I was standing on top of 2 feet of snow in an open North Dakota field more than a quarter of a mile from where I parked my truck. I was fully encased inside a down parka, carrying a full photo backpack and a large tripod with snow feet. The 1996/1997 winter was especially snowy—it would eventually flood the entire Red River Valley, causing more than $3.5 billion in damage—and everything was awash in blinding white. The temperature was hovering in the mid-20s, and the surface of the snow was a hard crust, which supported both me and my tripod.
I don’t remember what, exactly, I was photographing at the time, but I do recall I was out on that snow for more than an hour as the sun rose. When I turned to head back to the car, my first step broke through the crust, sinking me above the knee. As I tried to extricate myself, my other foot broke through. And so it went the entire way back to the truck. It was a slow and exhausting walk. Apparently, the morning sun had raised the temperature enough to weaken the top layer of crust, rendering it insufficient to support my weight and that of my gear. A trail of post holes followed behind me. The photograph I made that morning was unmemorable, but I learned from the experience.
On another trip, this time in Yellowstone National Park, I descended a steep, snow-covered slope to get an unobstructed photograph of Yellowstone Lake’s Carrington Island. Misjudging a step, I slid a dozen feet and, after contorting myself to make the photograph I had envisioned, I had to scratch and claw my way back to the top.
Winter is not always an easy time to photograph. It offers a slew of unique challenges to mind and body (and gear). Yet it is, for many of us, one of the best times of the year for photography.
Winter snows can have a cleansing effect on the landscape, covering distracting elements and providing a clean and bright background against which we can compose compelling subjects that may have gone unnoticed in other seasons. Here are XX ways to keep it simple to help you capture striking snowy landscape photos.
#1 Look for Flat & Open Scenes
I have photographed winter scenes in many different areas, but my favorite place also happens to be one of the coldest and photographically underappreciated places in the continental United States: North Dakota. The flat, open and already-reticent landscape lends itself well to winter’s further simplification, and most roads in the state, including rural gravel roads, are regularly plowed.
I recall one particular scene I had driven by numerous times while I was working in the state, an agricultural shelter belt made in an alternating pattern of evergreen and deciduous trees, each fitting tightly with its neighbor. In the previous, warmer months, I had noticed a hint of photographic potential in the scene but never felt compelled to make a photograph, as the textures of the planted fields distracted from the pattern of the shelter belt, rendering it weak and uninteresting.
But with the fields covered in new snow along with the featureless cloudy sky, the shapes and patterns of the leafless trees and the anomaly of the missing evergreen created a compelling narrative. It remains one of my most popular photographs.
#2 Find Shapes & Shadows
Similar experiences happen almost every winter. The clean winter palette emphasizes the stark shapes and forms of almost any subject. Deciduous trees become naked and vulnerable without their leaves (without which the previously mentioned photograph would not have worked).
Shadows upon clean, open snow form caricatures of their owners. It’s a revealing atmosphere that helps bring out the raw, unadulterated nature of things and allows us, as photographers, to explore and present our subjects with fewer compositional distractions.
Of course, not all landscapes are as stark and flat and gray as the northern plains. Mountainous areas offer their own brand of winter cleansing. During an early-morning drive through Grand Teton National Park, I came across a small grove of dark trees that were shaped like a mini version of the mountains behind them.
The foreground snow helped to separate the trees from the otherwise-distracting texture of the grasses, while the pre-dawn, -15 degrees Fahrenheit ice fog (ice crystals hanging in the air) softened and lightened the distant mountains, further allowing the grove of trees to stand out and become the dominant subject despite their relatively small size. I have returned to this spot in the summer months and, with both foreground and background in full detail, this grove of trees was barely noticeable.
#3 Take Precautions
Whether we’re working in the flat, frozen north or alongside snow-covered mountains, there are certain precautions we should take to ensure the health of both ourselves and our equipment. Most important is proper clothing.
In my earlier story in which I was slogging back to the truck in thigh-deep snow, I had made an error in judgment. I was wearing a medium-weight down parka as my only insulation layer because the temperature was fairly mild, but as I struggled through the snow, that parka became very hot and, with only a T-shirt beneath, I had to wear that parka all the way back. I was soaked with sweat that, in a different situation, could have been dangerous.
Instead, I should have dressed in layers with light insulation against my body instead of a simple T-shirt, which would have allowed me to wear a lighter jacket. That way, when I started getting hot, I could have removed the overcoat and still have been protected.
As photographers, we might plan for the static photography part but forget that we often have to walk for a fair amount. We need to be prepared for both.
I don’t want to get into too much detail regarding proper clothing and safety as we each have different cold tolerances, conditioning and clothing preferences. Just dress in layers and be aware of your body. Don’t hesitate to return to safety at the first sign of trouble. And don’t forget that we often stand in one spot waiting for the right conditions to make our photograph, so be prepared for that level of static, cold-inducing inactivity.
If you’re a photographer with a nearby vehicle rather than a self-reliant, long-distance winter trekker, it’s OK to dress a bit too warm; just be sure to dress in layers so you can cool off if needed and keep any sweating at bay.
Protecting our exposed skin against the cold is another important factor to consider. Our cameras, whether of metal or plastic, could be painfully cold and, if cold enough, may cause frostbite on contact with bare skin. After one particularly cold day out with the camera, I returned home with a black spot beneath my right eye. It turns out that, while looking through the viewfinder, my cheek was in direct contact with the camera body, and it froze the skin. That was almost 20 years ago and, to this day, that area can be quite sensitive in cold weather.
I have tried just about everything available to protect my fingers: insulated gloves, mittens with a pointer finger, fingerless gloves and even mittens for hunters that allow the pointer (shutter) finger and thumb to be uncovered. Each has a place and can work well in moderate cold, but for below-zero temps, I prefer lightweight, textured liner gloves worn inside heavy mittens. This allows me to temporarily remove my hands from the mittens for working the camera controls while still giving a modicum of frostbite prevention. I know that not all winter photography is done in dangerously cold weather, so please adapt my suggestion to better fit your situation.
#4 Gear Considerations
Our personal comfort and safety will always come first, but close behind is protecting our gear. Cold weather can be tough on photographic equipment. The colder the temperature, the greater the effect. But after photographing winter landscapes for the better part of 20 years, both as a creative artist and as the senior photographer at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks (the coldest university campus in the lower 48 states), I can honestly say I have never had a camera stop working, even in temperatures that reached down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Batteries, on the other hand, are a different story. Cold weather saps the power from batteries and can drastically shorten their charge, so carry spares. I have had many lose their charge after only a few dozen shots. I always keep a spare battery or two close to my body to keep them warm.
There are a few field tricks I have learned through trial and error (mostly error) to keep my equipment operating in the field. The most important is to never try to keep your camera warm. Let it cool to the ambient outside temperature. The reason is that, if the camera is warm, snow will melt upon contact. This is important when it’s snowing, but it is especially important when your awkward, mitten-encased hands drop the camera into a pile of snow. If it is below freezing and the camera has been allowed to get cold, the snow will not melt, and you can just brush it off and continue working. If the camera is warm, the snow will melt on your camera and, quite possibly, refreeze.
Another important trick is to never bring your cold gear into a warm environment, such as a running car or building. Condensation can form. It is embarrassing to convey how many fogged lenses and camera viewfinders I have to warm up on my truck’s dashboard with the heater running at full blast. Often that condensation was inside the camera viewfinder or lens and took forever to clear up.
While a lot of websites and books recommend placing cold gear into sealed plastic bags before you bring it into the house, I prefer just to keep everything zipped inside my camera backpack for a couple of hours. If I need to edit right away, I can just remove the storage cards before I head inside.
#5 Nail The Exposure
Now that we are safe and comfortable, and our gear is protected, we can start to photograph. As you may already know, photographing in snow, whether in sunlight or cloudy days, requires an adjustment in our exposures. Camera meters are much more intelligent than in the past, but even the most advanced metering systems are going to get fooled by a snowy scene. Depending on the specific conditions, this usually means adding 1.5 to 2 stops to our exposure.
In the days of film, we would have to guesstimate, but it wasn’t too difficult to get pretty close. With digital photography, we have the histogram to guide us.
Snow detail can be very small and subtle, but it is very important, so we need to pay special attention to the right (highlight) side of the histogram to prevent any potential loss of image data. Often, when working a snowy landscape, I will purposely err on the side of a slight underexposure to ensure I have sufficient highlight detail in even the tiniest of areas. I don’t trust the white or black exposure “blinkies” on the LCD screen, especially when working in winter conditions as they may miss very small, overexposed areas.
#6 Style Your Edits
Editing snow images is no different than any other photograph. Personally, I prefer high-key images that still retain highlight detail to give the snow some dimensionality while still keeping it a secondary element. But other winter photographers, such as Michael Kenna, often print their snow close to a middle gray. Allow your personal style to guide you.
Despite the challenges of photography during the cold winter months, it is a wonderful time to be out with the camera. Snow, especially newly fallen snow, can purify a landscape and offer a clean and reticent palette. And did I mention there are no bugs?
See more of Chuck Kimmerle’s work at chuckkimmerle.com.