This is a ’40 great tips for winter landscapes’ piece I put together for the January 2014 issue of Outdoor Photography magazine, which also featured this shot of mine on the cover.
It makes for rather a long blog post (even longer than some of my usual ramblings), but I thought I’d post it here too for anyone that missed it or is interested!
Winter can be one of the most physically challenging yet most rewarding seasons to be a landscape photographer. Even in the UK’s relatively benign climate you can encounter some hostile environments at this time of year, and depending on the conditions the results can be atmospheric, intricate or otherworldly beautiful.
The low angle of the light in winter means it’s usually interesting to shoot all day long, and the more extreme the weather the more dramatic the results for those that are willing to be out there exploring the landscape. At no other time of year is it prone to such abrupt changes; transforming completely in nature with fresh snowfall, sometimes freezing, sometimes thawing, always dynamic and fascinating to photograph.
First and last light
- Winter is the perfect time of year for capturing first light. The contrast between the cool blue tone of shadow areas and the warm orange or pink tone of direct light works particularly well, as the cool blues are more suited to frigid looking landscapes. They can jar slightly at other times of year.
- Check the angle of sunrise or sunset and choose a location which will suit shooting towards where first or last light is falling. There are plenty of apps around that can help you plan shots in this respect. Hilly areas are ideal for the biggest contrast, as you’ll have tips of peaks catching the intense pinks (pinks can be quite strong where the light is falling on snow)and then oranges of dawn, whilst most of the scene stays in shadow.
- Be ready in your location in time to set up your chosen composition before the sun comes up. The colour and strength of the light really does change by the second, so you don’t want to be fumbling around with tripod legs and numb fingers whilst a glorious ever – changing kaleidoscope plays out in front of you.
- When shooting scenes with such a high dynamic range, graduated neutral density filters are your best friend. Not only will they stop skies blowing out to an empty white and keep the intense colour of that morning light on the hills, but they’ll help lift the shadowy foreground as well. Softer edged graduated filters are more suitable for mountain scenes with uneven horizons, but can be more difficult than the hard edged versions to position correctly. If your camera has a depth of field preview button then this can help, as by darkening the scene in the viewfinder it can make the transition line of the filter appear slightly more obvious.
- Unless you’re wild camping, a dawn shoot is more than likely going to mean walking some way in the dark. Even with a headtorch it’s best to do a daylight recce of the location beforehand to get your bearings, not only in terms of not doing yourself damage, but getting ideas for compositions as well.
- Forget about the warm tone of directly transmitted light and start shooting before sunrise or after sunset if you want a cool blue feel over the whole image. This is ideal for exaggerating the cold feel of extreme winter conditions where the landscape is mainly snow and ice.
- If you’re out and about early for first light, you’re more likely to find perfect snowy scenes untrampled by the feet of others. Even if the snow isn’t fresh, wind can soon smooth over human imprints whilst the landscape stays untouched overnight.
- Shoot RAW. For many reasons, but in this instance for control over the white balance of your image. These contrasting edge of light situations are one type of scene where auto white balance is likely to be less than accurate, and there is some distance between the usual daylight settings on the temperature scale so one of these might not be quite right either. Shooting RAW allows you to change the white balance at the post – capture stage, and fine tune as much as is necessary.
- Embrace those winter start times! Yes, it can be a bit harder to make those first few steps out of bed (or even more so, a cosy sleeping bag) when it’s freezing outside, but it beats those 4.30am summer sunrise times. Get up, get a flask of something hot ready to take with you, and get out there shooting.
- At the other end of the day, winter sunset times can be more in tune with family life. You can shoot until beyond dusk and still be home at a reasonable hour.
- Even in between first and last light, keep working. Shoot all day. The low angle of light in winter means scenes are rarely as flat in midday light as they are during summer, and the air clarity is much better for wider landscape views.
- Although the low sunlight of winter is ideal for lifting texture and adding depth through shadow and highlight areas, it sometimes means that shadows can take up a large part of your image, especially around dawn and dusk. However, the brightness of snow or frost can help to lift shadow areas slightly meaning they’re less likely to be impenetrable blacks.
- Autumn landscape photography concentrates so much on colour, and it can end so quickly, that the beginning of winter can seem like a drab and uninspiring canvas. However this can be used to your advantage. Any bursts of colour can really stand out, so look for the places that are likely to have them. A few colourful leaves can linger well into winter in woodland areas, so make use of these isolated splashes of saturation.
- If colour isn’t to be found in the natural landscape, look for artificial colourful elements. People and architecture are good places to start looking for it. Lots of outdoor gear tends to be brightly coloured, so if you’re out wandering the wintry countryside you can usually manoeuvre a colourful lone figure into a shot. A well placed isolated figure can be good for scale as well as colour in winter mountain landscapes too.
- If you’re lucky enough, the first snow sometimes falls on the hills whilst the remnants of autumn colour are still hanging on. This seasonal juxtaposition can make for some great classic landscape shots.
- The winter landscape can produce some wonderfully stark almost monochromatic images with just a tiny hint of colour, that often work better than a straight black and white image does.
- Think no colour. Think black and white. Contrasty scenes work well for dramatic black and white images because they have lots of, well, black and white. Snowy winter scenes are great for high contrast images, as the snow creates brilliant whites, particularly if sunlit, and the low light creates strong shadows which give deep blacks.
- With black and white images, look for simple lines and shapes in the landscape and keep compositions simple and uncluttered for strong graphic images. Don’t be afraid of going too simple – things like single walls or fences snaking through a sea of white can make for eye – catching images. Keep an eye out for backlit subjects with strong shadows raking towards you. Not only do they produce good results, but if the sun is right behind you your own shadow can be intrusive.
- Blue skies can make for strong blacks when converted to black and white, and these can be enhanced by using a polarising filter. However, beware of uneven polarisation across the frame if using a wide angle lens. The strongest effect will be at a 90 degree angle to the sun.
- Harsh winter conditions are about as exciting as the UK’s relatively inextreme weather gets, so make the most of them when they’re around as winter usually only has a tenuous grip on the landscape at lower altitudes.
- Some of the most interesting and dramatic lighting conditions can be found at the edges of weather systems, whether that be ‘bad’ weather on its way or just making an exit. To capture these conditions means generally being out in the bad part of it so make sure you and your equipment can stand up to the conditions.
- Of course, the weather may just be bad and not conducive to shooting wider landscape vistas. Happily, with the landscape in a constant state of flux at this time of year, interesting macro and detail shots are plentiful. Except at altitude it’s rare that temperatures stay below freezing for long spells – it seems obvious to say it but seek out water as this is what will be in a changeable state during freeze thaw cycles. Ice details at the edge of lakes, and contrasting textures of frozen and unfrozen water in rivers, streams and waterfalls can all be happy hunting grounds for those with an eye for detail.
- Extreme winter weather can lead to some memorably incongruous landscapes, such as snowy beach scenes. This is one situation where the optimum conditions are likely to be very short lived, so keep an eye on the forecast and be prepared to head out at short notice.
- In scenes such as this, the human element can add that extra dimension to an image and turn an ok shot into an excellent one. People’s reactions to the weather, whether it be braced against the conditions or going about their business as normal can really tell a story.
- In poor conditions, aiming for perfect classically sharp landscapes might not be the best option. Get more creative with slow shutter speeds, deliberate defocussing, or intentional camera movement during exposure.
- Place your tripod carefully for maximum image sharpness during wilder weather in winter. Your feet may easily slide around if placed on icy surfaces, or sink during exposure if on soft snow. The latter can however be beneficial if it’s really deep, particularly on wild mountain days, as you can really bury your legs deep for extra stability.
- Outdoor gear is almost as bad as photography equipment for being an endlessly tempting drain on finances, but having good kit will protect you from the worst of the weather, and the warmer and more comfortable you are when out in the field, the more you can concentrate on your photography. To a large extent you tend to get what you pay for, and good gear will last a long time if looked after. Cheaper gear tends to be less waterproof, windproof and breathable.
- It’s been said many times, but very cold weather really does sap battery life. Check the night before heading out to make sure all your spares are well charged – this applies to batteries for headtorches, remote releases etc as well as cameras. Keep spares in pockets, preferably not on an outer layer of clothing, to stop them getting too cold.
- Put your camera back in your bag after getting your shot. It’s tempting to keep it out if you’re going for a walk, but you’re more likely to take a tumble (or tumble more spectacularly) in winter and you don’t want it to take the brunt of the fall.
- Be careful when using filters, as your breath can easily mist them up. If you’re somewhere really cold it can freeze straight away which makes them a bit more difficult to clear again.
- Heavy snow can conceal vast swathes of a scene, leaving behind a pristine simplified almost surreal landscape, which can work well for both classic wider landscape views as well as detail shots such as a few isolated blades of grass peeking through the snow.
- Don’t be constrained by traditional compositional rules such as the rule of thirds – experiment with negative space and place your subject towards the extremes of the frame.
- Woodland landscapes, sometimes cluttered and difficult to make sense of compositionally, will be more approachable when carpeted with snow and reduced in complexity.
- Be tentative when exploring your scene and deciding on your composition. Although footprints in the snow might make for some good stock images, you don’t want yours to ruin that perfectly constructed landscape image with an immaculate foreground.
- Simplified it may be, but it’s also a tractable landscape, prone to influences from the weather. Wind in particular can produce some wonderful patterns in the snow, which can be a subject in themselves. Look for repeating or contrasting patterns and textures.
- Such wind sculpted features can also be used as foreground interest or leading lines. Look for diagonals or, even better, more subtle curves to lead the eye, and exaggerate them by getting down low with a wide angle lens.
- Other canvases for interesting patterns are frozen lakes and water courses, which can take varying snow cover depending on their solidity, occasionally producing some strange and fascinating shapes on the surface.
- Mountain landscapes are also simplified, with just a few larger rocks poking through the surface, and crags and slopes reduced to a few stark lines. Foreground rocks that echo shapes of background mountains help to establish a visual connection between the two and add depth to the image.
- Keep an eye on your histogram. All that bright snow in your scene can fool your camera’s metering system into underexposing. Assuming the snow is the brightest thing in your shot, to keep it white and not grey you want the right hand spike of the histogram to be as far to the right as possible without touching the side and blowing out the highlights. Take a test shot, and if it needs to be brighter either use your exposure compensation button if shooting in aperture priority mode, or select a longer shutter speed if shooting in manual.
- Again, shooting in RAW helps in these circumstances. The histogram is actually based on a jpeg preview so isn’t 100% accurate for judging blown highlights, but by shooting RAW you have more scope for highlight recovery if you push things too far. If you have time and aren’t capturing quickly changing light then it’s often worth taking a bracketed series of shots at, say, third or half stop intervals to make sure you have the best possible exposure when you get home.
10 Steps to success
- Winter weather can vary massively, so keep an eye on the forecast but don’t be a slave to it. Some of the most magical light can last for seconds on otherwise dull and unpromising days.
- Shoot to suit the conditions and be flexible with your plans. Overcast days are ideal for keeping your head down and looking for small details, as well as things that can benefit from slower shutter speeds such as rivers and waterfalls. Keep these in mind if that stunning dawn light you were set up for just doesn’t happen.
- Research your locations, recce them, and spend time at them BEFORE you go to shoot your beautiful winter landscape in perfect light. It takes a while to familiarise yourself with a place. You’ll only have a few minutes to capture the best of the light and if you’re running around an unfamiliar place chasing it, your compositions are likely to be poor.
- Winter conditions really can change a place remarkably, so don’t be afraid of revisiting familiar locations over and over during the course of the season in different weather. You’ll be surprised at the range of images you can capture.
- Shoot RAW for greater control over white balance, as well as having better control over shadow and highlight recovery in those contrasty winter scenes if you don’t quite nail the exposure.
- On bright, sunny, snowy winter days your shutter speeds will be quite fast, but for optimum sharpness it’s always best to use a tripod and remote release if you have one.
- Think black and white as well as colour, as winter scenes can make for some great black and white images. You’ll get better results from converting your images in post – processing rather than using your camera’s preset monochrome mode.
- When it comes to composition it’s often helpful to try and visualise the landscape in terms of lines and shapes, and you may find this easier when it comes to simplified snowy scenes. Try to reduce the scene to two or three different elements and play around with your angle and focal length to create differently balanced compositions.
- Get down low and use a wide angle lens to exaggerate any interesting foreground snow patterns, but if you have dominant hills in the background of your shot don’t go too wide as they’ll lose their scale completely.
- Make the most of winter’s leisurely start times, shoot all day long until sunset, and still be home at a reasonable time for an intense and rewarding day’s photography.