If you asked non-photographers what their favourite season is, it is likely that few would say winter. Yet, a huge number of photographers name it as their favourite time of year for landscape photography. So, what is so attractive about heading out in the cold and wet, walking for miles carrying several kilos of kit and then standing around gradually losing all feeling in your extremities?
The fact is that landscape photography in winter can really be something special, and it's not just the attraction of a relatively late sunrise and an early finish to the day; there is a quality of light that you don't get at any other time of year, with the low winter sun picking out form and texture, and casting long, raking shadows that help to add depth to scenes. Foliage has mostly disappeared from trees, which places more emphasis on the shape of the landscape itself.
Two of the defining characteristics of winter – at least in the UK – are that it is wet and windy. Whilst this can result in a certain amount of personal discomfort when you are out in the field waiting for the right moment to press the shutter, it is also the reason the light is that much better – the moisture and movement mean that pollution and dust are less likely to build up, with the result that clarity is much greater. The fact that the sun never rises particularly high in the sky also means that it is possible to shoot all day, from dawn to dusk – the only time of year that this is really possible.
At its best, winter delivers a wealth of photographic opportunities, including frosty sunrises, colourful sunsets and dramatic, stormy skies.
The weather in winter can be unpredictable to say the least, and it can be daunting heading out into the cold on a freezing winter morning. Preparation is key and as long as you are prepared, both in terms of your kit and yourself, there is nothing to worry about.
If you are heading out for a day in winter, you will need the right gear. As well as your usual camera equipment, take any spare batteries you have, as cold can drain them really quickly. Storing them close to your body for extra warmth with help prolong life. Ideally, your camera bag will be splash-proof, but for extra peace of mind, get a rain cover from an outdoor shop.
It can get windy in winter, so take the sturdiest tripod you can comfortably carry. Carbon fibre tripods are lighter than metal ones, but not necessarily less steady, as carbon fibre absorbs vibrations better. However, in strong winds, they are more likely to get blown over, so those with a hook to hang your camera bag from for extra weight are preferable.
The right clothing is essential, because if you are not comfortable you will never take good pictures. Make sure you have plenty of layers, including thermal base layers, a good hat and warm gloves. It is hard to operate camera controls with gloves on, so it is a good idea to get gloves with finger tips that pull back, so you can quickly change settings then get your hands warm again, or consider wearing a pair of fingerless gloves underneath a thicker pair. Good quality walking boots and walking socks are essential, not only to keep your feet warm, but also to help prevent you from losing your footing on slippery surfaces. You can also get special grips to attach to the sole of your boots to provide extra grip in really icy conditions.
You will need to take care of your camera kit as well as yourself. Water and electronics don't mix well, so if you get caught in a shower, pack your camera away to keep it dry, or place a rain cover. A chamois or good micro fibre cloth is also useful for wiping away any moisture.
What to do if your camera gets wet
If the worst comes to the worst, and your camera gets wet, don't panic. Modern SLRs are remarkably robust, and even those which are not weather-sealed pro models can withstand a certain amount of moisture. If your camera gets a real soaking, get home as quickly as possible and put the camera in a sealed bag with packets of silica gel if you have any, or rice if you don't. Leaving the camera in a warm, dry environment, such as an airing cupboard, for a few days can also help.
Dealing with Condensation
When you get home, you will be coming from a cold environment into a warm one, and condensation can form on your camera. To avoid this, place your camera in a sealed plastic bag, so that the moisture forms on the bag and not the camera. Wait until the camera has warmed up to room temperature before you remove it.
Another useful accessory is a mat for kneeling on, so you don't get wet, muddy knees. If you don't want to carry a mat around, then a bin bag will do the job and will fit easily in your camera bag. Don't forget to take a map and make sure you don't leave your mobile phone behind. A torch is an essential accessory, and a head torch is the best choice, as it leaves your hands free for operating kit, packing your bag, or holding a map. If you are planning on being out all day, pack some food and drink.
With conditions being so changeable in winter, checking the weather forecast regularly is extremely important. As well as keeping an eye out for snow and frost, look for conditions that might yield interesting or dramatic light. This often occurs during times of transition – perhaps one season to another, or the transition from day to night, or when one weather system replaces another. Plan shoots for these times and whilst there will inevitably be some disappointments, with a little perseverance you will be rewarded with some stunning conditions.
At any time of year, it rarely works if you just turn up at a location without having given some prior thought to viewpoint and composition, but this is especially true in winter, when the best light can be very fleeting. Quite simply, if you are not set up ready for it, you will miss it and you are unlikely to get another chance. Recce locations, find the best viewpoints and work out where the best spots are at different times of day. Maps and sun compasses are useful, as are smartphone and computer apps such as The Photographer's Ephemeris. Arrive on location in plenty of time, get set up and wait for the right light.
What to shoot
It is easy to see that winter is a great time for photography, but what subjects work well and how should you deal with them?
Winter can bring an incredible variety of conditions, but what most photographers hope for is snow. There is nothing quite like a fresh covering of snow on the landscape, especially if it is underneath a clear blue sky, or some broken cloud. By simplifying the landscape and hiding clutter, snow can transform even mundane scenes into something magical. It looks its best when fresh and clean, so keep an eye on the forecast and if there is the possibility of snow overnight with a clearing sky in the morning, then head out early while the snow is still pristine and unspoilt by footprints. If you are really lucky, there will be a colourful sunrise, with the snow picking up some of the colour.
Much of the advice given about shooting in snow focuses on the technical side of things, in particular the tendency of cameras to underexpose in bright conditions. This is a bit of a red herring, however, as the metering systems of modern cameras actually cope very well with ‘difficult’ scenes such as snowy landscapes, and in any case, if you are shooting digitally, it is a simple matter to check the histogram and if necessary, adjust exposure and re-shoot. And with many modern SLRs offering a histogram in live view, obtaining correct exposure becomes even simpler.
One thing to bear in mind, however, is that a histogram from a snowy scene is likely to be far removed from what some photographers mistakenly believe is the ‘ideal’ histogram – a bell-curve showing a good range of tones across the whole graph. There is, in fact, no single ‘ideal’ histogram – only the ideal one for the particular scene being photographed. Snowy scenes contain a lot of very bright tones and this will be reflected in the histogram, which is likely to include a large peak on the right of the tonal range. The decision is where this peak should be placed, and an accurate exposure would have it towards the right-hand edge of the graph.
With snow, the compositional side of things is actually far more of a challenge than the technical. It is all too easy for compositions to include too much blank space, with nothing for the eye to settle on. Having a strong focal point in the image, such as trees, buildings or rivers becomes really important when shooting in snow. It is also worth considering working with the natural simplicity of snow-filled landscapes and exploring a more minimalist approach – a single tree in a field of white can make an eye-catching subject, for example.
One of the most important things to bear in mind when shooting snow is to think very carefully about where you are walking and to make sure that you don't leave footprints in an area you are likely to include later on in a picture. So, have a good look around the scene before you move anywhere and identify potential viewpoints. Check them out and shoot them in a logical order and, where possible, retrace your steps so that you leave the minimum possible number of tracks in the snow.
Frosty mornings can look just as beautiful as snow, with the clarity of the air being matched by the crispness of the land. Again, get out for first light as the frost may not last for long and will also look its best under the pastel colours of a dawn sky. The range of colours and tones is restricted, so looking for scenes with clear focal points is as important as with snowy scenes. Frost-covered subjects have great textural interest, so detail studies and more abstract framing works very well, but even when shooting more general views, it is worth getting in close and filling the frame with foreground interest to make the most of the texture; branches, leaves, grasses and reeds all work well as foreground subjects.
On the technical front, the same advice applies as for snowy landscapes: although modern meters cope very well with bright scenes, keep an eye on the histogram and be prepared to add a little extra exposure if necessary, to keep the bright tones to the right of the graph.
Sadly, in many places a thick carpet of fresh, pure snow or crisp, frosty mornings are rare events. The reality of winter in many parts is that the majority of days bring dull, grey and drizzly weather. On days like these, the temptation can be to curl up in front of the fire with a good book or a movie, but the fact is that with the right approach it is still possible to create stunning images. If you think in monochrome, it is possible to create moody, atmospheric images on even the dullest days. Filters can help out here – normally you wouldn't want to use a graduated filter on a low contrast scene such as an overcast landscape, but by ‘over-gradding’ the picture, grey clouds can be transformed into brooding, stormy-looking skies.
Head to the coast and use neutral density filters to extend your shutter speed for creative effect, capturing the movement of waves and clouds. There are many possibilities: a ‘standard’ ND filter of around three stops will generate a shutter speed of a few seconds on a dull day, which can be useful for creating texture in the water for foreground interest. ‘Extreme’ NDs of ten stops or more will push exposures into minutes, which will create a more abstract look, with water smoothed to a glassy surface and moving clouds rendered as dark streaks across the sky. If you have not yet started to purchase your collection of filters, be aware that all filters are not created equally, and that although you may be able to save on price, you will be sacrificing quality.
A minimalist approach can be very effective with these techniques. Bold, structural subjects such as piers, lighthouses and groynes work well if shooting by the coast; barns, fences, paths and trees if out in the countryside. In terms of composition, these types of picture work best if you leave a little more room around your subject than you normally would – this gives space that will be filled by the moving elements in the scene, and creates a contrast with the solid, unmoving main subject.
The final word has to be about the role of common sense. No picture is worth risking your life for, so don't chance going out in treacherous conditions. There are some conditions such as strong winds, when photography isn't possible anyway, so take advantage of these times to catch up on your processing.
When you do venture out, stick to the main roads where possible, and keep a blanket and shovel in the car. Make sure you bring food and drink with you in case you get stuck and have to wait for a while. Always tell someone where you are going and what time you expect to be back. Check the weather forecast before setting out to make sure that conditions are not likely to deteriorate, and if it's not looking safe later on, stay at home. There will be other opportunities to take photographs.