Introduction To Winter Photography – By Kevin McNeal
Winter is a special time for photographers who enjoy the challenges and the rewards that come with winter photography. Dedication comes to mind, when we think of photographers that enjoy adventures in subzero temperatures, to capture images that other photographers would not be willing to even consider.
A trip to the park in summer means hot weather, overcrowding, and congestion. On the other hand, winter is the perfect time to try shooting some unique perspectives of your favorite places. The solitude and peacefulness of a winter scene takes on a new persona and allows the photographer to see it in a whole new light. What really makes winter special for the photographer is the chance to be out in nature on a more intimate level. This time alone in nature makes one really think about what it is they are to trying to capture, and how they are going to relate this to their audience. Winter photography can be very rewarding if one prepares themselves for the challenges of colder temperature. There are a few simple tips that will make your winter adventures more enjoyable.
The following three concepts are equally important to the enjoyment and longevity of winter photography: 1) clothing; 2) camera equipment, and 3) the picture-making process.
Common among these elements is the notion of preparation for all winter conditions you may encounter. An absence of planning in winter can deter any photographer from further experiencing the true beauty of winter.
When it comes to shooting in the winter, weather can be unpredictable. The best way to prepare for weather is to expect anything in the winter. Therefore, dressing appropriate for the situation is fundamental for winter photography. When it comes to dressing, it is necessary to plan ahead for situations of changing weather. Preparing the body for winter includes wearing something light and loose, so the body can regulate the escape of body heat.
Shooting in colder temperatures, the body temperature changes dramatically between hot and cold depending on the activity. As photographers are well aware of, photography can vary in terms of activity levels. Anticipating this level of activity means wearing clothing that can be easily opened with zippers in specific areas of the body for fresh ventilation and not wearing multiple layers that cause the body to overheat. For a photographer who already carries heavy camera equipment, dressing in layers is not ideal. The kind of clothing recommended is some form of loose fitting, breathable jacket that has zippers, allowing the photographer to quickly open and close depending on the level of activity. Also, it is important to wear clothes that leave no area of the body exposed to the colder temperatures. Always wear a warm hat to avoid excessive heat loss through the head. Research shows that seventy percent of one’s body heat can be lost by not wearing a hat in colder climates. In addition to a warm hat, wear pants that are fully waterproof, yet comfortable so that different types of shooting can occur. For example, photographers sometimes like to kneel in the snow to get closer to the subject. The ability for a photographer to move around comfortably and stay dry is critical. In terms of footgear, boots need to be waterproof, insulated, and high enough around the ankles to prevent leakage of snow. Gators, which are water resistant equipment that goes around footgear from the ankle to the knee, and keeps the snow from getting inside the boots are Recommended.
The one piece of equipment that most photographers wear incorrectly is gloves. Although most photographers wear some form of warm lining or gloves, most will wear gloves that do not have fingertips. They believe that fingerless gloves can help the photographer manipulate easier the camera controls. The truth is, most winter conditions are cold enough that exposed fingertips will hinder any finer control movements of the camera, thus being unable to operate the camera properly. The better option is to wear gloves that have removable fingertips that are held by strings from the body of the glove to the fingertips. Depending on the activity the fingertips can be easily removed or put back on. When it comes to enjoying your time in winter, the right type of clothing can make all the difference between a good and bad day. What about the ‘Tech Gloves’ that have a special end on the first and index fingers for working camera controls? I bought a pair at REI yesterday.
The most neglected area of winter shooting is winterizing camera equipment. What do you mean ‘winterizing camera equipment’? As I understand it, the modern digital cameras do not need to be winterized like the old film cameras. There are a few important considerations to be aware of when preparing camera equipment for winter. Keeping batteries warm should be separate from any winterizing. Do you find that batteries recover when warmed up? Depending on how cold the temperature is, one common problem prevalent among photographers is short-term camera battery life. Results vary on temperature and camera model, but it is safe to assume that batteries might only last a few minutes in cold weather. Do you ever put one of those hand warmers on the camera to keep battery area warm? Therefore, always carry extra batteries in the winter. Carry the extra set in a warm area like a pocket close to the body. This keeps the spare batteries warm and ready to switch out when the current batteries lose their power. Throughout the day continue to switch out the cold batteries with the warm ones for longer shooting.
Another common problem with camera equipment in winter is the condensation that occurs on a camera from changes in environments. Very cold air has very little water vapor, it is dry. When a camera comes from a cold outside environment to a warmer and more humid environment area like a heated vehicle, water vapor can condense on the outside and inside of the camera. Water inside the camera can cause the electrical components to malfunction and corrode. To avoid this, bring a large Ziploc or large trash bag to keep the camera inside until the temperature inside the bag is roughly the same as room temperature.
It is imperative to realize that mistakes are common when you are new to winter photography and every individual will have different things that work for them. Success comes with perseverance, and learning from mistakes is the key to continued involvement in shooting. Try different things by experimenting with different types of adventures, varying length, weight load, and locations. Take some early trips near home and figure what works for your style. These starter trips also give the body a chance to acclimatize to the colder conditions and build tolerance over time. Once everything is ready to go with your clothing and equipment, the only thing is to reward the winter experience with some great images.
Photography in the winter is a lot different than any other time for a variety of reasons. The main obstacle in the picture making process is the challenge of exposure. When evaluating exposure, the camera meter cannot give an accurate reading for white subjects like snow or ice. This is because snow fools the camera meter in trying to average out the luminosity of the snow, and ends up turning the snow grey rather than white. To get around this exposure challenge you must open up one or two stops on the camera to retain the highlights. Proper exposure varies depending on the light available. It is recommended to bracket images whenever the camera’s meter cannot give an accurate reading. Bracketing in one-stop increments beginning at an even exposure bias (0) and extend the exposure bias by plus/minus two stops at either end. A common solution to this exposure challenge is to take an average reading with your camera’s spot meter of a subject such the base trunk of a tree.
The single most important element in improving winter photography is working with the light. In wintertime, the light quality is unique, as frequent changes in weather take place. These weather changes make the clouds susceptible to more movement, thus more opportunities to capture the transient light. Transient light can be described as changing light that occurs as clouds interact with the sun’s luminosity. This diffused light at sunrise or sunset can lead to dramatic lighting that is accentuated by the contrast of the white snow. As well, in winter, light at sunrise or sunset lasts longer allowing the opportunity for longer periods of shooting. To capitalize on this opportunity look for situations that allow for side lightning that pronounces a subject’s features. Side lighting not only enhances the contours and shapes of the subject but it gives the image depth. Depth to an image draws a viewer into an image and makes it more interesting.
To make the most of winter weather, track weather systems in your local area and be present when these weather changes occur. Snow is a natural reflector of light so incorporate subjects into your composition that will reflect color into the image. Subjects that can improve compositions in winter situations are icicles, ice rim, frosted subjects, and natural shapes outlined in the snow. Capturing light in winter can lead to very dramatic images that stand out. Impact is important in pleasing images, and balancing composition with stunning colors is the way to achieve this. Rewarding winter images are possible when you learn to read and understand the light. Preparation is essential and visualizing your subject beforehand and how it will react with the light is important. Once you learn how to control the light you can use the combination of winter elements to make available light work to your advantage.
In conclusion, preparation is the unifying concept that ties all these recommendations together. It’s the combination of successful planning that makes it even more pleasurable when everything comes together out in the field. Success follows those that prepare and envision what they are trying to capture. Winter is a great time to get out and try something new. Take time to enjoy what you are doing and make sure to come back with some great images.