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5 Tips for Planning a Winter Photography Excursion

If you have seen the recent photos of the record snowfall in Buffalo, NY, you know that for much of the world winter is here and it’s coming fast, whether you like it or not.

While your feet might be cold for the next four months, a reason to get excited is the photographic opportunities that will come from it. I am writing this to convince you to prepare now for photographing that next snowstorm because it will creep up on you, and you want to take full advantage of it.

Tips for planning a winter photography excursion

Poets' Walk, Central Park

Poets’ Walk, Central Park, NYC.

1. Plan to go out in the middle of the storm

A lot of photographers choose go out the next morning after the storm has hit, when the weather is clear and the snow is bright and crisp. You should do this as there are some fantastic photographic opportunities, however, in my opinion the best opportunities occur in the middle of the storm, when the weather is fierce and the skies are gray.

If you are going to shoot in the middle of the storm, be careful. Make sure to be safe and that the storm will not have a chance to be severe enough to get you in trouble. Make sure you have a working and fully powered cellphone, the correct clothing, and any supplies that you might need should you get stuck for awhile. It will only be more fun with friends along but always make sure that someone who is not along on your excursion knows exactly where you are going.

Couple in Snowstorm, Central Park

Couple in Snowstorm, Central Park, NYC.

2. Scout your route

Create your route ahead of time. You can always explore and veer off, but it will help to have a plan of action. The key to photographing snowstorms is that you are not going out to just photograph the snow, you are going out to photograph interesting places in the snow.

Create a route with scenes that you think will look good in the snow. This could be a house, a barn, a lamppost, a main street, a park, or a scenic landscape. In addition, creating this route ahead of time will allow you to share it with someone beforehand should you get stranded.

3. Protect your camera

The best camera weather protector, a small plastic bag and some tape.

The best camera weather protection – a small plastic bag and some tape.

Digital cameras are tough, but you still want to treat them carefully. In extremely cold and severe weather conditions you might want to take further precautions, but for most winter situations there are only a few things that you will need to do.

Pick a lens for the day and keep it on your camera. Some people might disagree with this, but in this situation, I personally do not want to risk getting moisture inside the camera, so I will not change the lens. If anything, I will take a second camera with another lens on it, but mostly I will take either my 24-105mm or 70-200mm lens and only use one of them.

I have tried so many rain protection devices for my Canon SLR and I have given up on every single one of them. They have all been too bulky and cumbersome to use with the camera freely in harsh weather. I have yet to find one that works better than a simple plastic bag with a hole in it, and tape to attach it to the lens or lens hood. I use the typical pharmacy plastic bags. Bring multiple bags and the roll of tape because they will have to be replaced a couple times during the day. I use this setup for shooting in the rain as well.

Tenement Rooftops, Lower East Side.

Tenement Rooftops, Lower East Side, NYC. You do not want that getting into your camera while you change lenses.

Bring multiple hand towels and microfiber cloths to dry off the camera, and to keep the front of the lens clear from fog. A lens hood can add further protection. If the snow is light, then I will keep the camera uncovered and will often use a small umbrella, while drying off the camera frequently. When the snow gets stronger then I will use the plastic bag and sometimes I will use it in combination with the umbrella. In between shots I keep the camera covered and I always keep the front of the lens pointed down until I actually take the shot, to keep it clear of snow.

You will also want to bring along extra batteries, since they do not work as well when they are cold.

Finally, be careful about suddenly changing the temperatures on your camera. This is what can really hurt your camera. You do not want to go from shooting in the middle of a snowstorm to putting it by a warm fire right away. Let the camera warm up slowly in your car, garage, or in a cooler area of your house.

Photography gloves.

North Face touch screen gloves with inner linings. Still not as warm as heavy duty gloves, so not ideal for Arctic exploration, but they are much easier to work with when handling a camera.

4. Prepare your clothing and equipment ahead of time

Sense a theme here? Set up everything ahead of time so that when the storm hits all you have to do is get dressed and walk out the door. It is so easy to procrastinate and ultimately decide to stay in with some hot coffee. Planning and packing everything right before the shoot just adds another layer to stop you from doing it. I know this from experience. If everything is set, then the only thing that is standing between you and the outdoors is you.

You might try to tell yourself that there will be another storm but that is never guaranteed. If the weather is perfect, then you need to take advantage of the opportunity while it is there. It could be a once in a lifetime experience.

Use two layers of thinner gloves. Gloves are a huge problem with photography as the warmest ones are too bulky to adjust the fine controls on the camera, and the thin ones are not warm enough. I use a thin inner layer glove combined with a medium strength pair of North Face gloves. This is still not as warm as a heavy duty pair, but the mobility is a big advantage.

Brooklyn Bridge in Snowstorm, at Sunset

Brooklyn Bridge in Snowstorm, at Sunset, NYC.

5. Plan a sunset into dusk route

The most uncomfortable times to shoot often yield the best results. You may have heard to shoot during the golden hour, or at night, or during a snowstorm, but the real magic happens when all of these come together in one. Plan out exactly where you want to be during the golden hour and after the sun sets. If it is in the middle of a hard storm then the sunset might not shine through the fog, but everything will still get magical as it transitions to night.

Make sure to bring a tripod for dusk. Also a strong flashlight can help for focusing, because it can be tough for the camera to lock onto dark scenes. You can also use manual focusing to select the focus distance that you want.

Cold Spring, New York.

Cold Spring, New York. The warm sunset light contrasted with the blue shade adds an interesting aspect of contrasting color.

Bonus: Technical tips

If you are not shooting in full manual, all that white snow is going to trick the camera’s light meter to make the images darker than they need to be. It is common for people to come back from a day shooting in the snow to wonder why the photos all look so gray. Raise your exposure compensation (+/-) to combat this and make the snow whiter, but make sure to not blow out the details completely.

The opposite side of this tip is that a gray snowy scene can be fantastic, so you might not want the snow be very white. You have creative control here and can use the +/- on your camera or manual mode to achieve the exact look that you want. It is better to do this in the camera rather than in post-production.

Also, pay attention to make sure that your focus point is correct and if you are shooting digitally then take a few shots of the same scene. Snowy and harsh conditions can make focusing tough and can make the problem of back-focus even easier to occur. Make sure the focus point is locked onto the area that you want to be the sharpest and not the area behind it.

Broken Taxi, 5th Avenue.

Stuck Taxi, 5th Avenue, NYC.

Be adventurous. This is not just about getting that ideal photo, it is about enjoying the process as well. The camera is a wonderful tool to force you out the door to explore gorgeous locations when you might otherwise decide to stay inside in the warmth. A camera is a gift in many ways.

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James Maher
James Maher

is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide.
James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.