Get Out (side)

January 18, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

GHOST TREES IGHOST TREES IWhen it's extremely cold, steam from thermal features coats nearby trees with ice. Combined with snowfall, the result is "ghost trees" caked in thick layers of white.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
It's funny how quickly the charm of all those twinkling holiday lights and the novelty of fresh, early season snow recedes in the rear view mirror. By mid-January reality has settled in.

You might look outside the window and - rather than a winter wonderland - see a monochromatic, dreary scene. Maybe the sun has gone on extended hiatus. During one of my last winters living in Chicago, it was overcast for six weeks straight. I kid you not.

Of course it's cold, as if you hadn't noticed. (The other night it was a brisk 34 below zero just up the road from here in West Yellowstone, Montana.) 

Might as well pack up the camera gear and wait for spring. 

If that's how you're feeling, I get it, because once upon a time that was me. Now, though, winter is one of my favorite times to shoot.

What changed? The fact that winter was under-represented in my portfolio began to nag at me. Actually "under-represented" is too generous a description: winter was mostly absent from my work. Clearly, I needed to get outside. 

My aversion to the season resulted from cold-sensitivity. As a kid I was often outdoors in the winter; I lived near a lake and loved to skate. The weather never bothered me - but somewhere along the way things changed. After a snowmobiling trip punished my hands and feet with mild frostbite, I decided I'd had enough. 

Happily, cold-weather gear has improved exponentially. It's been a game changer for me. By the way, as far as I'm concerned thermal-reflective insulation is one of the best inventions since sliced bread. That and chemical hand and feet warmers.

I also discovered quite by accident that a fleece-lined hat is the gold standard. The wind will not cut through it. 

[Full disclosure: through the years there have been a few misses along with the hits. I've tried some things that turned out to be duds, like battery-heated gloves. Two thumbs down. Pun intended.]

Dressing for success makes a difference. When you're reasonably comfortable out in the elements, you can appreciate everything winter has to offer. It's a great season for photography.  

  • The quality of the light is excellent all day long: soft and low in the sky.
  • Shadows are long and deep.
  • It's less crowded and there are fewer people out shooting. Winter is by far the best time to visit many national parks.
  • The lines and shapes of the monochromatic, minimalist landscape are lovely in their simplicity.
  • Winter landscapes can be well-suited to black and white photography 
  • There are many uniquely beautiful features you'll only find this time of year, like hoarfrost, icicles, frozen lakes, waterfalls other various water features, and freshly fallen snow.
  • The days are shorter. Think of this as a welcome respite from 16-hour summer work days.   

I'd encourage you to take advantage of the season. FramedFRAMEDHoodoos create the frame; the patch of snow in which the fir tree stands further enhances the vignette.

Bryce Amphitheater at Sunset Point
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you're new to working with snow, you'll find that it's similar to fog in that it can be difficult to expose correctly. The camera’s light meter wants to render scenes as medium gray, which works reasonably well most of the time – but not with landscapes featuring a great deal of white.

When shooting snow, the "correct" exposure as indicated by the light meter isn't actually correct if you want the snow to look white. To compensate, you must overexpose. Depending on the lighting and type of scene you’re trying to capture, that could be anywhere from 1 to 3 stops.   

Don't go overboard. Check the histogram to make sure you're not blowing out highlights.

Snow reflects the color of the sky as well as diffused sunlight. Accordingly, it can take on a variety of hues: pastels at sunrise and sunset, deep blue at daybreak and dusk, blue tint in the shade, and so forth. If you want to warm your image up a bit you can easily make the adjustment when processing.  

A few odds and ends:

Before heading out, make sure your batteries are fully charged. That's batteries plural: have extras. The colder it is, the more of an impact it'll have on battery life. Keep the spares close to your body so they'll remain warm. I store mine in an interior vest pocket.

Your tripod will become very cold very quickly. When handling it, the cold can cut right through your gloves. Leg-wraps will help. Some people use foam or armaflex tape. At the very least, limit how much your hands come in contact with the legs.

Be careful about where you're walking. The last thing you want to do is ruin a potentially good composition by planting your own footsteps in fresh snow.

Without a doubt, winter photography can be challenging. Low temperatures are a factor. Driving can be difficult. The landscape sometimes does look a little dull and lackluster. Still, I think the positives far outweigh the negatives. 

To everything there is a season.

Venture outside!


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