Winter photography is tough. Snow fools meters, cold saps batteries, and lugging cameras around in the snow and operating them with cold hands is hard work. But the austere winter environment is ripe for photography if you can master the elements. Here are some ideas to make your photos of a wintry world do the season justice.
Tell A Story
Photos should tell stories or evoke emotions. What’s your story about winter? The pure beauty of untracked powder? Settling in next to the fireplace? Struggling to dig your car out of the snow? Before you can make a good image, you need a story.
Be Smarter Than Your Camera
Despite all the computer wizardry in cameras and smartphones, one situations still always fools their light meters: snow. Camera light meters are meant to turn the image “neutral”, or 18% grey. If your scene is mostly filled with snow, it will turn that grey too. You’ll need to override your camera’s auto settings to add between 1 and 2 stops of light.
Use the Reflector
Once you conquer the camera’s desire to underexpose snow, you can use it in another way. Midday light usually creates hard shadows, where faces under helmets or hats go black. Snow is a giant reflector. By paying attention to the angles of the sun, you can use it to bounce light back into the shadows much like a flash or beauty dish.
Use the Blankness
White snow has many meanings: purity, cleanliness, the blank slate waiting to be written on, or a blanket covering the earth. Use the associations of whiteness in your images: think of the skier about to plunge into an untracked valley, the austere clarity blue sky and white snow, and use them to spark the imagination.
Seek Warm Colors
Winter is commonly composed of three tones: white snow, blue sky, and grey in either old snow or cloudy skies. This simplified palette can evoke the clarity and austerity of winter. However, the absence of warm colors (red, yellow, magenta and gold), which come forward in the frame, limits the ability to create a three-dimensional feeling. Find ways to inject depth-creating warm colors whenever you can.
Short days are a perverse advantage to the winter photographer. It creates morning and evening shadows closer to the middle of the day, and these shadows can add depth to an oversimplified snowy landscape.
Take Care of Equipment
Intense cold saps the energy of both the photographer and the equipment. Batteries produce less power, especially in consumer-level cameras: keep a spare or two in an inner pocket. Glove combinations that allow the fine manipulations of dials, lenses, and filters are a vital piece of equipment, as is plenty of warm clothing to allow you to stand still and wait for light. Be especially careful when bringing a camera inside from the cold: sudden warmth and condensation are no friend to optics and electronics. Before stepping inside, put your camera inside a plastic bag or inside your jacket to reduce condensation.
You won’t make good images if all you’re thinking about is when you can go inside and be warm. Embrace the winter.