Winter Landscape Photography: Beyond Mere Survival

With a good portion of the globe blanketed in snow and cold, it’s an opportune time for some enchanting winter landscape photography. That is, if the photographer is well equipped for freezing weather and mindful of winter light pitfalls.

Following are some lessons learned from our winter photography treks at Yosemite, Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon national parks; San Francisco Peaks, Flagstaff, Arizona; and Pikes Peak, Colorado.

Camera and Shooting Tips

Bitter cold winter air can quickly sap the energy out of camera batteries. We’ve found it best to carry two or three extra camera batteries, charged nightly, and to use an AC power converter to charge batteries in our vehicle, a four wheel drive SUV. During winter hikes, batteries are best stored in inner pants/shirts pockets, keeping them as warm as possible through transference of body heat.

Generally, handheld graduated neutral density filters (e.g., .3, .6 and .9) are employed to darken the sky in landscape photographs, balancing the brightness of the sky with that of the darker foreground. For some winter scenes, it may actually be preferable to use the graduated neutral density filters “upside down,” darkening the snow and ice in the foreground of the photograph. This is another opportunity for experimentation, capturing images with and without the neutral density filter.

Merced River reflections at dawn, Yosemite National Park,
Merced River reflections at dawn, Yosemite National Park, using a Lee .6 graduated
neutral density filter and circular polarizer. Nikon D300, f/11 @ 12 mm, 1/30 sec, ISO 200.

Given the high level of contrast in sunlit snow scenes and the difficulty of viewing an LCD screen on a DSLR camera in broad daylight, bracketing of photographs is highly recommended to capture the correct image exposure. The camera’s auto bracket function should be set to capture between 3 to 5 exposures of each scene. For HDR photography in high contrast snow situations, it is best to bracket a series of 5 – 9 exposures.

The use of a Hoodman HoodLoop (trademark) loupe or similar closed eyepiece is very helpful in viewing images on the LCD screen under bright conditions.

Many winter photographs appear a bit unnatural due to an excessive blue cast in the snow, particularly in shadow areas. Setting the camera white balance to the actual lighting conditions (e.g., daylight, shade, cloudy) is critically important for accurate color rendition. It is also worthwhile to experiment with warming filters, either in the field or in post production (e.g., NIK filters used in Photoshop).

Yosemite National Park
Striving for correct white balance, with particular attention to shadowed areas of snow. Yosemite National Park, Nikon D300, f/18 @150 mm, 1/50 sec.

Grand Canyon - hyper-focal technique
Grand Canyon viewed from Mather Point. Composite of 7 images, using hyper-focal technique and supporting Helicon Focus software. Nikon D800E, f/9 @ 70 mm, 1/200 sec.

For most winter scenes, a multi-coated circular polarizer filter is required to reduce glare from the snow, ice and water. However, full polarization often renders an overly dark, unrealistically deep blue sky. We have found it best to shoot a series of photographs of a given scene, systematically dialing down the level of polarization to find an optimum setting.

For wide angle panoramic winter photographs, the circular polarizer filter often over-emphasizes the horizontal shift from dark to light blue skies. To avoid “fake” looking skies, it is preferable not to use a polarizer filter for some wide perspective scenes (e.g, a 14 -24 mm wide angle views). The same cautionary note applies to the creation of “stitched” panoramic images comprised of multiple photos displaying sky area. The photos stitched together to create the above panoramic header photo were shot without the use of a polarizer (Kolob Terrace at sundown, Zion National Park).

Safety and Logistics

One of the biggest challenges in winter photography is simply walking on the slick ice created in the aftermath of mid-day snow melt. Under these conditions, even simple walks from a vehicle to the trailhead can prove to be precarious. For traction on the ice and snow, we find it imperative to wear ice cleats (e.g., Icegrips or Grip X cleats, registered trademarks) on our waterproof hiking boots. Snowshoes and walking sticks are also helpful in traversing areas covered with deep snow, particularly in locations without a trail.

Layered, “wicked” and vented clothing is generally the most comfortable garb for rigorous hiking, allowing the photographer to move from chilly shaded areas to warm sunny locations.

Early in the morning, we have found it helpful to place Grabber “Peel N’Stick” (registered trademark) hand warmers in our gloves and boots.

Convertible mittens with “fingerless” gloves are also “a must” for operating camera and tripod controls in freezing conditions. An “Etip” (registered trademark) glove made by The North Face is designed to allow gloved operation of cell phones, cameras and other electronic devices. The author has not had an opportunity to test this product.

Note also, the period of daylight is relatively short during the winter months. On the upside, the photographer can sleep-in a bit later than usual and still capture sunrise lighting. Also, dramatic long shadows and softer lighting conditions can be found in the late afternoon, at time as early as 3:30 or 4:00 PM.

On the downside, winter days go by very quickly and hiking out of distant areas may well need to be guided by a headlamp and a hand held GPS. At sundown, areas of melting snow and slush often ice over with the dramatic drop in temperature. This was our predicament at Arches National Park, where we had an easy hike to photograph Balanced Arch in the mid-day sun, only to find the mountain edge trail in a state of thin, extremely slick ice on the return hike. I vividly recall making parts of the return trip either crawling on our hands and knees or scooting sliding in a sitting position.

Snow laced Grand Canyon
Snow laced Grand Canyon viewed from Mather Point. Nikon D800E, f/16 @ 15 mm, ¼ sec.

In the field, it’s also important to remain aware of hazardous winter conditions, guarding against accidents. One humorous, but potentially serious incident comes to mind: At Yosemite National Park, I became absorbed with photographing low perspective reflection images along the frozen Merced River edge. Despite repeated warnings from my brother, Brian Reinkensmeyer, I ultimately managed to fall through the ice into the freezing current. Thankfully, the water was only waist deep!

Merced River, Yosemite National Park.
Merced River, Yosemite National Park. Location where the “focused” photographer fell
through the ice. Nikon D300, f/14 @ 14 mm, 1/8 sec, ISO 200.

Upper Emerald Falls,
Upper Emerald Falls, Zion National Park. Circular polarizer used to reduce glare and increase exposure time for capture of waterfall. Nikon D300, f/22 @ 12 mm, 1.6 sec, ISO 100.