Much of the northern hemisphere is still blanketed by a layer of snow. Despite the fact that I too grumble about the cold weather and look at my summer photos dreaming longingly of warmer days, winter truly is a beautiful time! I decided to take a day to go out and shoot the landscape around me and use it as an opportunity to share some tips to help you go out and capture some of the wintery vistas around you too.
Just like Snowflakes, No Two are the Same
One of the most amazing things about winter is that the landscape is constantly changing. What you see today, may not be what is there tomorrow, or even in a few hours! A fresh snowfall or a frosty evening can change the landscape completely! The beauty of this is that you don’t have to travel far to find new locations to shoot – the same location can provide endless photographic opportunities. The photos that I am going to share here were not only all taken on the same day, but they were also taken in the same location! Every photo here was taken within a 50 meter radius!
Here is just one example of how much a scene can change in a short amount of time. These photos were taken only 20 minutes apart. The light changed completely, and the fog rolled in. The next morning, the frost on the tree melted and the scene was different yet again.
We tend to think of landscapes as being very static, and of course, compared to trying to get a toddler to sit still, they are. But to dismiss them as being unchanging can result in many missed shots. I could have missed either one of these photos if I had assumed nothing would change. I could have seen the warm light falling on the tree in the first photo and decided do something else planning to come back and shoot it in a few minutes, which would have resulted in me missing the shot. In fact, I’ve missed more great shots than I care to admit because I was lazy and thought I had time on my side. Wrongo! On the other hand, after shooting the first image, I could have walked away and not looked back again later to see how things had changed and that a completely different opportunity had presented itself. It is not unique to winter landscapes that the light is changing all the time, but in the winter, the landscape itself is changing too, so even if the light is the same the next day, the landscape itself may have changed completely.
Capture the Details
If you have a macro lens, use it! But even if you don’t have a macro lens, don’t be afraid to think small too. Landscapes are not just about wide angle shots of the scenery at a distance. Look at the details of the snow and frost around you. Look low and high! You never know what you may discover, and the way you see it now is only temporary, so capture its beauty before it’s gone.
Of Course it Can’t be That Easy, Right?
Although there are lots of opportunities to shoot landscapes in the winter, they also present with their own challenges, so here are some things to keep in mind when shooting in the snow.
Metering for Snow
Wherever possible, I recommend metering manually. In the daylight, you want to spot meter on the brightest snow in the scene and set exposure to about +1 1/3 to +1 2/3 stops. This will keep you from overexposing the snow, but will still ensure that the snow comes out a nice bright white. As the sun gets lower in the sky nearing sunset and the ground falls into shadow, you may find that none of the snow in your scene actually appears to be a bright white, and the sky actually becomes brighter than the snow. When that happens, you want to meter off the sky instead of the snow. The photos of the tree above are an example of this. For the photo on the left I spot metered off the brightest patches of the snow near the base of the tree. For the photo on the right, the snow became darker than the sky, so I metered off of the sky.
The key is to remember that at “0”, your camera is trying to expose for 18% grey, so if you want something (like the snow) to come out brighter than that, you’ll have to adjust your exposure accordingly.
If you are not really comfortable shooting in manual mode yet, that’s ok too! If you want to shoot in P, S or A mode on Nikons or P, Tv, or Av on Canons, you will want to set your exposure compensation to +1.3 to +1.7 and then still spot meter and lock exposure on the snow or the sky as described above
Snow is White, right?
Well, yes …. but for the purposes of setting white balance, definitely NO! Snow reflects color, and in many cases, it’s that reflected color that makes the scene what it is! If you’re shooting at sunset, the snow could be anywhere from bright pinks and oranges to cool purples and blues. Snow in the city at night will reflect the colors of the city lights. Even in daylight, snow in the shade will be a cool blue color compared to snow in the sunlight. Once you are aware of that, you can use it to your advantage to capture scenes with vibrant and exciting color instead of making the snow neutral grey by setting your white balance by it.
Tracks in the snow can be a great thing! Used as a compositional element, they can add an interesting visual element to your scene and lead the viewer on a journey through your photo.
But beware – you’re making tracks too! In your excitement to start shooting, you could end up creating a bunch of footprints that can ruin the perfection of a fresh snowfall. So before you walk anywhere, take a look around and think about where you might want to shoot. If possible, shoot your wide angle shots first and then move in closer to take more detailed shots that will only capture smaller portions of the scene. If there are pathways, follow them so as to disturb as little as possible or, if you have to make footprints, do it in a way that will add to the scene rather than detract from it.
Ok, not really, but be aware that in the cold, your breath is visible and may try to photobomb your shot! So, while it’s not only good practice to hold your breath at the moment you click the shutter to prevent camera shake, it’ll also prevent this:
This is a bit of an extreme example because it was shot with flash, but it can happen at any time of day. In most cases it may only result in a slight loss of clarity, but why accept that when it’s so easy to prevent. All you have to do is hold your breath for a moment before you click the shutter.
I know this is the time of year when we tend to stay indoors away from the cold and ice, but just outside your front door is a winter wonderland waiting to be photographed! So before all the frozen white stuff melts, go exploring and challenge yourself to capture some gorgeous winter landscapes of your own.