There is something truly sublime about a fresh coat of snow. There are few things in nature that are as visually organic as snow-covered trees.
What isn’t great about the winter? There’s snow, ice, and freezing cold temperatures. Wait… this was supposed to be a list of the good things, right? The fact of the matter is that much of what can make landscape photography so powerful is the ability to transcend one particular experience and place someone at a certain time and place, and for many people, it’s about being able to experience a scene for themselves that they’ve not been able to get to for one reason or another. Winter conditions — particularly in more challenging to reach locations — can make it even more difficult for some people to experience a specific place and time themselves.
In central Ohio, where I currently live, snow doesn’t come as often as I would like, and the scenery is a far cry from the gorgeous Western US or Northeast. But on those rare occasions when it does get even a light dusting, much of the traffic that would otherwise clog up some of the more popular locations dwindles to barely anything. This brings me to one of my favorite things about the snow: getting some alone time on the trails, opportunities to photograph as much as I like with little to no other human interference. In other parts of the world where snow is far common and comes in greater measure than here, the cold weather and snow are less of a deterrent, but still, it’s worth adventuring out if there’s a fresh blanket of snow on the ground.
Another one of my favorite characteristics of photographing in the snow is its ability to add texture in some cases and reduce it in others to help simplify scenes. In cases where you’re shooting evergreens, the way the snow rests on the tree provides a lot of contrast between the green and white. Compared with a photo of the same tree without snow, the lack of contrast reduces the texture of the trees. Similarly, a steep mountain slope gains a lot texture with snow. However, in the other situations, when there’s enough snow to cover the ground, all of the texture from grass, rocks, or whatever would otherwise be in the scene is gone, which leaves you with the opportunity for a more simplified composition.
Considerations for Shooting in the Snow
The colder the weather, the more likely it is to mess with your equipment. For me, shooting film with older cameras can present a problem if any part of the camera is dependent on electronics. (See: Mamiya 645 Pro TL) While I’ve shot my Mamiya in a blizzard and not (yet!) experienced an issue, I know that issues can be somewhat common with Pentax 67s, and my newest camera has yet to be tested in any sort of harsh winter environment. Further, for both analog and digital photographers alike, it is important to keep a spare battery in a warm place, as the cold weather causes batteries to lose their charge pretty quickly.
Another challenge is metering in snowy areas. For shots with a lot of snow (compared with a light dusting of snow), the camera can struggle to calculate the proper shutter speed. In brief, for scenes with a lot of snow, the camera's meter sees what should be pure white but is calibrated in such a way as to underexposure the scene so that it looks gray. If you’re at all like me and prefer to shoot in aperture priority mode the majority of the time, I would suggest that you overexpose by 1 to 2 stops. While you don’t want any clipping, you don’t want what should be bright white snow to be interpreted as middle gray.
Personally, I do not use filters as often as I can (or arguably should), so I have little to no advice on this. In cases where I’ve wanted a long exposure because it was actively snowing and I didn’t want it to show up in my photograph or when there was moving water that I wanted to give a sense of movement, I’ve used a variable ND filter. Though I’ve not used a polarizing filter to shoot in the snow, I’ve been told it helps, and I plan to take on with me on a trip to the Alps. Lastly, for those digital photographers, adjusting your white balance may be in order, as daylight balance can make scenes appear a bit blue/teal as you get closer to dawn or dusk. For film photographers, shooting with a warming filter can help counteract this, particularly if you’re shooting a cool film like Fuji Provia,though personally, I don’t mind the slight color shift.
Additional Non-Photography-Related Considerations
While photographing in the winter can be incredibly beautiful, it is generally much more dangerous than in the summer. Before going out, you should take additional precautions. I highly suggest ice cleats (a.k.a. crampons) to ensure you stay upright. Walking over packed snow or ice is a great way for you and all of your gear to meet the ground faster than you would like. And even if you cannot see any ice, if the temperature has oscillated between above and below freezing in the days prior to your steps, there may well be a layer of ice beneath the snow. Just in case you take a fall, having your gear in a solid, waterproof bag with good padding is essential.
Just as importantly as staying upright, it is crucial to stay warm. While this may seem like it doesn’t need to be said given the context, I find that too many people underestimate just how much colder it feels to stand still for any amount of time setting up a shot, switching lenses, or switching film than it feels to constantly be on the move or going from building to car or car to building. Good gloves and a good, warm hat are essential. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, packing water and food are crucial. A person is just as capable of dehydration or hunger in the winter as they are in the summer. As a general rule of thumb, I try to pack for a hike that’s half again as long as I expect to take.