal with these factors PLUS the cold, harsh conditions typical of the season.
When you’ll get the shot you imagined in your camera though, all the suffering from long waits in the cold will be amply repaid!

4.5 How to Capture Falling Snow

Including snowflakes in your photos will give a more wintery look to them without a doubt. But how is it possible to do it?
There are two ways:
- Using a flash: with the help of a flash, the snowflakes will be lit up from it and will consequently be way more visible in your frame. In the shot above for example, I used a flash. The main subject (the red houses) wasn’t far from me and was clearly visible even in the snowstorm.
- Using a shutter speed between 1/30sec and 1/125sec: if the snowfall is strong or your subjects aren’t clearly visible, try not to use a flash and just find the right shutter speed (which generally is between the times I wrote in the title) to capture the falling snowflakes. For example: in the shot here it was snowing hard, so I opted not to use a flash and just use an exposure time of 1/60. I hadn’t a clear, visible subject, and the use of a flash would have created just more confusion in a photo which is already quite hard to “read”.
So, the main difference between the use of a flash or just the selection of the right shutter speed is the amount of snow which is falling at that moment and the visibility of your subjects!

4.6 Post Production

Your workflow for editing winter pictures shouldn't be subject to big changes honestly: you can apply all the normal adjustments you usually do on all your photos such as curves, color balance, saturation and regulations on highlights and shadows. You should pay extra attention though to the color temperature. Many cameras read the scene warmer than it actually is and set the temperature consequently, so the RAW shot could not have that pristine, cold look typical of the season. To fix this, try to lower the temperature a bit towards cooler tones, and your shot will magically get the look you were looking for!

venice photo tour in winter
dolomites photo workshop in winter
Beautiful snowfall in the Dolomites in autumn photography tour
Fresh snow on the Dolomites during a winter photo tour
Maybe you prefer autumn.

Find out all the secrets of shooting the autumn foliage in this article!

SUMMARY

Now that we arrived at end of the article, I can tell you my little secret: winter for me is by far the best season of the year to take pictures. There are generally far less people around in almost every place on Earth, so you can enjoy places and locations that are super crowded during the other seasons. Days are shorter and you won’t have to stay out till late/go out really early in the morning. And then, obviously.. The winter atmospheres. Oh guys, I just love winter atmospheres. There’s nothing better than observing the snow falling, or find yourselves in a icy forest, maybe near a partially frozen lake or river.
I hope that suggestions and ideas I wrote in this article will help you to take some wonderful shots of the coldest season of the year!

Leonardo Papèra

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