Winter is upon us, and rather than out our feet up, many at Kilmaurs Photographic Club are taking to the great outdoors to capture the wealth of photo opportunities the season brings. Fiona Wallace dons her big coat and trips a light fandango off to see what photographers can expect from this coldest of seasons.
Winter is an interesting season and of course is associated with snow. While we don’t get the white stuff for months on end, we do get enough of it to make us ooh and ahhh at how pretty our native landscape is when under a white blanket. That is, of course, before we curse at it for disrupting our daily lives. But love it or hate it, many of us will have the camera out to capture the moments of winter glory, whether it be an artistic shot or a quick snap on the phone camera. So how do we get the best out of our snow shots?
Snow right Exposure One of the biggest problems photographers face when taking shots of lovely snow-covered landscapes is the exposure. Many of us end up with snow that is just a mass of bright white with no definition at all – what is termed blown highlights. At other times, it can come across as far too blue in colour, although snow under blue skies often does have a blue tinge to it so don’t try to eliminate it completely. A trick is to over-expose which sounds a bit counter-intuitive but actually works. For those with full control DSLRs, it means notch your EV Compensation up – some people say to +1 while others say in some circumstances it could go even further. For those with compact cameras which have scene settings, you will probably have one for snow scenes, so aim for that rather than just shooting in automatic. Scene modes are pre-programmed by the camera manufacturer and automatically give the best exposure and settings for each scene. Some modern compact manufacturers have a mode called i(intelligent) Automatic which does your analysis for you before selecting the correct settings, and this is also a good option.
One other thing these automatic settings are also doing for snow scenes is adjusting the camera’s White Balance setting. On a DSLR you can do this yourself either in-camera before taking the shot or afterwards in post production if you have taken the image in RAW. Look for a cooler white shade, and some people even advise you to put it on to the flash setting.
Note: for those moving up to DSLRs or who have good compact cameras, there is no substitute for getting your head round the histogram on your camera. Once you understand what it is showing, it becomes the best weapon in your armoury for sorting out exposure.
Focus Falling snow while you are shooting can cause a few issues – notably shutter speed and focus. Snow falling can cause problems for autofocus as your camera may be trying to focus on the snow instead of your actual desired subject. Obviously a solution to this is to use manual focus. But sometimes seeing the object through falling snow is the effect you are seeking. Then the choice is whether you want the snow to be blurred as if you are trying to recreate a blizzard, or if you want it to be less obtrusive. This is a matter of shutter speed and the rule of thumb is fast shutter speeds will stop any movement, whereas slow shutter speeds will result in blurred motion. Of course in many situations, the shutter speed choice will be more centred on the subject rather than the snow. If you are trying to take an image of deer moving across a landscape, then you will want a fast shutter. A stationary subject gives you a choice though.
Composition Compositionally, the usual suspects of having something of interest in foreground as well as background apply. More specifically, although every snowflake is different, a big mass of snow is just that – a big mass of white with little tone variation. So if you don’t want a huge drift of just plain white snow, look for scenes where this is broken up. Some trees, a gully in shadow, people, lighting effects of sun and sky are great for adding artistic depth and interest to your photo. Look for leading lines where something – a lane, a hedge line, a river – is leading you into the image. Also, compositionally, fresh untrodden snow usually looks more attractive than snow that is churned up. Try to plan ahead so your own footsteps don’t get in the photo.
Wintry weather can bring both winds and blizzards but also chilly flat calm. The combination of winter blue skies and snowy hills reflected in a flat calm body of water gives a magic and sparkly image. Depending on how much snow is in your shot, you would need to exposure accordingly when using a DSLR. But to be honest, even most compact and phone cameras these days are sophisticated enough to take a perfectly decent shot like this. As stated before, for your phone camera or compact, try to use an appropriate scene mode or the iAuto mode.
Light fantastic But taking photos in winter is not just all about snow. One of the most fantastic things at this time of year is the low sun and the marvellous atmospheric effects it can create even when the ground is clear of snow. Getting up at sunrise lends itself to catching some marvellous images. A combination of low winter sun causing the sky to go a pale yellow and the mists caused by the early morning moist air condensing is marvellous and gives some eerie shots. Similarly, taking shots at sunset and at the blue hour (that short half-hour when the sun has just set but it is not quite dark, giving a blue tinge to the sky) is also very rewarding. Again you can get some lovely misty effects as the air has cooled down. Coastal shots looking west are great and you can get a lovely dreamy scene which has pale washed out colour which emphasises the cold but without making the shot look bleak.
Don’t forget the people Winter images, particularly snow scenes, can be enhanced by the inclusion of people. Capturing the delight of kids sledging or throwing snowballs for the dog to catch can be fun. If you can capture winter sports action as well, that is an added bonus. Always remember to ask people if it’s okay to take these images even if they are people you know.
And finally … Taking photographs in winter brings challenges logistically. It is cold (well, duh), it is at the very least damp, Here are a few tips for making sure that you keep self and camera well protected:
- Wear warm clothing as you may be standing around for quite some time. I favour layers, and with the excellent lightweight but warm clothing available these days, I usually have at least one extra layer in the bag and a couple more in the car. A warm but water and wind-proof outer layer is always a good idea – both jacket and trousers.
- Wear decent footwear – the ground underfoot will be both cold AND damp or wet. Sometimes winter wellies are the best option if you are on flatter ground, but if you are moving over rough ground or are going any distance, walking boots are probably better. A decent pair of socks (or two) are essential and I always carry a spare pair in my bag just in case the ones I am wearing get wet.
- Gloves can be a pain when you come to use camera controls, but they are an essential in winter. As one of my colleagues keeps telling me: “Cold fingers drop cameras.” I use a pair of those gloves with the top part of the fingers missing for when I am setting up the camera, but when I’m moving from place to place, I put a pair of full gloves on top. You can also get pairs of gloves (fishing shops sell them) where the top section folds back.
- As well as keeping them dry, take spare fully-charged batteries with you. Cold weather drains batteries faster than warm weather. Many people recommend keeping your spare battery in a dry bag in an inner pocket so they are getting a little heat from your body and are not cold should you need to use it.
- Keep the camera dry. An absolute essential. Many people keep their cameras inside a dry bag even when it is in a bigger camera bag. It’s not a bad idea at all, especially if you are putting your camera bag down a lot of the time. Many people recommend using your lens hood to keep the worst of the snow or rain off the lens, but also consider using a rain cover or even an umbrella to keep the camera as dry as you can. Remember snow is wet even when it looks pretty and powdery. In between shots, keep the camera pointed downwards and away from the prevailing wind, rain or snow. Also, when returning to your nice warm house, remember that your camera equipment is going to be cold. If you take it straight out the bag, you may get condensation in the workings. A tip I was told is to take stuff out your bag but do so gradually. I keep mine inside the dry bag for quite some time before I take it out. Difficult I know when we are all desperate to get the card out and see what we’ve captured. Patience is a virtue.
And a last tip apart from don’t freeze your nose to the camera.? Have fun but be careful out there.