Capturing the Season — Winter Landscape Photography Best Practices

Oct 18, 2009

Want some best practices for winter landscape photography? While some best practices for landscape photography hold true across the calendar, each season presents a unique set of opportunities and challenges for shooting. Whether you’re capturing a glorious snow-capped mountain range or a deep pine forest hung with icicles, make sure to follow a few simple rules for a safe and successful wintertime shoot. If you have any more questions about winter landscape photography, don’t hesitate to reach out!

Meter according to what’s in front of you

Automatic metering systems are a convenient timesaver, but need special adjustments in winter conditions. Since they are calibrated to base the exposure on the image’s neutral grey point (the 18% gray card), a vast field of white may throw off the reading and cause shots to be underexposed. In this case, it’s a simple task to increase the settings one F-stop, positively compensating for the snow. (Extremely bright snowy scenes may need an additional nudge, but beware of going further — three or more extra stops usually results in blowouts and detail loss. Most digital cameras will have an “Exposure Warning” or “highlight display” setting, which triggers a blinking light in any overexposed highlight sections of the LCD screen.) For advanced users, manual spot metering — checking and rechecking the sky or the main subject desired exposure against the snow’s — can present an extremely effective (if somewhat more time-consuming) solution.

Polarize — but not too much

The polarizing filter is the outdoor photographer’s indispensable sidekick, helping to balance shots, add definition to cloudscapes, and bring out the gloriously saturated colors of the natural landscape. Bear in mind that the sun appears at a lower angle than normal during wintertime, making it easy to accidentally over-polarize a shot. This results in the sky taking on an unnaturally gloomy, supersaturated appearance — fine if an intentional stylistic choice, but generally not a desirable outcome. Taking several frames with differentiated polarization settings will result in an array of final products to choose from or edit together. Graduated neutral-density filters also offer good results when it comes to equalizing exposure between many different parts (and lighting levels) of a single scene.

Care for your equipment

Finally, it’s important to remember that your equipment is as susceptible to different climates as you are. Even top-of-the-line batteries drain more quickly in cold temperatures, with lithium ion generally being the best choice down to 32° F (0° C). Always carry an extra battery and keep it in an inside pocket to pick up your body warmth. Do not pack alkaline batteries for a cold-weather shoot, unless absolutely necessary, and then be sure to carry plenty of extras as their poor performance requires plenty of spares.

Also of concern is water seeping into the equipment. Keeping the camera clear of snow is important, obviously, but what many photographers fail to realize is that entering a warm indoor climate with a dry but cold camera can cause the ambient moisture to condense inside the sensitive electronic sections. To prevent the problem, try placing all equipment in a sealed waterproof bag such as a Ziploc, and allowing it to gently come up to room temperature before transporting inside. If a little moisture ends up inside anyway, disassemble the body and carefully warm with a hairdryer on the lowest setting.

What do you like best about winter shooting?

One of the reasons I love winter shooting is the low angle of declination of the sun that allows for many more hours of golden light as the sun is never too far above the horizon. This creates those lovely long shadows for much of the day, instead of a few hours in the morning and evening. Let us know what you like best about winter photography.

Winter Landscape Photography Workshops with Jim Steinberg

If you are interested in taking a winter landscape photography workshop with a renowned landscape photographer, look no further than Steinberg Photography. We run photography workshops and lead photography expeditions that are open to photographers and hobbyists at any level. We also offer beautiful calendars and prints from Jim’s breathtaking collection. To learn more, please visit our homepage!