Wintery destinations offer a myriad of opportunities for winter photography, from shooting beautiful snow covered landscapes to chasing the northern lights and, if the light is right, you can get some truly fantastic winter shots. The cold winter weather, however, also offers unique challenges to photographers – and not just cold fingers!
In this post, our photographer in chief shares 15 of his top tips and tricks to help you prepare and protect your camera when you next find yourself in sub-zero conditions! If you’re not properly prepared for shooting in the snow, you can damage your camera equipment (and yourself!) and some of these winter photography tips are particularly important for keeping you both safe from the cold and snow.
Use A Sealable Plastic Bag
Although this might seem a bit odd, this is one of the most important tips when practicing winter photography and so we’ve put it at the top of our list to ensure you properly protect your camera from the cold. Unless you own a weather-sealed camera, if you’re shooting in particularly cold weather, you’re going to want a bag (or bags) you can fit all your gear (camera body, lenses etc) into and that has an airtight seal such as a zip-lock freezer bag. When you move from somewhere very cold (outside) to warm (inside), there is a risk that moisture will condense on or inside your gear. And, as we all know, moisture does not sit well with electronics. To stop this from happening, before you head inside after your shoot, seal your camera equipment inside the freezer bag with some of that cold, winter air.
If you want, you can also remove the battery and SD Card before putting it in the bag if you want so you can begin importing your photos and recharging your batteries once you get in. Then you can take your camera inside, leaving it inside the sealed bag, and it will warm a little more slowly with none of the moisture able to penetrate the bag. You’ll want to leave your camera in the bag for at least a couple of hours to warm up before taking it out and in the meantime you could import your photos to your computer, or just warm yourself up after your winter photography session!
Take Spare Batteries (and Keep Them Warm!)
Cold weather causes batteries to drain faster than normal inside the camera and even when not in use, they’ll still lose their charge. To mitigate this from happening, and to save yourself from running out of battery power at a key “Kodak Moment“, you’re going to want to carry spare batteries when taking winter photography shots. We advise that you keep them in an inside pocket as close to your body as possible as your body heat will help protect them from discharging and keep you shooting for longer. You should also keep your main batteries warm in this way until you need to use your camera.
If you can, we’d also recommend having your camera inside your coat and close to your body, but this isn’t always practical for bulkier cameras. If you’re using a smaller camera system, a point and shoot camera, a smartphone or have a large coat with bulky inside pockets, keeping your camera close to you and protected can help.
Don’t Freeze Your Nose
This may sound quite funny, but this is a real hazard that is best avoided when photographing scenes during the winter. A lot of cameras these days are made of metal, and when you drop down to seriously cold temperatures metal can become a bit of a risk to our skin. In particular, when you hold your camera up to your eye to take a photo your nose might touch up against the camera body, which can lead very quickly to frostbite, or even your nose being frozen to your camera!
To avoid freezing your nose, we suggest wrapping your face with material to protect it, like a scarf or a snood, or wrapping the camera body itself with something to protect you. Alternatively, shoot from a tripod and use the camera’s screen rather than the viewfinder to compose the shot, and avoid the problem altogether.
Wear Good Gloves
One of the big challenges of cold weather winter photography is just trying to use the camera in those sub-zero temperatures. Dials, buttons, filters – all these things that are easy to deal with when shooting in normal conditions, all become very challenging when we’re wrapped up to the max or when we can’t feel our fingers. The right pair of gloves can be key in this situation. If it’s not insanely cold, fingerless gloves can be an option – allowing you the dexterity of your fingertips whilst keeping the rest of your hands warm, otherwise, you’re going to have to be pulling those toasty warm gloves on and off to operate your camera.
There are a variety of gloves designed for winter photography and cold weather conditions. These vary in their approach, from fingerless solutions to gloves with removable sections. In my experience, really cold conditions tend to need bulkier gloves, so make sure you pick the pair that will suit the conditions you’ll be shooting in. I’d suggest avoiding fingerless gloves for anything but the mildest temperatures, as they are less likely to keep your fingers really warm. Instead, find a pair of gloves that has detachable fingers so buttons and dials can be adjusted quickly or gloves which allow you to use a touchscreen when wearing them.
Use Heat Packs
Chemical heat packs solve the problem of your hands (or feet) getting cold, and not being able to warm them back up again. This is especially the case for your hands, which will be handling very cold camera equipment. A chemical heat pack can provide hours of warmth to your hands for minimal cost and are a sound investment – just pop them in your gloves (or hold them in your hands) for instant relief from the cold.
Wear Warm Winter Woolies
This should seem obvious, but sometimes even the obvious needs stating. If you’re out in cold weather, you want to be wearing clothes designed for cold weather. The secret is layers – thermal base layers to start, and then build up until you finish with something that’s ideally water and wind-proof. If you can, avoid wearing cotton, as if it gets wet from either rain or snow or if you are sweating you’ll get cold very quickly. Synthetic fleeces or wool are a better option.
Bring the Right Gear
If travelling to a cold and snowy place, you’re going to want to bring a camera which allows you to capture those wide, sweeping panoramas of the mountains, and at the same time get you up close and personal with the flora and fauna you may encounter. Most importantly, however, you’re going to want to travel light, as there is nothing worse than lugging around multiple lenses and camera bodies, so if you’re using an interchangeable-lens camera, bring a good travel lens with you.
Whatever system you use, whether it be an interchangeable lens camera or a bridge or compact camera, be sure that you have enough focal length to capture a range of scenes. A longtime Sony user, I have always been fond of the E-mount 18-105mm and when I’m not carrying my DSLR, I tend to use Sony’s compact RX100 or RX1 offerings. The former gives me almost as much range as the E-Mount does, but in a much smaller body and the results are very similar in quality, whereas the latter features a fixed 35mm prime lens giving me crisp, buttery smooth travel pics. While it has its drawbacks, with not being able to zoom in for example, it’s a price worth paying for the sharpness and detail captured in its images and with over 40 megapixels allows me to crop images later in post without sacrificing on quality.
If using a DSLR, it could also be a good idea to bring a selection of filters. ND (Neutral Density) filters come in different strengths, and essentially act as sunglasses for your camera. ND filters allow photographers to shoot their wide-aperture lenses in bright light without overexposing (see point number 11). This allows shallow depth of field and selective focus effects while under lighting conditions that exceed the shutter speed capabilities of the camera. Similarly, a Polarising Filter gives a 2-stop ND filter “effect” to cut down on sun-glare, allowing a photographer to darken blue skies and see farther into water.
Use a Good Camera Case
This isn’t just a winter photography tip, but when you’re out in extreme conditions, a good camera bag is a must. It will protect your gear until you’re ready to use it. You want something that is purpose designed to be a camera bag, as it will have the necessary amount of padding to protect your gear. You also want a bag that offers some level of protection against the elements. When it’s cold, this is usually snow, which will brush off, but a bag with a waterproof cover is a good investment nonetheless. You’ll also want to be sure it fits all your gear and anything else you usually take with you when out (heat warmers, snacks, drink etc..).
I’ve been using Lowepro camera-bags for years and find they are a solid investment. They come in all shapes and sizes, from messenger and sling bags to full on carry-ons and, depending on your requirements, you are sure to find one that fits your needs.
Invest in a Good Tripod
I’m already a big proponent of using a tripod to help you improve your photography in general and it’s no different for winter photography – especially if you’re out at after dark trying to capture the night skies. That low level of light is going to need you to use long exposures and the only way to do that is by ensuring your camera is rock-steady – something you can’t do with your hands. A good tripod is a worthy investment and there are plenty of options available, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the excellent range of options from Manfrotto. They’ve been my go-to travel tripods for a number of years and they offer a great balance between price, portability and functionality.
If you’re travelling light, it could also be a good idea to invest in a monopod. While less expensive than a traditional tripod, monopods can offer the same degree of stability – just be sure to find one that gives you the options to attach feet! Another bonus of a monopod is that they can double as walking sticks – which can be especially useful when hiking through the frozen tundra.
Bring a Lens Hood (if you can)
If using a DSLR with an interchangeable lens, it’s a good idea to bring a lens hood when shooting in the mountains. Though perhaps not suitable if shooting at dusk, or when there is not much light (as your sensor will need as much light as possible to enter the lens so as to measure a well-exposed image), a lens hood will protect your glass from glare on sunny days, and may even keep snowflakes from landing on the lens if it’s snowing.
Use the Right Settings
Snow makes for beautiful winter photography opportunities, but it can also wreak havoc on your camera’s exposure meter, resulting in images that are under-exposed or darker than you would expect. This is because all the glare from the snow confuses your camera, causing it to read the light in the scene wrong. If you are shooting snowy scenes, especially if the weather is less than ideal, one of my top winter photography tips is to compensate by increasing your camera’s exposure by around 1 stop – the exact amount will vary depending on the amount of snow and light.
When taking the shot, you’ll need to check how dark the image is by checking the preview on your camera’s screen. It is also a good idea to activate the histogram (if your camera allows that feature) and check for the highlights on the right. If the chart peaks too much, your image will be over exposed; too much on the left, and you will want to compensate the shadows and darker areas of the image by adjusting your settings accordingly. Working with exposure compensation (and taking full control of your camera) is something that comes with practice but in essence, you need to find the exposure compensation function on your camera, which usually looks like a “+/-“ button. It may also be accessible from inside your camera menu system. Once you’ve found it, set it to “+1”. This means that the camera will allow twice as much light in versus not using exposure compensation and should get your pictures looking brighter and truer to the scene as your eye sees it.
Composition and Framing
I like my images to tell some sort of story, rather than just being ordinary travel snaps, and so I will generally use compositional rules and/or framing when capturing a photograph. While those I tend to gravitate towards are the Rule of Thirds, the Fibonacci Spiral or Golden Triangles, there are plenty of composition rules out there (take a look at this link from the Art of Photography for an in-depth look at the subject) and it’s worth experimenting with them so as to give your images some meaning or visual continuity.
If you’re shooting a panorama, say, what is the main subject of the panorama? Is it the shape of the mountains? Perhaps the light hitting the snow or the shadow in the trees? Is it the colour of the mountains at sunset or sunrise? Whatever your motive for shooting the image, try to focus on why the vista has caught your eye. To use the rule of thirds, for example, try to find something in the foreground you can frame so as to give your image some depth and perspective. Perhaps there’s an interesting tree or a bench that you could incorporate into the final composition. Move around to find an angle that works best for you, and don’t be scared to lie on the ground if it means getting the perfect shot. Take your winter photography to the next level and wow your family and friends!
Work with Different Aspect Ratios.
Although I am primarily a digital photographer for my work, I am at heart a film photographer and have a wide array of antique cameras in all shapes and sizes, from a Canon AE1, a Rolleicord III and an early ’90s point and shoot, the Minolta PS. I mention this as these three cameras have completely different aspect ratios – from the standard 4:3 of the Canon, the square format of the Rollei and the wide, 2:70:1 panoramic images of the Minolta.
While shooting in different aspect ratios allows me to get creative, it can also have a purpose depending on which platform my images will most likely end up on (Instagram, Google Photos, Print etc). When shooting square, for example, you want to fill the frame in a way which makes sense for the final image but if shooting panoramic images, you need to find a composition and angle that allows for the whole scene. Today, with advances in digital camera technology, photographers are no longer required to carry multiple cameras and by simply changing the aspect ratio in your settings, you too can get creative when out on a winter photography shoot.
Shoot in RAW
It is also worth mentioning the ability to shoot in RAW. While most cameras default to shooting JPGs, the final image is compressed meaning you will have limited options if you wish to post-process your photograph. Shooting in RAW retains all the information captured by the camera and will allow you to manipulate the image later on (if you find that it is in fact too dark or too light) in software such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. You will often be able to switch the file-type by digging around in the camera’s settings. While this has been a feature found on DSLRs and other high-end cameras in the past, even smartphones are catching up with Apple allowing users to use its new “ProRAW” option on its latest iPhones.
You do have to bear in mind, however, that with that extra information comes more memory, so make sure you have a big enough SD Card to fit those images on to (I find that 64 GB gives me approximately 2000 shots at 30 megabytes each on my Sony RX100).
Edit Your Photos
The last tip on this list helps to bring your photos to life, if you wish to use third-party software to enhance the look and feel of your images. If you have shot your photographs in RAW, you will have plenty of information to work with, such as bringing up the shadows, lowering the highlights or adjusting exposure and contrast. Once you have adjusted the settings in a way you like them, you can save them as a preset so as to quickly apply the same “look” to the rest of your photos. If using Lightroom mobile, you can download other users’ presets for free in the “Discover” tab.
I always use Lightroom, whether I edit my photos or not, as Adobe’s Creative Cloud storage system helps me to easily organise my photographs and back them up to the cloud. It’s worth mentioning that if you are going to use cloud-based storage for backups, you ought to also backup your images to a solid drive – just to be safe. I use LaCie’s rugged solid state drive when travelling as, while pricey, it can withstand drops and knocks and gives me peace of mind that all of my photographs are safe. If using an iPhone or iPad, with the latest update (iOS 14.3 at time of writing) you can connect an external drive to safely backup files and to free up storage.