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Winter Photography Tips for Snowy Landscapes

Posted by Erika Haugen-Goodman at Jan 23, 2017 02:15 PM |
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Get the most out of your winter photography with these tips for capturing snowy landscapes.

Written by Doug Diekema

Winter presents wonderful opportunities for the photographer. Familiar landscapes look completely different when surrounded by snow and ice. But capturing those landscapes can be challenging, requiring preparation and flexibility. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your winter shots:

Exposure

Since light meters “assume” your subject is neutral gray, bright snow can fool your camera into underexposing the scene, capturing a snowy landscape as dull gray rather than white. The easiest way to obtain a proper exposure is to use the camera’s exposure compensation setting (the button with +/- on it). For a scene with lots of snow, increasing the exposure between +1 and +2 stops is a reasonable starting point, but you’ll need to experiment.

Histogram

Snow has texture and detail, which can add immensely to a winter photograph. While you don’t want snow to appear gray, you also don’t want it to become a boring white blob. Use your camera’s histogram to get it right. A scene with lots of snow should give you a hump toward the right side of the histogram. Approaching the right border is good, but take care that the histogram is not climbing up the right edge, which will give you pure white with no detail.

Snow tips by Doug Diekema
Lines, colors, shapes, textures and shadows all add to this photo of spring hikers on Pinnacle Peak in Mount Rainier National Park. The exposure maintains the white color of the snow but also shows texture and detail, adding overall interest to the photo. Photo by Doug Diekema.

Composition

Large areas of uninteresting snow and a featureless gray sky are not ingredients for an interesting photograph. Look for patterns, textures and colors to add interest to a scene. Take advantage of the patterns, lines and shapes formed by the snowy landscape. Colorful trees, buildings or clothing on a snowy background can make a photo pop and highlight an interesting subject in ways that might be more difficult in the summer. Place your main subject off center, using the “rule of thirds” we have discussed in other columns.

Stay safe and dry

Keep your camera and lens as dry as possible. When moving into a warmer environment, moisture will condense on and inside of a cold camera. One solution: Seal your camera in a zip-locked bag before bringing it inside and leave it there until it reaches room temperature. Since batteries quickly lose power in cold temperatures, bring an extra battery. Keep the spare warm, swap it out when the camera battery dies and put the “dead” battery in a warm spot to “revive” it. Most importantly, be safe! Tell someone where you plan to go, bring the Ten Essentials, wear proper footwear and warm clothing, and avoid avalanche terrain. Be aware that snowy landscapes, combined with snowfall, fog or gray skies, can be disorienting, making it easy to get lost.

Tips for capturing details

  • Color cast: On sunny days, snow may take on a bluish tint. Changing the white balance setting on your camera to “shade” will help eliminate that.
  • Focus: Auto-focus may have trouble finding the focus in snowy landscapes without much contrast. Either use manual focus or set your camera to focus on a high-contrast area of the scene (like the line between snow and sky).
  • Filters: Polarizer filters can help reduce glare and darken skies, but be careful not to overpolarize. With low sun in the winter, overpolarizing will turn your skies a very dark blue.
  • Time of day: Shooting on snow is often best earlier and later in the day, because the lower angle of the light will bring out texture and detail. That being said, because Washington is so far north, the sun is close to the horizon for much of the day in winter and decent photos can be taken even at times we would normally call midday.

 

Check out the 2016 Northwest Exposure Photo Contest winners for more photography inspiration and get ready to enter the 2017 contest starting on August 17!


 

This article originally appeared in the Nov+Dec 2016 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.