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Winter Photography 101

I love shooting winter landscape because I often find it very magical.

I remember shooting in Takayama, Japan – the day before was just a regular day with lots of sunshine, but when night fell, it started to snow. I woke up in the morning to discover the whole city had turned completely white in just one night! At the back of my mind, I was filled with awe thinking of our great Mother Earth with the power to change the colour of this huge landscape!

And then we come to photography - shooting landscape in the cold is a lot of hard work. Whether you are climbing up the snowy mountain or the icy river, it is pretty dangerous. An accidental step into the icy water and you could run the risk of getting an unpleasant frostbite. During one of my photography workshops in Takayama, I remember getting everyone a pair of high cut and waterproof rubber boots from the local supermarket to protect their feet!

So before venturing out to take great winter photography, know that when working with Mother Nature and in the freezing weather, anything can happen. Especially for our photographers from Singapore and Asia regions who may not have enough experience dealing with extreme winter cold, always journey with a buddy just to be safe.

With the basics said, let’s move on to some tips for great winter photography. Here are some things I do to overcome the winter cold and handle my gear in the extreme weather:

Practical tips for photography in cold weather

1. Care for your batteries
Camera batteries go flat really fast in the cold winter, so remember to keep them warm. I usually put them close to my body. Remember to bring extra batteries if you are going for a long day trip. If you are going for a few days’ expedition, make sure you bring enough backup batteries with you. If you're shooting with Nikon, please use only Nikon original batteries.

2. Keep fingers warm with the right gear!
The important thing when shooting in the winter cold is to keep your fingers warm and wear the right gear. For temperatures down to minus -15 degrees and below, I wear a pair of thin nylon gloves that comes with rubber grip on the tip of the finger. That gives a good feel for making adjustments and to push the camera buttons.

Now, here’s the trick, I wear an additional fingerless glove mitten that comes with flip-top cover over it. I then only flip open the top of the mitten when I need to push the small buttons or to change lenses. I am pretty sure you could still shoot with the mitten on for the regular buttons.

Overall, remember to try it out before your trip to make sure all your gears are fit for the trip. For clothing, I would suggest you visit a winter gear shop and consult the experts there to share with you what gear would be more appropriate for your trip.

3. Protect your camera and lens
If it's raining or snowing, always keep the lens cap on from getting the snowflakes into your lens. It would be hard to clean them in the wet whether. Never never use your mouth to blow warm air onto your lens like what you always do when cleaning your lens in warm weather, you may get a layer of ice coating on your lens! All you need is dry cleaning cloths and I would bring more if I were you.

Use rain gear; there are commercially available, ready-made camera covers, if possible. For a quick and cheap way and if you can't find anything better, just use a plastic bag, rubber-banded around the camera and leave an opening for the lens, of course.

4. Try to avoid changing lenses
You can get moisture inside the camera body, and it can freeze and damage the camera. If you really have to change, do it fast and do it at a safe place like under shelter and remember to remove your mittens cover flip. It can be very slippery.

5. Get your exposure compensation right
Looking at your camera LCD judging the exposure compensation out there in the snow can be very tricky. There are a few ways to get it right. You could use Matrix metering and check the histogram regularly. The easy way is to check that the overexposure indicators are not blinking. If you’d like to see the details, you could also bring along a magnifier loupe that come with cover or black tape it up to stop the light from coming in. Did you know you could also find a loupe in an old broken lens?

6. How to prevent having a frigid lens?
Lenses can get foggy because of a sudden change from warm to cold. What you need to do is to keep the temperature of the camera as consistent as possible. If you are shooting outdoors in the cold, before you get into the car, you could prepare a plastic bag and put your camera into it before you enter the car. Put it below your foot area and only open the plastic bag again when you get out of your car at your next shooting destination.

Though you would definitely want to put your hands near the warm car heater as soon as possible, do not put your camera close to the car heater with warm heat coming out. If you are taking a break, keep your camera inside your camera bag when you are outside and don't open you bag again to keep the temperature inside the bag cold. Keep the camera in there for 45 minutes or an hour before taking it out. That way the camera warms up gradually inside the bag.

7. Practice basic safety rules
If you are cold or find yourself wearing the wrong clothes, just keep walking to keep yourself warm.

Also many of you may think that you are safe if you carry a mobile phone with you – but the truth is that in many of these places especially at the mountain range, there is no mobile signal.

Again, make sure you don't walk too deep into the forest and if you have to, please do not go alone. Why am I starting to write safety rules? :-)

8. Capturing white snow
Capturing white snow can be very tricky and overexpose easily. Most the time, it also comes with grey-cast skies, but it can be very pretty if you look at the simplicity side of visuals. I would recommend to capture the artistic visuals with simple line art instead.

9. What is the best time of the day for winter shots?
Shooting winter landscape would be best early in the morning. Find a spot the day before and be there before sunrise. If you could capture the fresh fall of the overnight snow before the sun gets high and the ice melts, with beautiful blue sky, WOW! That is going to be a magical moment.

Take up the challenge and explore winter photography!

Winter landscape is always fascinating to your viewers because not many get to see it, or rather, not many photographers would desire to face the cold.

Yet winter photography gives a totally different view and atmosphere from your normal day-to-day life. Whether it is a bird perching on the tree on a snowy day or a city landscape covered with snow, or the great expanse of landscape with a little train passing by, it always brings your audience a great surprise.

Enjoy the photos!

© Alex Soh