The winter months can offer a wealth of photographic opportunities for the prepared landscape photographer. True, the environment you are working in can be harsh and the lack of daylight hours often means that you are working to a tight schedule to capture all of the images that you wish to get from your location. But the upside is that the quality of light can be pretty much spectacular during the winter months, and the locations you visit can be transformed into what can only be described as a winter wonderland.
Preparation is the key to successful winter landscape photography. Not only do you have to protect your equipment from the elements but also yourself. Ensure that you are wearing suitable clothing to keep you warm, and consider a hat and gloves as essential as your camera equipment. Simply put, a cold photographer is also quite often an unproductive one. It is also a good idea to carry a disposable hand warmer that can be purchased from any good camping store, so if you do start to get cold whilst waiting for that perfect sunset you will always have an additional source of heat just waiting to be utilised in your camera bag.
Your gear also needs to be protected from the elements. Whilst any modern digital SLR will function perfectly in sub zero temperatures, you will find that the expected battery life will diminish excessively. The key is to take a number of spare batteries and to keep them somewhere warm whilst they are not in use, I normally store mine in my trouser pockets so that they are relatively close to my body and they will benefit from my own body heat. I have also been known to place batteries in my gloves, which in conjunction with a hand warmer should always ensure that you get the maximum amount of power from your batteries.
Choosing your location
Vehicle access to certain areas during the winter months can be limited, and will quite often determine the locations that you can actually photograph. From the comfort of your home, study the regional weather forecasts and road conditions before heading out to start your days photography.
Thankfully the UK has numerous locations that can be accessed during a cold snap. Any landscape that features a body of water, such as a lake, river or canal, will offer some great opportunities. Another upside of working near water is that you will often be able to shoot detail and abstract shots in even the poorest of weather. Woodland too can be a great subject for winter shots, and again if you feel that the big vista shot is not completely working, try looking down towards your feet and capture details of frost covered leaves and ferns.
Perhaps unsurprisingly though, the most popular subjects for winter shots are upland landscapes. Sweeping vistas of hills and mountains covered in a blanket of white, virgin snow. Choose you location carefully and be prepared to hike into your location should the access roads be closed or impassable. Remember to allow ample time to return to your car at the end of the day, hiking in snow and ice will drastically reduce the amount of distance you can cover.
Composing your shot
Now the real fun begins! The one thing to remember when shooting winter landscapes is that you should always work with the light and not against it. The normal rules apply for the composition of your shots, and the use of lead in lines and the rule of thirds should always be kept in mind. When photographing a snow-covered landscape, I generally find that by keeping my shooting angle at 90 to the low winter sun, I can use the shadows cast from drifting snow to help achieve lead in lines for the image that would not be possible from a pure blanket of white. A polarizing filter can be extremely helpful in removing the glare from the sun on the snow, and consequently increasing the contrast of the natural features.
Blue-sky landscape can looking stunning after a winter snowfall or heavy frost. Unfortunately the reality is that we often greeted by gray skies although this should not be of hindrance to your creativity. Using a zoom lens with a focal length of 200mm upwards, it is easy to create successful that images that no not even include the sky. You should be thinking ‘detail shot’ on a large scale. The compressed perspective of a zoom lens is of real benefit for this type of work. I normally tend to compose my shots around patterns and layers. Keep your composition as simple as possible and do not try to include everything in the frame. In this case, less is most definitely more.
I remember the days before the advent of digital cameras, when photographers used to have to guesstimate their exposures when in the fields, and then quite often have a few tense days waiting for the processed film to arrive. Thankfully things are different now and we have possible one of the most powerful tools for constantly correct exposures available on virtually every digital camera on the market. The Histogram should be religiously referred to when capturing winter shots, as it is quite common for the camera metering system to be tricked into under-exposure when shooting bright snow and ice. As a guide, set exposure compensation to +1 on your SLR, and take a test exposure. Now check your histogram and in particular the highlights of the exposure. The key is to retain as much detail in the shot, yet keeping the whites as white as possible without blowing the highlights. Once you have found the optimum setting for the location, you should be able to take a number of images without any further adjustment. But of course do remember to double check your histogram after every shot.
Sunrise and Sunsets
Whilst sunrises tend to be a cold affair during the winters months, there is possibly no better way to end an days shooting than capturing a winter sunset. Whichever situation you find yourself in, you will need to find someway to balance the various levels of light filling your frame.
Neautral density graduated filters are possibly the most effective way to keeping your exposure balanced. The same rules for exposure apply as during all winter shots but you may find that you do not need to use a strong as grad as normal. Again this is due to the reflective nature of snow and ice. When processing shots of this kind, I often find myself ‘pulling’ the exposure back a stop which will often result in a nice cool cast to the foreground and a richer, vibrant sky. Espescially when using ice as foreground, I find that using a small amount of fill in flash can also lift the important foreground elements.
One final aspect of winter photographer that I love, is the fact that I can be home before 6PM, with a hot drink in my hand whilst watching my images download to the laptop. And unlike the summer months, I can be rest assured of a decent amount of sleep before venturing out for sunrise the next day.