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Winter Wonderland Photography

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

My experiences photographing in a blizzard and in extreme cold temperatures

- Tips, tricks and gear for a successful winter photography adventure -

Snow covered pine trees during the Baltic dusk with Orion constellation visible in the starry sky

Landscape photography has taught me to realize and appreciate the beauty of nature in every season and any weather condition. Living in Latvia has its perks, especially in the winter time, as the real “winter wonderland” phenomenon still exists in the Baltic region. After a massive snowfall, the next day started with clear skies, so together with a few friends we decided to have a look on the nearby swamp region. As we arrived the site, we’ve found ourselves in a massive blizzard, but that didn’t affect our good mood so we entered the path to pursue some great moments.

Proper clothing is essential

First and probably the most important thing is that we feel comfortable on the field. This needs a proper preparation including analyzing the weather forecasts (temperatures, precipitation) and dressing up accordingly. If we plan on trekking in deep snow, we definitely shall wear water resistant hiking boots, which are capable of keeping our feet reasonably warm. It is essential to keep our limbs warm and dry during our activity in order to keep an acceptable level of comfort which makes us stay longer out.

Handling the camera gear requires warm hands and fingers. It has been an issue for me for many years: wearing a warm ski gloves makes it impossible to change camera settings, lenses, etc. On the other hand, a lighter pair of gloves simply couldn't keep my hands warm enough. Last year finally I found the solution for this imperative issue. There is a great company out there, called Vallerret. The founders are photographers themselves, so they exactly know what features great photography gloves should offer. On their website we can choose from a great variety of glove types starting from the nifty urban adventurer (Urbex) up to the one that has been tailored for arctic winter conditions (Alta Over Mitt). I went for an Ipsoot, which is designed for deep winter as well. In order to ensure that your fingers receive the required freedom the thumb and index fingers of the glove can be bent backwards on both hands. With the use of a little magnet, they stay nicely bent throughout you want your fingers to be out of the gloves.

Photographing in a blizzard. During the heavy snowfall my gloves did a great job
While shooting in a blizzard, the Ipsoot did a great job

The Ipsoot scored 5 stars on the day of that magical blizzard. In case you feel like under protected with your fingers being out, don't be afraid: just grab a thin underlaying layer of gloves and wear it together with the Ipsoot! Vallerret offers a product for this purpose, called the Power Stretch Pro Liner. While wearing it, you can even scroll your phone's screen. In case you decide to go with the double layer arrangement, just make sure to choose the right size of the outer layer - you might need a size up to feel comfortable.

Dead trees in a swamp during a heavy blizzard

If you want to make things even warmer you can grab a few packs of body warmer gel and put them in your gloves, socks or pocket. If you hear about them the first time, imagine a pack that has a size of a quarter of a palm and after inserting it into your gloves it starts to emit warmth that lasts for a specific period of time (approx. an hour at least). Some of them are rechargeable at home so you can use them again.

On the field

Photographing snowy winter landscapes require slightly more attention than other seasons so the following tips might be crucial to achieve the best possible outcome of our winter photographic adventure.

Keep your camera batteries as warm as possible

In a cold environment, batteries tend to lose a considerable potential of their capacity (might be up to 50% loss). In case you have spare batteries, make sure you bring them with you - and keep them as warm as you can, possibly in your jacket's inner pocket, that is close to your body so they stay warm. In order to maximize the shooting potential for that day, you can insert the battery into the camera at your first photographic spot if weather conditions allow.

Use your lens hood

The lens hood not only blocks the unwanted light but it can keep your lens' frontal element dry in case of a snowfall. If it is available, use it!

Using a lens hood has several benefits. During a snowfall it prevents the front element from getting wet
Using the lens hood prevents the front element of your lens from moisture

Make sure your photos are properly exposed

The automatic light metering of the camera often miscalculates the exposition value and it tends to underexpose. During shooting keep an eye on the histogram as it will tell you the truth. Under these circumstances I usually use the exposure compensation feature of my camera, somewhere between +0.7 and +2 EV.

Shoot in RAW

Shooting raw has several advantages. It gives you full freedom at the post processing and in case you need to increase your exposure it will be much more forgiving on the image quality than jpeg.

Snow covered pine trees in gorgeous Baltic winter sunset light
Shooting in RAW gives you several benefits

Check your white balance

While photographing snowy landscapes, you might experience that very often the white balance is way off the course. This is due to the fact that snow reflects most of the light which means you’ll have cooler bluish tones when the sky is clear, and grayish-yellowish outcome with overcast conditions if you let the camera’s automatic white balance feature to work it out for you. However, don’t worry too much about the white balance, as it is very easy to correct it during post processing. The Adobe Camera Raw plug-in or the Lightroom – whichever you use – gives you great control to set the required white balance in case you have shot your scene in raw format. Setting the background color of your application to white gives a great reference if your goal is to be as close to realistic as possible.

As my philosophy is that photography is a form of artistic self-realization, I use the white balance to create a base for color grading. You can often see a magenta tint in my photographs which is a direct outcome of my custom white balance setting. Keeping this in mind, I don’t bother too much on the field, I rather just let the camera’s automatic white balance to create something that I’ll fine tune later in the office.

Panoramic photo of a forest in pink sunset light
The magenta tint gives a fairytale-like atmosphere

Experiment with colors

A great composition accompanied by a harmonic color grading is a pure pleasure to look at. On your off days try to get out of your bed early in order to be able to experience and enjoy a sunrise over a wintery landscape. Winter sunrises have a huge advantage over the summer ones as they happen much later – saving you some precious time in your bed. The cool bluish snow accompanied by the rising sun’s first rays creates a perfect recipe for a visually pleasing photograph. On the other hand, during the winter months as the sun travels relatively low over the horizon, it gives you the opportunity to photograph in sweet light conditions during almost the whole day.

Take your macro and telephoto lens with you

During your winter hikes a telephoto lens gives you a great opportunity to shoot some intimate landscape photographs. The snow-covered trees and empty branches are great models as sometimes alone, or some other times in a group they create a minimalistic, peaceful scene. The macrophotography enthusiasts will find a plenty of interesting scenes too, as life doesn’t stop in spite of the snow cover. Dozens of tiny bugs are trying to survive the harsh winter conditions, mostly looking for food. If you take your time and look close enough, you have the chance to discover an entire world nicely hidden by the snow.

Intimate telephoto of a forest in golden winter afternoon light
Intimate telephoto of a forest

Keep your gear away from moisture

Although nowadays most of the camera bodies and lenses are weather sealed, it is important to take into account some further considerations. For example, getting in the car with a cold camera and warming it up too quickly is not a great idea. By doing so, the moisture of the air condenses on your lens and camera, not just on their surfaces but also on their inside. The sensor, and further moisture-sensitive electronic parts are endangered by the possibility of water presence. If you have the chance, warm up your equipment slowly, or even put it in a sealable nylon bag until it warms up to room temperature.

It is a good idea to keep a few packs of silica gel in your backpack, as they are designed to restrict any moisturizing in their vicinity. You can find them mainly in the package of new electronic equipment and some clothes. Don’t throw them out, but rather “recycle” them for the benefit of your gear.

On the field, try to minimize interchanging your lens – if you have a zoom lens, it is a good idea to start your adventure with that lens on your camera. In case of a heavy snowfall, a big umbrella can be quite useful (provided that you’ve got the free hand to take them with you) as you can open it and put it on the ground over your backpack in order to create a shield against the snow falling into your gear in case you need a quick lens change.

A few important thoughts

The recent pandemic has a global effect on our lives. There is no, or a very limited chance for some traveling which makes it hard to discover new places. However, it shouldn’t be a terrible setback: in your close vicinity (imagine a circle with a radius of 50 km) there are a plenty of interesting places awaiting to be (re)conquered and photographed. This is a great chance to try to increase the awareness and intention in your photography. Try to slow down, and enjoy the outdoors with an open eye and mind; nature is offering its beauty and recreation for free. Once you’ve found a heartwarming composition, don’t rush further, but rather enjoy the moment and wrap that feeling which is about to become a nice memory into your photos. Appreciate the presence of your loved ones, and friends who come and tag along with you during your hike. Although the winter weather is not always so welcoming, sometimes it stays grey and boring for an extended period of time, don’t let it to ruin your mood. If you depart with a positive state of mind, I can guarantee that you’ll find lots of interesting landscapes and lovely details, you’ll nicely recharge your soul and you’ll return home in an even better mood.

Nikon camera on a tripod shooting winter landscape while having a tea
Having a hot tea while shooting in tranquility is simply priceless

That experience, being out there as the dusk was slowly taking over the daylight, surrounded by those gorgeous snow-covered pine trees is simply priceless. As I slowed down, I had the chance to scout the area around me properly, and I’ve found better and better compositions. For a landscape photographer this means pure nirvana. My camera was working hard on the tripod, while I was having a hot tea and enjoying the silence around me. In the meantime, the sky got on fire and on top of this, the Waning Crescent Moon started to appear just above the horizon of that truly magical Baltic sunset…

For more images from the Frozen World, please visit my gallery! In case you have some further ideas regarding shooting during the winter, I'd be happy to hear it. Please share it in a comment and if you liked this article don't forget to sign up for my mailing list to get notified about the next one!


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