10 Tips For Taking Spectacular Winter Photos

Winter in the mountains is equal parts magical and challenging. With rocks and roots buried in snow, vicious flies and mosquitoes a distant memory, and the thick, humid air of summer replaced with a crisp chill, there are countless benefits to exploring the mountains in winter. When it comes to photography, no other time of year allows for such dramatic and otherworldly images. From alpine trees caked with rime ice to waterfalls frozen in time, the landscape takes on a special character that beckons to be explored and photographed. Hostile conditions in winter are more often the norm than the exception, however, and having a safe and productive winter outing takes a level of preparedness that far exceeds that of other seasons. So what kind of gear and techniques will set you up to take the best winter photos?

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

1. Protect Yourself

Just because you climbed a mountain or went outside to take pictures, doesn’t mean you’re not exposed to the same conditions as you would be if you were simply out on a hike. Having the right layers and gear are critical to keeping you comfortable and safe. In addition to snowshoes, skis, MICROspikes, and/or crampons, items such as a warm and lightweight jacket and pants, balaclava, and ski goggles will help keep you warm and protect your skin from the biting cold and wind while you’re taking photos.

Perhaps the most critical piece of clothing for the winter photographer is hand protection. Finding the perfect balance between keeping hands warm while maintaining enough dexterity to change lenses and adjust camera settings can be a tricky task. Pairing a thin and windproof glove with a warm pair of mittens can provide the best of both worlds: The base layer glove provide just enough protection and supple dexterity to handle the camera, but the mittens can slide on quickly before your hands get too cold.

Carrying extra pairs of gloves is always wise, as gloves that have become sweaty on an ascent can become hazardous if a prolonged photo session upon reaching the exposed alpine zone is planned. I’ll often pack an extra pair of buckskin or leather gloves to change into before breaking out above the tree line, as these types of gloves provide excellent wind protection and dexterity.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

2. Protect Your Camera

Protecting the camera from harsh winter conditions not only ensures that the best possible photos will be taken, but also prevents often expensive photo gear from being ruined. A snow/rain camera cover comes in handy when photographing in snowstorms or near a spraying waterfall, and costs much less than replacing a camera body that’s been ruined by water damage.

Condensation can also be a problem in winter, especially when taking the camera from the cold, dry outdoor air to a warm and relatively humid house, cabin, or car. Allowing the camera to gradually adjust to temperature differences limits the chances of condensation forming on the camera and lens and potentially making its way inside the camera. Leaving the camera in a camera bag inside your pack overnight after bringing it inside will allow it to gradually adjust to the swing in temperature and limit the formation of condensation.

While these tips will help to avoid damaging your gear after you’ve finished your outing, a challenge that’s often faced while out in the field is moisture from snow or waterfalls accumulating and freezing on the front of the lens. Periodically checking the lens glass for snow and ice accumulation will prevent the frustration of having an excellent photo rendered useless. While snowflakes can typically be simply brushed off the lens using a microfiber cloth or an air blower, special care needs to be taken if ice has accumulated on the lens. Trying to scrape off ice can lead to scratches which could permanently mar an expensive lens or filter. This is another situation where the ever-useful hand warmer can save the day. Gently holding one against the ice helps it melt, and the resulting water can be easily wiped or blown away.

3. Seek Out the Unique Beauty of Winter

One of the greatest aspects of winter photography is that even familiar destinations take on an entirely new character and appearance when the temperature drops and snow begins to fall. The typical summit views of grey rocks and green evergreens is transformed into a fantastical world that the majority of people will never experience first-hand. Crafting photos that fully capture the raw, surreal, and sometimes savage beauty of winter is equal parts challenging and rewarding, and focusing your efforts on the most eye-catching and awe-inspiring spectacles of winter will increase the odds of coming away with impactful photos. While the range of winter photography subjects is limited only by the imagination, nothing seems to epitomize winter more than evergreens blanketed with snow or rime ice.  Shooting at tree line, the highly dynamic mountain environment where the forest ends and the alpine zone begins, is the perfect place to seek out snow covered evergreens and krummholz encased with rime ice. Whether a wide-angle lens is utilized to craft shots of snow-coated trees in the foreground giving way to mountains in the background, or a macro lens is employed to capture an abstract photo focusing on the intricate shapes and detail of ice-covered tree branches, nowhere else represents the unique beauty of winter quite like tree line on a mountain.

Floating-in-Fire-Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

4. Choose Your Location Based on Conditions.

Knowing the optimal conditions for a given location that are conducive to the best photos is an important aspect of photography, especially in winter when conditions can change more rapidly than in other seasons. In addition to the typical weather forecasts, ski resorts often post snow reports and have webcams, which make for a very useful resource if one is located in the general vicinity of your planned hike.  Maybe you’ll discover that a low snow level will preclude a previsualized shot of evergreens coated in snow, and you’ll be able to call an audible before even leaving your house and switch focus to a different winter photography subject, such as frozen waterfalls.

5. Use a long exposure for waterfalls.

Partially-frozen waterfalls can produce some of the most impactful winter photographs, especially when photographed using a long exposure to give the water a silky-smooth appearance. Exposure lengths can vary from ¼ to multiple seconds, depending on the light level of the scene. A tripod is essential for these longer exposure lengths, and neutral density filters that limit the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor can also come in handy if a longer exposure is needed to achieve the desired effect.

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Credit: Joey Priola

6. Utilize Live View

One of the trickiest parts of winter photographing is carefully composing a photograph in hostile conditions. While it’s easy to look through the viewfinder to compose a shot during other times of year, it can be difficult or impossible in winter. This is especially true when photographing from mountain summits, where high winds often require ski goggles, which impede the eye from being placed against the view finder, to be worn. Utilizing the camera’s live view function, which is found on practically all digital cameras, is a much easier way to compose a shot in harsh winter conditions. Live view displays what the camera is seeing on the LCD screen on the back of the camera, aiding in setting up the desired composition.

7. Get the Exposure Right in the Field

With bright snow and dark trees, rocks, or water often present at the same time in a winter scene, properly exposing a photograph can be challenging. One of the best ways to ensure that a winter photograph is properly exposed is to utilize the “histogram” function that’s found on almost all digital cameras. The histogram displays the distribution of tonal values in the image, from 0 percent brightness (black, on the far left of the histogram) to 100 percent brightness (white, on the far right of the histogram). Keeping an eye on the histogram is a great way to avoid one of most common pitfalls of winter photos: overexposing snow so that it becomes a white, detail-less blob.  Coupling the histogram with the live view takes things a step further, as it enables you to view how the histogram changes as the exposure is changed, even before taking a shot. Checking that the highlights aren’t “clipped” and that the histogram isn’t getting cut off on the right, white side ensures that bright snow won’t be overexposed and will retain detail.

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Credit: Joey Priola

8. Focus Properly

While intentionally blurring portions of a photograph, such as the aforementioned long exposure to blur/smooth moving water, can be a great creative effect, more often than not the desire is to produce a photo that is sharp throughout. This requires the camera to be focused properly, and the winter season makes this more challenging than other times of years. In extreme cold temperatures, the camera’s autofocus abilities can fail. In addition, as the autofocus function relies on the presence of contrast at the focal point to render a sharp image, the autofocus function can have trouble properly focusing at times of low contrast, such as a snowy scene in soft light that is common in winter. Manually focusing the image is often the best method to produce sharp photos in winter, and is another advantage of utilizing the live view function. To do this, zoom in on the composed image in live view, and then turn the focus ring on the lens until a sharp image is achieved. For wide-angle landscape photos, a general rule of thumb to attain an image that is sharp from front to back is to focus on a point that is approximately 1/3 the distance from the lens to the background. To further ensure that a sharp photo has been obtained in the field, zoom in at 10x on the LCD screen after taking a shot to confirm that it’s sharp throughout, and refocus if needed.

9. Pack Extra Batteries.

Cold temperatures sap battery life, and there’s nothing more frustrating than getting partway through a photo outing and having your camera battery die. Packing a couple extra batteries for your camera, and extra batteries for a headlamp/flashlight, can be a trip-saver when they’re needed. Extra batteries will be rendered useless, though, if they’re left unprotected at the top of your pack and subjected to the cold as you hike. Stashing batteries towards the center of the pack, where they’ll be insulated by the surrounding pack contents, can help spare batteries to maintain life. Double-bagging batteries in a plastic bag and placing a hand warmer outside of the bag that contains the batteries can provide extra insurance in truly frigid winter conditions.

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Credit: Joey Priola

10. Freeze the Action

Capturing outdoor athletes in action can yield powerful winter photos that make the viewer feel as if they’re a part of the scene. Skiers carving turns, with fresh powder billowing in their wake, are excellent subjects that highlight the exhilaration of the winter season. Freezing the fast-paced action of skiing can be a challenge to the photographer, though, and it’s easy to come away with blurry images. To ensure that the subject is tack sharp, utilize a fast shutter speed of 1/1000 second or less. If such a short shutter speed makes the image too dark, open up the aperture to allow more light in or bump up ISO, the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light.