Winter Photography Tips
Even in broad daylight, I find that ice never really looks like ice unless you get that glossy reflection. If you can manage to get a light source behind it, you can really make it pop. My favorite is when I can work the sun behind ice. Icicles, because of their shape, do wonderful things to the light from winter’s low-hanging sun. We can’t always get a light source behind the ice, but have no fear: You can still get a nice icy feel. My trick is that I like to use an off-camera flash far to one side aimed right at the ice. It will pop off a reflection, even in the brightest of daylight.
Exposing for Snow
Snow is tricky for your camera’s automated systems. Your camera sees the world based on 18% gray and tries to white-balance accordingly. The result is gray snow, an gray snow does not look beautiful, nor is it at all appealing. If you’re using your camera’s automation, you should force it to overexpose with the exposure compensation button. I usually find a full stop, at least, is necessary. If you want a more accurate approach, you should flip to manual and meter off of a gray card or use some other white balancing solution. Worst case scenario, you can usually fix it pretty well in post-processing with a white-selector color balancing tool. But I would recommend shooting in RAW if you plan to fix in post because you’ll need to make some drastic exposure adjustments and I wouldn’t want you to lose some detail from a JPG file.
The Weather and Your Gear
There are a lot of stories about the horrible things that can happen to your equipment if you take it from your warm house out into sub-freezing temperatures. A lot of these stories are greatly exaggerated and your gear is much more resilient than one would be lead to believe. Even so, there are a few practices that I would recommend to protect your gear. First, if your camera and lenses haven’t been out in the cold for at least a few hours, I don’t recommend changing lenses at all. It’s safe to assume that the air inside the camera is much colder than the air outside, and changing lenses will cause a quick exchange of air. Your mirror, sensor (or film) and back of the lens could fog up as a result. In the case of film, any condensation on the film itself could impact how it develops, or get it stuck inside the roll. Your photos won’t benefit from condensation fog, and it’s not great for your lenses either. I recommend changing the lens before going out into the cold. As for snow, while your camera is pretty well sealed, especially if you have a weather-sealed pro body, there’s still some merit in taking precautions. If it’s snowing out, treat it like rain and cover your camera. The snow can melt pretty quickly on a camera and seep into the cracks.
The Weather and You
It sounds like common sense, but make sure you're taking care of yourself first and foremost. Make sure you're dressed warm enough to be comfortable. You won't do your photos any justice if you can't feel the shutter button or if you're shivering from the cold. Often, I'll use my running gloves, which are thin but not too thin, to offer minimal protection from the cold. On really cold days, try my remote trigger trick: Hook up a wired remote trigger to your camera, tuck the trigger into your gloves or mittens in your fist where you can trigger a shot from the warmth of your gloves. Good boots are also important because as a photographer, you'll be wandering off the beaten track. Make sure you keep your feet dry and warm. It may be worthwhile to pick up a bunch of those instant heat pads (available at your favorite sporting goods stores) – toss a bunch in your bag and it will offer relief as necessary. Beyond staying warm, you should also make sure to stay physicially safe in your travels. Be cautious where you step and never put yourself at risk. Even a small ice patch can ruin your day or your gear with a slip and fall.
Final Thoughts (Your Turn)
This is a bit of a mish-mash of short tips for winter, but I felt them important to share with you. Hopefully you learned something. But I won't pretend to have covered nearly everything. You all have some great winter tips that I”m sure I missed, but we want to hear your thoughts for the benefit of all of our readers. If you have some tips to share about shooting in the winter, please share them below. Otherwise, happy winter shooting.