A Photographer's Guide to Photographing the Winter Landscape

February 24, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

"Morning's Star"Sun rises over the landscape of fresh snow; Colorado National Monument, Grand Junction, CO



There are certain times of the year we may find more challenging to get outside and shoot and it is those times pushing ourselves can be most rewarding. Winter is a time I look at as being incredibly challenging to get outside for photography as it is cold, can be dark especially when photographing sunrise or sunset and hard to read the landscape. But, this is one of the seasons I believe we can create some of our strongest images with a few tips and ideas.


“A Day of Scouting”


The importance of scouting your location early cannot be stressed enough. Winter and snow photography transforms the landscape into an ocean of white and merely getting out before the sun comes up is not sufficient. Though you can still come home with a keeper or two, you will be working at an increased stress level which can affect a clear head and vision. I like to think of this time to scout as a time to get away from everything and immerse yourself in the location and moment. Try seeing the landscape differently than you normally would. When photographing during winter I like to get out and meditate on the silence and stillness in the air.


“Tread Lightly”


This could also be titled, “Watch Where you Step”, as looking where you walk is so important to not interfere with any potential images. I have seen countless images ruined by footprints in the snow, but otherwise could have been incredible from great light and color. It is so easy to walk into your scene without realizing it. Think of scouting your location similarly to how an animal finds its prey: it approaches with caution and intent focusing on its subject while also aware of its surroundings. It may also move from side to side paralleling it to get an idea of obstacles and its best means of approach. Ultimately, it waits for the perfect moment as should we when setting up our shot. Taking our time to inspect our scene and deliberately look for the ideal angle will allow the scene to unfold naturally.




When approaching a winter scene I like to try and have an idea of what I want the image to look like before I even leave my house/bed/tent/sleeping bag. I tend to base my outings on weather: If it is going to be snowing and a storm is on the radar, I am looking at cloud cover percentages hoping for around 60% - 80% at sunrise the following morning. I am thinking: Sunrise, Clouds, Snow = Awesome. I also need to know what time and which direction the sun is going to rise and set giving me options and also necessary info as color happens approximately 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset. I always try to be in position with the shot lined up about 20 - 30 minutes ahead of time just in case in need to make adjustments or shoot from a different location. I will have time to calmly move and recompose. 


“Finding the Line”


As aforementioned, photographing in the snow is incredibly challenging it covers the landscape in a blanket of white. It is incredibly difficult to see lines, shapes, etc. in flat light especially if scouting during a storm. It takes practice as well, to train the eye to see in these conditions and the only way to get better is to get out and practice. It is also a blessing because it can transform what would normally be an impossible landscape to photograph into a gorgeous scene. A way to think about this is to walk slowly pausing every few meters and observe the landscape looking for ridges or shapes in the snow that you can later accentuate in your post production. Ideally, getting a nice crack or ridge in the snow can add a lot of interest and lead the viewers eye into the frame. Get your camera out and hold it up to your eye; this helps reduce what your eye sees and reduces the landscape into a 2D environment. It can really help.




You are already working in ideal situations to simplify your image, take advantage of these settings and work extra hard isolating a subject or creating a focal point for the viewers eye. Find a shrub or tree or a rock - anything that will help create interest and strength to your image and incorporate it into the overall scene. In the image above, I knew I wanted to find a means to utilize the small pine and crack in the snow to lead the eye into the frame and knowing the sun would be rising in the same direction, I was able to have the perfect scene unfold. 


“Wait for the Light”


It goes without saying that in landscape photography you just have to be patient. There is nothing short or long about this rule and the better you are at it, the stronger your images will become. I realize arriving to the location you had scouted the evening prior to before sunrise and standing in wind/snow/rain, etc. is not fun or ideal, but you can be prepared for it: carry extra layers in your bag such as a down jacket to put on while waiting; pack a pair of goggles to put on and wear if the wind is howling; before setting out from camp/car insert toe warmers into your boots to prevent frostbite; carry an insulated thermos of hot or warm water to sip on to keep your core warm. There are many things that you can do that will work for you to keep warm. The only way to truly learn what these are is to get out and experiment. 


“In the Bag”


You have done the research, have your gear ready with charged batteries, empty memory cards, tripod, bags are packed with warm gear, snowshoes, gloves and extra layers. Now all you need is to get out and get that winning shot and with these pointers I wish you the best chasing the light!

Tags: Landscape, Landscape photography, Tips, Advice, Inspiration, Passion, Zenfolio, Lowepro, PeakDesign, Vanguard, Tripod, Nikon, SanDisk, Colorado, Winter, Snow, Sunrise, Sunset, Joseph Roybal, Tourism, Clouds



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