A few days ago we had the first snow of this season and I thought of writing an article about the photography of winter landscapes. Meanwhile the sun has started shining again and a warm wind blows from the mountains (the “Foehn” as it is called in Switzerland) and the project seems to have lost its urgency. Well, winter can’t be far away now and I have the time to write a few lines and share my experience.
There are two main factors that make the difference between photography in warm days and the particular conditions in winter. One is the light reflected from snow and the second is the cold sapping battery power. As for the second point, try to keep the batteries warm either by keeping the camera close to your body or, better still, bring a second battery pack which will replace the cold one while you reheat the latter with your body warmth.
A frosty morning
The first problem, exposure, is based on the fact that the camera meter supposes that all reflected light falling on the camera sensor is close to 18 percent grey which results in underexposed pictures of snowy landscapes. Pictures like the one above hardly need correction but the next one
would have been totally underexposed without a +1.5 EV correction of the camera meter.
In the old film days it was all guesswork, trial and error and the final result visible only after you got back your slides and put them on the lighting table. Too late for correction then…
Nowadays digital cameras offer you the histogram feature. All you have to check is if your exposure is well balanced and at the right place on the x-axis. For snowy landscapes you would prefer to have your pile on the right hand side but avoiding burnt highlights. By the way, exposing “to the right” avoids luminance noise anyway. See also the excellent tutorial on http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/expose-right.shtml.
In hazy wintry conditions colours are almost invisible and you can end up with unintentional black and white photography
A special challenge is a beginning blizzard where the details become blurry and you come close to a whiteout
A few minutes later the whiteout was almost complete and the hike back on snowshoes turned into a minor nightmare.
One thing I forgot to mention is the photographer’s comfort, of course. Cold feet, hands and ears will put you off winter landscapes rather quickly. So make sure you have the right clothing for this purpose. Warm boots, gloves and caps are essential. Gloves should be thick enough to protect from the cold but not too thick to prevent you from using the camera dials and buttons. I use a pair of Finnish cross-country skiing gloves with rubber dots on the fingertips. In severe cold a second pair may become necessary between shootings.
Despite the difficult conditions landscape photography in winter can be quite rewarding and many a result will speak for itself.
More pictures on my homepage http://hhsiegrist.zenfolio.com/.