The Biggest Obstacle in Winter Is Yourself

Photographing in a winter wonderland offers us so many advantages, as all the distracting elements on the ground get hidden by snow. But then there comes the photographer, who wants to get out the best possible photograph. And exactly this leads to one of the problems.

In my latest vlog, where I was photographing a fantastic winter wonderland in Austria, I have to say it was a quite hard afternoon of landscape photography for me. But I enjoyed it.

When Daytime Is Your Enemy

I would usually prefer photographing snow in the morning, as it gets offered the best texture on its surface, after a cold night, or maybe after a bit of snowfall. But when you want to drive anywhere here in the mountains, the chance is high that you will have to use a mountain road. That's no problem at all with the bigger federal roads, as they have great winter service, which allows you to use them like in other seasons.

But as a landscape photographer, I’m not interested in photographing at the well-known places that everyone knows. I prefer the spots found by myself in the wilderness. And therefore I have to use smaller roads that are not used all too frequently. But these roads don’t get winter service before nine or ten a.m. after a snowy night. That’s the time when I usually return to my car after shooting in the morning. So, winter photography in the morning is quite tricky here. You could stay anywhere overnight in a mountain hut, of course, but you will be anyway to the area around the hut, and due to our pandemic situation since 2020, I currently generally avoid that.

But limitations happen just in our heads. Who says, that it is not possible to get fantastic snow another time of the day? What I do is simply look for snowfall in the afternoon, when the roads are all open and the snow is freshly falling from the sky. It leads to fantastic textures.

When The Photographer Hinders Themselves

Whenever I enter a location, I like to wander around to get an impression of that piece of nature. I inhale it all, and finally, I don’t have to look for compositions, — they are suddenly just there. I don’t have to do more than just fine-tuning and capturing them. The biggest requirement is to look at things from different perspectives. When I’m doing this, I’m still not thinking if there is a composition possible, I just observe. And this process takes a while; sometimes, I have to do a lot of steps, but suddenly, I see a story appearing in front of me. I build up a composition, I take my camera out of my bag, maybe I wait for the right timing, and then, I expose. And finally, I go home with a fantastic photograph in so many cases.

But if I were to try to do it exactly like that in winter, chances are high I would go home without any photograph. And the reason is simply that with each step I make in the snow, I create irreversible footprints. There is nothing easier than damaging my composition by myself, just by observing the landscape, just by walking around. We have to be careful here.

How I Succeed in Winter

There is no way to get rid of footprints unless we don’t walk around. But we need to walk around to find a composition. So, what can we do?

I walk around in a winter wonderland. But I look for potential stories with nearly every step I take. I said “stories,” not compositions. There's a difference. Framing up compositions is fine-tuning after I have found a story. I just look for any elements that attract me, for associations between elements, and listen to my emotions. And after I have found something, I try to build up a composition with each tiny step — really, each step. I don’t have that luxury of walking around in my scene as I want, I build up multiple compositions, and when I’m happy with one, I grab my camera, fine-tune the composition, and take a shot. Then, I go on walking carefully, I look for better options at that scene, and if there is one, I frame up one more composition. This is more effort than other seasons, though. But for me, it feels like getting much more intimate with nature, which is an amazing experience.

It is important that you think about your options with nearly every step, as I have done in the above-linked video. The first image I took was even quite close to the parking place. And this is just because I started to think about stories with each step.

What are the things you are struggling with in winter? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Christian Irmler's picture

Christian Irmler is a passioned landscape photographer from Austria who comes from a line of artists.
He engages already his whole life with the compositions of the paintings of his family. In 1990 he began with photography and started to implement all his knowledge from painting into his photography.

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It's easy when you live somewhere it snows everywhere. As an Australian, it's a little harder; I lived in Melbourne, where I could drive to the snow in 3 hours, now I've moved, it's 14 hours.

I haven't been to the snow in two years now, because of this bloody virus. This year I'll do two weeks camping in the backcountry...hopefully....

Hi William, oh yes, definitely. Where you live makes generally such a big difference for any kind of nature photography.
3 hours is already a lot, but 14 hours is hard. Fingers crossed, that the travel situation will get better soon.
But 2 weeks camping in the backcountry doesn't also sound all too bad. I hope you'll enjoy it ;)
Nice greetings - oh an Merry Christmas to you and your family,

Time will tell.

And merry Christmas to you too, Christian :)

Christian Irmler asked,

"What are the things you are struggling with in winter?"

The thing that I struggle with the most is finding wild animals or birds to photograph in beautiful winter conditions.

I absolutely love snow and ice - I think they are stunningly beautiful! Yet I am not really in photographing snow and ice on their own. I am a wildlife guy, so what I want is to photograph wild animals and birds in spectacular looking winter conditions.

Here where I live, wildlife is extremely hard to find in winter. Many species that I enjoy most are the subalpine species that live above 5,000 feet elevation, such as Moose, Spruce Grouse, Snowshoe Hares, and Pika. Yet I am not able to get up into those mountain habitats during the winter because I cannot afford the snowmobiles that are required to get up there when the roads are closed to regular cars and trucks.

Down here in the lowlands where I live, most of the bird species fly away for the winter and don't come back until April. So much of the passerine bird life that I want to photograph in snow is actually down in Mexico during the winter months.

Deer are rather boring in the winter ... the bucks usually shed their antlers before the snows fall, and besides, their rut is over by early December, so they don't engage in any exciting breeding activity when the winter conditions are most beautiful. I would love to photograph majestic buck deer in snow and ice, but they're not exactly majestic in the winter, as their rut-swollen necks shrink back down to wimpy pencil necks, and their antlers fall off. Moose present the same problem, as most of them drop their antlers by Christmas.

So yeah, I'd definitely say that the thing I struggle with most in the winter is finding the animals that I want to photograph. All of this beautiful snow and ice and frost aren't doing a wildlife photographer much good if he/she doesn't have a way to put wild animals in the viewfinder on a consistent daily basis.

Hi Tom, that's absolutely comprehensible, that you prefer to photograph wildlife as a wildlife photographer. I would see two options to solve your problem: Either you travel anywhere else, where the animals are you want to photograph or you make a compromise in the species for that time of the time. I know, I know. The travel restrictions in the moment don't make things easier. Fingers crossed that we'll get rid of this issue soon.
Merry Christmas and nice greetings,

Hey, Christian
Thanks for responding to my comment.
I understand your suggestion to travel to where there are better wildlife opportunities at this time of year. Makes sense.
There are no restrictions that affect me at all. Throughout the last two years, I have been able to travel anywhere and everywhere that I have wanted to. COVID hasn't affected my photography or my travel in the least.
However, I travel so much that it is nice to shoot in my home range once in a while. I mean, over the last year I have spent 5 1/2 months far away from home. Now that I am back for a couple months, it is nice to stick around for a bit instead of endlessly traipsing off in faraway directions. I mean, I will go over to Montana for a few days next week, and to Yellowstone the week after that, and maybe northern California for ducks next month. But it would be really nice to have something local to shoot in the winter, instead of always having to go far away to find some critters to shoot.

Isn't the biggest obstacle almost always "yourself?" It is for me. I hate planning to go out. For me, it's easiest to just wake up, think of what I have to do today. If it's nothing, then, do I want to continue to sleep or grab the camera and go? Too often, sleep wins out.

Hi Rich,
"Isn't the biggest obstacle almost always yourself?" Absolutely, at least in the most cases. Landscape photography in a winter wonderland makes ourselves just a bit more to the problem, when we dash around and destroy our fantastic foreground.
And yeah - I know so good what you mean with getting up in the morning. I think this is even the hardest part in outdoor photography :)
Merry Christmas and nice greetings,

It doesn't matter if it's snow or flowers. I'm not a morning person.

My problem with winter is, well, winter. I have Raynaud's syndrome where I quickly lose the feeling in my fingers due to the cold. I've been trying to find solutions that keep my hands warm AND allows access to the camera's buttons and dials. The search continues.

Try those chemical hand warmers. You can also get battery powered electric gloves, but they're pricey.

I've seen those electronic ones! Yes, they are pricey. But, if they work the way I need them to, they'd be worth every penny. The chemical warmers didn't work well for me.

I love my home state, but it can have brutal winters. That's why when I had the chance to live and work in a warmer country, I took it. I'm not in the tropics, but they're very close.

I don't like the heat, but moved to Queensland (sub-topical) for my wife.

Funny thing though, the locals keep complaining about the heat, and I'm one of the few people who will walk.

Hi Robert, oh that's so sad to hear!
I guess you've tried already some of these gloves where you can open single fingers? I just don't know if there exists some with an integrated heating. I cross my fingers for you, that you'll find the right one!
Merry Christmas and nice greetings,

haha my winter wonder land is no snow what so ever, Bitter windy cold sweeping over dead tan plains, ugly commercial outlets shopping centers, and lifeless looking trees. What really sucks is that when it does snow it looks nice for about a day then it melts and refreezes in to black ice and rock hard ice chunks. The next day it's all black slush. My area looks pretty destitute during winter. Especially since all the trees have been shredded by tornadoes over the years lol. Poor oxygen factories :(

Hi Chris, here in Austria we have lots of snow though, but the trees are also not covered the whole winter nicely. It often happens that there is snowfall for a day or two, sometimes also for a whole week. Then it gets warmer, rain washes the snow down from the trees and the next snowfall comes some weeks later, if it is not one of those extreme warm winters, where snow ist just up on the mountains. When there is no snow, the landscape doesn't show itself from its chocolate side, but I anyway find possibilities for photography.
What I want to say with that is, that there is always a possibility out there. Sometimes it is just not that obvious. You mentioned black slush, that turns your landscape destitute. We have white snow here, that turns everything destitute :) You know what I mean? What I would maybe think about was, to find a story and a composition with that black slush you mentioned. It sounds interesting, as we don't get this here in our area. Maybe a chance to get a fantastic expressionistic photograph, that expresses the inner values of the landscape around you, like it is in winter? Maybe also something that makes the destroying results of the tornado visible? Just some ideas from someone who doesn't know your local area ;)
Merry Christmas and nice greetings,

Nothing like freezing your nose and toes to get pictures of snow

Hi Charles, that's true :)
Thanks a lot for your comment!
Merry Christmas and nice greetings,