I have taken a lot of landscape photos over the years, but I always feel like I never have enough great shots in the winter. This is partially due to the fact that it's difficult to find the motivation to go on a long hike to a beautiful spot when it is 20 degrees out, but also because winter is a notoriously difficult time to get a great photo. The techniques we use in the autumn or summer sometimes simply don't work when the scene is covered in snow. The weather can be tough on our bodies, our gear, and our morale. Here are some of the most helpful things I have learned in my pursuit to become a truly year-round photographer.
The trickiest aspect of winter photography is getting your exposure right. The simplest thing to understand is that you need to overexpose your photo by at least one, two or even three stops depending on the weather. If you don't compensate for this, your shadows will be pure black and the overall shot will look dark and have too many gray tones. You can use exposure compensation or simply keep in mind that you can't meter like you normally do in summer. It can be a bit tricky, and often we can overdo it and end up with the snow being too far overblown. Bright sunny days will require a larger compensation compared to overcast ones, but the general idea will always be the same: expose your shot longer than you normally are used to. Using the proper white balance in winter photography is another very important aspect. Chances are you will want to use the sunny balance on most days, but I have come to love shade balance, which adds a nice warm tone to my scenes when needed.
A polarizing filter is a common tool for landscape photographers, but it can be especially handy in winter scenes, especially on bluebird days. This tool will allow you to capture a rich blue sky while also giving you nice whites in your clouds and snow. If you don't have one, make sure to at least have a UV filter to protect from the inevitable moisture or snow that blows onto your lens when a gust of wind pops up. Don't forget your microfiber cloth to clean off your lens and filter when this happens. If you want to get really technical, using a graduated neutral density filter allows you to get a proper balance between the sky and snow with a single exposure.
Sometimes winter scenes just look boring. There is a ton of white or a ton of blue, and there really isn't much else going on. Make sure you are looking for scenes that offer you a nice mix of colors and contrasts by seeking out rocks, trees, rivers and any other aspects that stand out from the snow. Look for shadows being cast onto the snow, search out detail shots that keep the viewer involved, or bring your tripod to get long exposure shots of moving water. Just like in normal summer photography, you will want to shoot at sunrise and sunset to give your photos the reds and yellows that many winter scenes lack. Some of the best winter photos capture things such as snow blowing off of the trees on a windy day or even falling from the sky.
Many people think that if snow is falling while you are shooting that it ruins the scene, and honestly it often does when we don't use the proper settings. If you have a longer exposure, the falling snow can turn out "streaky" and almost looks like rain. To avoid this, make sure you are using a quick shutter speed combined with your on-camera flash. When done properly, you can freeze the falling snow in frame and add some unique effects to your photo. Falling snow will quickly muck up your lens, so I often bring a small umbrella or other tool to hold above my camera while shooting during snowfall.
Winter can do some serious damage to your equipment and your eyes. Always wear sunglasses while out shooting in winter; sometimes it can be hard to tell just how much damage you are doing until it is too late. The cold is also not great for electronics, especially if you enter a warm house or car immediately after your equipment has been in the cold for a long period of time. This can fog up the inside of your lens for an extended duration or, worse yet, create moisture inside that can't be removed. Drasticallyl warm environments can also damage the sensitive sensors in your camera. Remember that things expand when they warm up, and if this happens too quickly, the temperature change can really do a number on your camera. One trick is to have a small cooler or insulated pouch in your car; this slows down the gain in temperature to acceptable levels. It's not so much the cold temperatures that hurt your gear, it's the rapid change in temperatures. Learning how to slow down this change will extend the life of your equipment.
Using multiple exposures and combining them in post with a program such as Photoshop or Photomatix is another way to get the high dynamic range of light that you find in winter scenes. This also allows you to get proper exposure for sky, snow, and any other details in the shot such as the trees or rocks. This technique is extra helpful when trying to capture a sunset, but it does have its drawbacks and limitations as well. The snow can often be left looking muddy, gray or even turquoise. Learning how to deal with this issue is a major part of getting the proper results and simply takes some practice. Experimenting with the settings of the HDR program and using your dodge tool to lighten the snow are some of the ways to whiten snow.
When we use our equipment and settings properly, we don't need to use post-production or Photoshop much, but we all know sometimes it's almost impossible to get our desired results without some level of manipulation after the fact. Some of the issues I come across most often are based around the snow not looking a vibrant white. I use the dodge tool a lot in winter photography; it helps me to get my snow to be a brilliant white and helps it "pop." I also do color saturation and de-saturation techniques that help remove the blues/cyans that often get into my white snow either from reflection from the sky or my HDR programs. Adjusting the color balance is another great option; sometimes the sweet spot is between two white balance settings and thus can't be accomplished in-camera. The goal is to make it look like it did in real life, which can be tough sometimes.