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Photography in the Winter Season

Winter-PhotographyThis post on Winter Photography has been submitted by Andre Gunther. Find more articles and photographs on Andre’s Website or tweet him.

Learn why winter is the best season for photography!

As the days get shorter, we like to curl up and enjoy the comforts of home. We contemplate, consummate and commemorate.

However, now is the best time to get out and create. Winter presents some unique shooting opportunities and qualities for photographers like no other season can.

Quality of Winter Light

The angle of the sun on the horizon is smaller during wintertime, creating numerous pleasing effects for photographers, such as a prolonged period of the magic hour.

We refer to the magic hour as the time around sunrise or sunset, when most of the light is reflected and the direct light of the sun passes through a lot more atmosphere, thus filtering out the harsh neutral or blue cast.

Throughout the entire day, the sun will never reach a high zenith, always illuminating our subjects at a much more pleasing angle. Summer sun often causes extreme shadows and contrast and the lighting shifts more towards blue tones.

Due to the low angle of the sun, textures will look three-dimensional and become alive and shadows will be long and deep. We can use shadows to support our main subject, to hint at the presence of a subject by only showing its shadow or to create a sense of scale by comparing shadows. Shadows are copies of our subjects with different qualities that can greatly enhance our composition.


Weather

I live in California and most of the summer all I get is a flat blue sky. Come winter, things change. Suddenly the sky gets interesting. Finally, the setting sun has the reflector it needs to create sunsets we only see get during the winter months. The clouds reflect the sunlight and because it now travels thousands of miles through the atmosphere, its deep red light will illuminate the clouds and the landscape creating unique “scapes” that only photographers know exist and many attribute to the wonders of digital image manipulation.

Winter has many other beneficial weather patterns to offer. Nothing is as exciting as photographing a virgin snowscape in the first light of the day. When a white veil of beauty covers all the unsightly spots and the frost glistens from the trees reflecting the first rays, you know that only winter can provide such beauty.


Tips and Challenges

Here are some technical tips for those of you who need no further convincing that winter time is the prime photography season.

Cameras tend to underexpose white and overexpose black as they gravitate toward neutral grey. You need to overexpose snowscapes by up to 2 stops. If you are shooting sunrises, you will not have much time to figure things out as the light changes quickly, so it is good to know this. Always keep an eye on your histogram.

Shoot RAW at least during those times so you will not have to figure out the white balance. RAW also lets you correct your exposure somewhat.

Once your camera clips your highlights, you cannot recover them. Expose for the brightest spots that you want to be visible.

Batteries do not last as long when cold. Carry enough of them and keep them warm. I usually carry mine in the inside pockets of my jacket and not in my backpack.

If your tripod does not already have some foam around the legs, you may want to put some insulation foam on it. Avoid touching metal in freezing conditions.

When you return from a photoshoot in the cold, let your equipment get warm slowly to avoid condensation inside your lenses. I leave mine in the bag for a couple of hours before taking them out when I am inside. Resist reviewing your photos right away.

Conclusion

Do not miss all the opportunities winter hands you. Take full advantage of the warmer light, the deeper shadows and the favorable weather patterns and your images can look better than ever.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • http://www.photodailynews.com Jim Fitzsimmons

    Hi, great tips for winter shooting. I’m not a fan of raw shooting, but otherwise…
    I just don’t understand all the need for post processing after the shoot. To me it seems as if photography has become a two-step process. Why not just compose/light better in the first place?

    One more if I may: keep those fingers warm! :)

  • http://www.thebaldchemist.com The Baldchemist

    Nice reminders. Thank you. I live in Sweden and we have just had some of the best Autumn photo light.
    Take care and as I always say so as not to miss naything 125 f8 and be there. Smile.

  • http://www.windowshoppist.com Shoppista

    I feel like there’s some beautiful light in cloudy winter weather, too, but it’s very hard to get good photos then. Any tips for that?

  • http://henriquelopes.com Henrique

    I suppose you could take your memory card right out of the camera when you finish shooting and put it in one of the inside pockets of your jacket, that way you let your body heat start warming them up so you can pop them in a card reader and start enjoying them as soon as you make it back to the house. Maybe that works maybe not. just a thought

  • Ryan

    Although not completely on topic, I’d like to share my recent rediscovery of just how absolutely intensely important a circular polarized filter can be for catching fall and winter colors. I had to spend a lot of time developing RAW images, tweaking contrast and saturation, recently. The images I captured on my first “fall foto safari” just didn’t come close to replicating my memory of the intense fall colors. Then I took another batch more recently when the colors were much less saturated – but used my CPF and.. Wow! There was the rich blue sky and the deep red leaves and the crisp bright yellows and rich greens. I’m kicking myself for blowing the first opportunity. See if you can guess which is with and without a filter – http://www.flickr.com/photos/ruinaudio/sets/72157607995620117/

  • http://www.mylittlenorway.com/ L-Jay

    Hm – what can you do when the sun doesn’t even come up over the horizon in winter? Blue light creeps up for about two hours here in mid-winter. Do you still use the same technique as above to shoot in a snowy landscape?

  • http://flickr.com/photos/piqquam/ Joni

    These are good winter photography tips, if you happen to live in California. But Nordic countries are a different world and you have a dozen more things to worry about, for example, does the sun rise above the horizon. :)

  • http://blog.specialty-art.com Rick

    I like the 2 stop overexpose suggestion here in the mountains of Utah we will start to see snow any day now and shooting in that environment takes some real practice.

  • John K

    Jim,

    I shoot RAW for everything but point and shoot occasions like family gatherings. When shooting RAW I try very hard to get it right so I don’t have to do a lot of post-processing, and I generally don’t have to do much. But, I do like that I can tweak the WB if necessary. Also, by overexposing in RAW (but not clipping highlights) I can usually get a little more detail out then with JPEG. Also, I can tweak the sharpening (which all digital photos need-either in camera with JPEG or shooting RAW and doing it in Photoshop) and have more control over it.

    “Hi, great tips for winter shooting. I’m not a fan of raw shooting, but otherwise…
    I just don’t understand all the need for post processing after the shoot. To me it seems as if photography has become a two-step process. Why not just compose/light better in the first place?”

  • http://markolson.ca Mark Olson

    Thanks for all the tips! I had no idea that shooting in the winter … in places where there is snow … that it was so so complicated. The snow should be arriving soon in Sweden, so I am getting kinda excited to try some of this out … Hello RAW mode. I am a photo noob, so RAW is not usually my first priority, so maybe this winter season will be exactly what I need to motivate me over the long Swedish winter.

    Thanks!

  • http://www.aguntherph! Andre

    I would like to thank the Website owner for the opportunity to post my article and take the chance to respond to some comments.

    Jim: It’s the eternal battle, RAW or JPG, Digital or Analog. It is as much a question of faith as it is of technical reasons and once people made up their minds I find it very hard to discuss. My reason is simple, a RAW is a linear 12-bit or 14-bit file and a JPG is a nonlinear processed 8-bit file. The JPG file has white balance and exposure “burned” into the file. I simply like to “develop” my own.

    Shoppista: The large landscape is unforgiving under such conditions, but macro photography will benefit from the big soft box overhead. Try to exclude overcast skies from your photographs. Street photography is another thing I like to do under these conditions. If the clouds have a lot of definition (not just white overcast), you can get dramatic pictures by exposing for the sky and boosting local contrast in the sky afterwards.

    Henrique: Good point! I never thought about it, since I always back up to an image tank that has to warm up too.
    L-Jay: Great That means soft light all day. Long exposures in pre-dawn light will result in brilliant colors. I always wanted to travel to Iceland or Alaska where I can experience this.

    Joni: That sounds great. I saw a travel show with Anthony Bourdain once. He was in Iceland in Winter and complaining about the cold all the time. All I could think about was: “Look at that fantastic soft light, I could take great shots 8 hours a day and never have to worry about harsh light”.

  • Jeremy

    @Jim: It might be more common now, but how many people just go into a darkroom and take the first thing they print? I think photography has always been about tweaking the picture after the fact.

    Great article, and it definitely inspired me to go out and enjoy my admittedly lame San Francisco winter.

    Also, as the rains are starting in many places, might it be time to put together another collection of rain shots?

  • Bogdan

    Jim, you say you feel like photography has become a two-step process. The fact is, it has always been this way, except for the past few years when point-and-shoot compacts became very popular. Before the digital era, 35-mm photographers used to add a lot of color balancing and expore retouching during the developpement of the negatives and printing of the final photos. So, take this into account before leaving all thos creative decisions to your camera’s cpu instead of taking them yourself. Needless to say, i am a big fan of RAW, i like to get exactly what i want out of my photos, not what my camera thinks i want.

  • http://www.embassyprobooks.com Embassy Pro Books

    I must agree, there is something so pure and perfect about photographing untouched snow. Although, the need for interest is important in those never ending frozen areas, I recently caught a shot of a squirrel with a nut in the midst of a newly fallen blanket of snow, my favorite shot of the season.

  • Sherwood_of_the_Forest

    Bag the camera in a clean plastic bag before bringing it inside. The condensation is on the outside of the bag. Warming takes 3 hours.

    So remove the memory card while out in the cold. You can work while the camera (and your toes) thaw.

Some older comments

  • Embassy Pro Books

    February 10, 2011 04:58 am

    I must agree, there is something so pure and perfect about photographing untouched snow. Although, the need for interest is important in those never ending frozen areas, I recently caught a shot of a squirrel with a nut in the midst of a newly fallen blanket of snow, my favorite shot of the season.

  • Bogdan

    July 7, 2009 10:48 pm

    Jim, you say you feel like photography has become a two-step process. The fact is, it has always been this way, except for the past few years when point-and-shoot compacts became very popular. Before the digital era, 35-mm photographers used to add a lot of color balancing and expore retouching during the developpement of the negatives and printing of the final photos. So, take this into account before leaving all thos creative decisions to your camera's cpu instead of taking them yourself. Needless to say, i am a big fan of RAW, i like to get exactly what i want out of my photos, not what my camera thinks i want.

  • Jeremy

    November 1, 2008 05:16 pm

    @Jim: It might be more common now, but how many people just go into a darkroom and take the first thing they print? I think photography has always been about tweaking the picture after the fact.

    Great article, and it definitely inspired me to go out and enjoy my admittedly lame San Francisco winter.

    Also, as the rains are starting in many places, might it be time to put together another collection of rain shots?

  • Andre

    October 31, 2008 03:13 pm

    I would like to thank the Website owner for the opportunity to post my article and take the chance to respond to some comments.

    Jim: It’s the eternal battle, RAW or JPG, Digital or Analog. It is as much a question of faith as it is of technical reasons and once people made up their minds I find it very hard to discuss. My reason is simple, a RAW is a linear 12-bit or 14-bit file and a JPG is a nonlinear processed 8-bit file. The JPG file has white balance and exposure “burned” into the file. I simply like to “develop” my own.

    Shoppista: The large landscape is unforgiving under such conditions, but macro photography will benefit from the big soft box overhead. Try to exclude overcast skies from your photographs. Street photography is another thing I like to do under these conditions. If the clouds have a lot of definition (not just white overcast), you can get dramatic pictures by exposing for the sky and boosting local contrast in the sky afterwards.

    Henrique: Good point! I never thought about it, since I always back up to an image tank that has to warm up too.
    L-Jay: Great That means soft light all day. Long exposures in pre-dawn light will result in brilliant colors. I always wanted to travel to Iceland or Alaska where I can experience this.

    Joni: That sounds great. I saw a travel show with Anthony Bourdain once. He was in Iceland in Winter and complaining about the cold all the time. All I could think about was: “Look at that fantastic soft light, I could take great shots 8 hours a day and never have to worry about harsh light”.

  • Mark Olson

    October 31, 2008 06:08 am

    Thanks for all the tips! I had no idea that shooting in the winter ... in places where there is snow ... that it was so so complicated. The snow should be arriving soon in Sweden, so I am getting kinda excited to try some of this out ... Hello RAW mode. I am a photo noob, so RAW is not usually my first priority, so maybe this winter season will be exactly what I need to motivate me over the long Swedish winter.

    Thanks!

  • John K

    October 31, 2008 05:43 am

    Jim,

    I shoot RAW for everything but point and shoot occasions like family gatherings. When shooting RAW I try very hard to get it right so I don't have to do a lot of post-processing, and I generally don't have to do much. But, I do like that I can tweak the WB if necessary. Also, by overexposing in RAW (but not clipping highlights) I can usually get a little more detail out then with JPEG. Also, I can tweak the sharpening (which all digital photos need-either in camera with JPEG or shooting RAW and doing it in Photoshop) and have more control over it.

    "Hi, great tips for winter shooting. I’m not a fan of raw shooting, but otherwise…
    I just don’t understand all the need for post processing after the shoot. To me it seems as if photography has become a two-step process. Why not just compose/light better in the first place?"

  • Rick

    October 31, 2008 12:19 am

    I like the 2 stop overexpose suggestion here in the mountains of Utah we will start to see snow any day now and shooting in that environment takes some real practice.

  • Joni

    October 30, 2008 10:16 pm

    These are good winter photography tips, if you happen to live in California. But Nordic countries are a different world and you have a dozen more things to worry about, for example, does the sun rise above the horizon. :)

  • L-Jay

    October 30, 2008 09:50 pm

    Hm - what can you do when the sun doesn't even come up over the horizon in winter? Blue light creeps up for about two hours here in mid-winter. Do you still use the same technique as above to shoot in a snowy landscape?

  • Ryan

    October 30, 2008 08:01 am

    Although not completely on topic, I'd like to share my recent rediscovery of just how absolutely intensely important a circular polarized filter can be for catching fall and winter colors. I had to spend a lot of time developing RAW images, tweaking contrast and saturation, recently. The images I captured on my first "fall foto safari" just didn't come close to replicating my memory of the intense fall colors. Then I took another batch more recently when the colors were much less saturated - but used my CPF and.. Wow! There was the rich blue sky and the deep red leaves and the crisp bright yellows and rich greens. I'm kicking myself for blowing the first opportunity. See if you can guess which is with and without a filter - http://www.flickr.com/photos/ruinaudio/sets/72157607995620117/

  • Henrique

    October 30, 2008 05:10 am

    I suppose you could take your memory card right out of the camera when you finish shooting and put it in one of the inside pockets of your jacket, that way you let your body heat start warming them up so you can pop them in a card reader and start enjoying them as soon as you make it back to the house. Maybe that works maybe not. just a thought

  • Shoppista

    October 30, 2008 04:53 am

    I feel like there's some beautiful light in cloudy winter weather, too, but it's very hard to get good photos then. Any tips for that?

  • The Baldchemist

    October 30, 2008 02:20 am

    Nice reminders. Thank you. I live in Sweden and we have just had some of the best Autumn photo light.
    Take care and as I always say so as not to miss naything 125 f8 and be there. Smile.

  • Jim Fitzsimmons

    October 30, 2008 01:51 am

    Hi, great tips for winter shooting. I'm not a fan of raw shooting, but otherwise...
    I just don't understand all the need for post processing after the shoot. To me it seems as if photography has become a two-step process. Why not just compose/light better in the first place?

    One more if I may: keep those fingers warm! :)

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