Winter Photography: Be Prepared, Be Successful

by Kurt Budliger | December 21, 2012

© Kurt BudligerWinter is arguably one of the prettiest times to be an outdoor photographer; winter white can transform an otherwise lifeless brown landscape into a magical wonderland. However, winter is also one of the most challenging times to be outdoors shooting. Frankly the biggest limiting factor in winter photography is personal comfort (for me anyway, I’m a wus). If you’re not comfortable you won’t be free to think and see creatively and certainly won’t want to stay out for the sweet light. Here is some practical advice, much of it learned at the school of hard knocks that can help improve your winter photography.

Shoot right after a fresh snowfall. By timing your photo outings with the end of a fresh snowfall event (especially important in the northeast and lower elevations) the landscape will look its best. The fresh snow hides all the dirty old snow and coats the limbs of trees in white producing some beautiful patterns and contrast. It also helps to tame issues with extreme dynamic range. When the landscape is completely coated in white the dynamic range is more compressed than when only part of the landscape is coated in white. You might not even need to use those fancy grad nd filters.

Snow covered trees © Kurt Budliger

Bring at least two fully charged batteries. Keep one in the camera and the other in an interior pocket close to your body. When the camera’s battery starts to wane (due to cold) simply swap the cold for the warm battery. Place the cold battery in an interior pocket close to your body and allow it to warm back up. You’ll be surprised how well a battery will perform again once it warms back up. You can keep this rotation going for quite a while, perhaps all day.

Winter stream © Kurt Budliger

Using a tripod in the snow is a real pain in the arse. If you can pack the snow down before you set up the tripod I recommend doing that. If the snow is really deep try pushing the legs down into the snow before fully extending them to the sides. This way as you push the tripod down into the snow, the snow will push the legs out the remainder of the way and ultimately you’ll get the tripod deeper into the snow. Otherwise, the outward force of the snow could damage the legs and you won’t be able to get as sturdy a placement.

Snow covered trees and mountain © Kurt Budliger

Before bringing your camera back indoors or into a warm car place it in a sealed plastic bag. If you bring a cold camera inside a warm environment you’ll cause condensation to form on or worse inside the body and lenses. By placing it in a sealed bag first, the condensation will form on the outside of the cold bag and not your camera. Allow the camera and/or lenses to warm to room temperature before taking them out. If you leave your camera in a dedicated camera bag or pack, don’t open it indoors until the interior of the bag has acclimated, you’ll be surprised how long this can take (sometimes hours). All that foam padding that protects the camera also serves as insulation, not only keeping out the cold but keeping it in as well.

Leaf and ice © Kurt Budliger

Hands can get cold super fast and wearing heavy gloves or mittens limits the dexterity needed to operate a camera. I like to keep a set of chemical hand warmers (aka Hot Hands) in my jacket pockets. I’ll then wear only a thin pair of liner gloves for full dexterity when handling my camera. When my hands start to get cold, into the pockets they go to warm up. If you don’t let them get too cold you can warm them up quickly and avoid the discomfort of numb fingers. When I’m done with the shot and ready to move on I put a warmer glove or mitten back on.

Ice patterns © Kurt Budliger

There’s only one thing worse than cold hands, cold feet. Feet sweat a lot, even in winter and when they do your socks and boot liners will get damp. When this happens there is almost no way to keep your feet warm, even in sub-zero rated boots. A lot of mountaineers and winter backcountry enthusiasts will use a vapor barrier sock to keep moisture from permeating their insulation layers. I’ve always found vapor barrier socks to be super uncomfortable. Here’s a tip I learned back in my ice climbing days. Before you put your socks on in the morning coat your feet with an antiperspirant spray (not deodorant!). This will prevent your feet from sweating and thus keep your feet dry and warm. Plus they won’t be stinky either!

About the Author

Kurt Budliger is a full-time professional photographer specializing in landscape, outdoor lifestyle and fly-fishing photography. He is a frequent contributor to Vermont Life Magazine and works with a variety of other editorial and commercial clients throughout the year. Kurt teaches a variety of digital photography classes for Vermont State Colleges and leads field-based workshops throughout New England and beyond. When he’s not out shooting or slave to the computer he can found mountain biking, skiing, hiking fly fishing or hanging out with his wife and two small children near his home in central Vermont. More of his work can be seen at www.kurtbudliger.com and a full schedule of workshops can be found at www.greenmtnphotoworkshops.com.

6 thoughts on “Winter Photography: Be Prepared, Be Successful

  1. Thanks for a helpful article. To add…being aware of weather reports and one owns psychical limitations is all important.
    One problem I’ve always had in winter is the abundance of “blue” light on show, as exampled above. For myself, I don’t like it because it’s not representative of what a human will see in the woods, and because it makes everything (for me) look less attractive. I have tried to filter out the blue light cast on snow but could never do it with out adversely affecting the color in other (less blue) parts of the image.
    Way back when, I had the same problem with film. Should I conclude this is just one one the many limits of photography?

    • I think the blue is actually very representative of what we see, but your eyes adapt to the blue light and make you think it is white. Have you ever had brown tinted sunglasses on for a while and took them off? When you do so the world appears very bluish by comparison, but the sunglasses are what is tinted, not the environment itself.

      When out in snow for a long time, you may begin to perceive the blue light as white. This is why, when you try to correct for it, everything else appears unnatural. I personally love the blue look of snow and think the blue cast in the photos in this article capture the coldness of the environment much better than if you made the snow a more neutral white.

      • “I think the blue is actually very representative of what we see, but your eyes adapt to the blue light and make you think it is white”

        So why, as I look at these blueish images do my eyes not make the same adjustment? I would be surprised if any reader saw anything in the winter woods with their eyes that contained the extreme blueish cast that is in these images. Then again, people do differ.

        ‘When out in snow for a long time, you may begin to perceive the blue light as white. This is why, when you try to correct for it, everything else appears unnatural.”

        I’m not sure what that means.
        What I mean is that when I add yellow to a print in an attempt to filter out some of the blue in snow, the green pine trees gain an unnatural yellow cast.

        Maybe it’s that human eyes/brains filter out the blue light as as part of some primal survival mechanism to add clarity and definition, to help humans see what they are looking at…something the photographic process can not do.
        If that’s true, it makes these images even more unnatural and unattractive to me because I prefer to see things as a human.

  2. One way to stay comfortable in winter is to keep all civilization drugs out of the body. Nicotine and alcohol anyway, but also caffeine, which is a very powerful drug that affects the nervous system.

    I used to have a very narrow comfort zone, reaching from 82º to 84º. That started expanding in both directions after I quit caffeine. After about 2 years I kept wearing short all year round, even in sub zero temperatures.

    Still, the hands do get cold, due to the large surface area. To keep them warm and still be able to operate all controls on a camera – even the recessed buttons – I wear these: http://www.lapolicegear.com/haspalneshgl.html

    • The drugs you mentioned all have different effects on the body, none of which are good for cold weather.

      Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor, constricting blood vessels and capillaries, reducing blood and oxygen perfusion. In the extremities and areas where blood vessels are tiny and run close to the surface of the skin, this increases the risk of frostbite and other tissue damage in cold temperatures.

      Caffeine is a stimulant and a diuretic. Diuretics increase water loss. Dehydration is a major factor in hypothermia, so drugs or substances depleting the system of water are a bad idea.

      Alcohol is a vasodilator. Because it opens up the blood vessels it allows more blood to flow to the extremities, which make make someone feel warmer, but actually increases peripheral heat loss and negates the body’s natural shell-core-shunt reaction to self preservation in cold temperatures. A person who has consumed alcohol will feel warmer even though their core body temperature is actually lower than it would be if they had not consumed alcohol.

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