This time of year you’re probably looking out the window and wondering when the sun is finally going to come out. It’s the dead of winter, the holidays are gone, and guess what? You’ve gotta return to your job. The first week in January is consistently voted the most depressing in the northern hemisphere, but you should have no reason to feel blue. Now is the time to create the most gorgeous landscape photos you’ve ever made. Here’s how.
Why winter landscapes are so interesting
It all comes down to color. The summer and spring are wonderful times, but the greens of the summer are all too common. It’s typical to end up with one image after another that’s nothing more than a sea of green. In the middle of the winter, the color of the ground changes to a brownish hue that permits a little more contrast. When you add in snow, you start to get images with more than one dimension to them.
A lot of people think of winter as a dull and lifeless time, and that may be true if you’re a groundhog. But in terms of color, the winter is when things truly start to get interesting. Without all that green, you’re finally free to capture some of the warmer colors that can make a landscape pop.
Things to consider when photographing wintry landscapes
First of all, remember that it’s the dead of winter. In order to get those beautiful warm colors I was talking about earlier, you’re going to want to wake up pretty early, and that means you’re going to contend with some fiercely cold early morning temperatures. I like to kill two birds with one stone by bringing a giant thermos of coffee with me on my early morning winter adventures. Also, be sure to tell a loved one where you’re trekking out to, and take a cell phone. You never know what can happen when you’re dealing with subzero temperatures and early morning grogginess.
Alright, now that I’ve sufficiently scared you enough, I want to tell you what to look for in a winter scene.
- Warm + cool colors. The contrast between warm and cool colors is what makes winter landscapes so amazing. Look for warm tones on the ground and cool tones up in the sky. Compose the shot to highlight the interplay between them.
- Light snowfall. I say light snowfall because if you get too much snow, your photo becomes a giant white blob. Look for areas where snow lightly covers your subject. You always want a bit of your subject to poke through.
- Morning fog or haze. I love to find lakes to photograph in the winter. If you catch them at just the right time, the fog adds a whole new dimension to the image. Remember to use a fast shutter speed if you want sharp fog and a slow shutter speed if you want it to look silky smooth.
The top photo has a great example of fog/haze, and the second photo above is a perfect expression of the warm + cool colors as well as light snowfall.
White balance and exposure compensation
If your scene is mostly composed of snow, it’s important to realize that snow can play tricks on your camera. It fools your camera into thinking the scene is brighter than it actually is, making your snow turn a bizarre shade of grey instead. This problem is easily remedied by adjusting your camera’s Exposure Value (EV) settings or Snow Mode.
By turning up the EV on your camera, you are effectively telling your camera not to darken the image just because the thing you’re photographing happens to be very bright. It’s the quickest way to get rid of the grey snow problem that can happen when you’re photographing wintry landscapes. If you can't change EV on your camera, then there’s a pretty good chance your camera has some sort of snow mode. Just switch over to that and go snap happy. The snow mode will ensure that the snow you’re photographing comes out white, not grey.
Other creative considerations
The contrast between the extreme white of snow and everything that surrounds it is cause for black and white photography. When you’re out there in the early morning, consider some of the more abstract ideas you can bring out in your landscapes. Think of “big picture” things like the shapes that are created when white snow contrasts with darker colors.
Oftentimes a picture that’s mostly snow just works better as a black and white image. Don’t blind yourself to this possibility. Color can both enhance or rob an image of its meaning. It all depends on context.
The next few weeks should be your best weeks for creating landscapes! Don’t let the weather bum you out. Take this opportunity and enjoy it. And make sure to upload your best photo to the Cold Weather Gallery.
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