You may think that when winter comes, it’s time put away your camera and wait for spring. If you do you’ll miss out on some of the most dramatic photo opportunities of the year.
Winter is a special time in Utah. The cottonwoods’ leaves are gone and their trunks stand out in stark contrast against the snowy landscape or wintry sky. The red rocks almost seem to glow when the afternoon sun illuminates them, their shadows filled by light reflected from the snow. If you venture out soon after a snowfall, branches and cliffs may be festooned with the white stuff, creating special photography opportunities.
Winter days are short here in Moab, with the sun never very high in the sky. Sometimes after a snow storm the sky is at its clearest, with deep blues that are seen in few other places in America.
Here are a few tips for capturing winter landscapes with your camera.
Keep your camera cold. When it’s cold outside and there’s moisture in the air it loves to condense on warm surfaces. If your camera is too warm it will soon be covered with dew. Leave your camera where it can cool down before you’re ready to make pictures, for example by putting it in your car the night before.
Keep your batteries warm. Here’s an exception to the rule above. Especially when it’s bitter cold, your batteries won’t perform with their usual oomph. The solution: When you’re not actually shooting, remove the battery or batteries and keep them in an inside pocket. With the camera cold and your batteries warm you’re ready to make pictures even on the coldest winter day.
Expose to the right. It’s not easy to fool the latest auto-exposure systems, but light metering has always been based on a gray scale. That means that your camera might be fooled and you’ll end up with snow that looks more like wood ashes. There are a couple of ways to keep this from being a problem. First, if your camera allows it, shoot in RAW instead of letting the camera create JPEG files for you. With RAW, you can adjust exposure and other settings in your computer before processing the digital file.
Second, and this is always a good idea when shooting in RAW, slightly over expose the image, perhaps one-third stop. This lets you capture more pixels in the high (white) end of the scale and fewer in the low-end shadows. In RAW you can always adjust the exposure later.
Finally, use the histogram function in your camera to make sure the exposure is within the right range. You should look for indications that pixels are either too far in the shadow or highlight ends of the exposure scale.
Watch your step. When scoping out a scene with new fallen snow, make sure you don’t leave a bunch of tracks just where you want to make a picture. The photograph in Fig. 1 is a good example of this. I made it in early January some years ago using a 4x5 inch view camera and Fuji Velvia sheet film. I arrived in Moab the night before and checked into a motel. During the night there was a nice snowfall and by morning the storm had passed and the sky turned pure azure. When I hiked up to Delicate Arch no one else had been there to disturb the fresh snow. Notice how the snow acted as a reflector to fill in the shadows on the arch and bring out the glowing color of the rocks.
Here’s another idea when working with your digital files: Winter scenes often adapt themselves well to black-and-white conversion. To demonstrate this, in Fig. 2 I’ve processed the Delicate Arch picture in Photoshop using the NIK plug-in suite of processing tools (a Google product). I chose a filter called Silver Efex Pro 2, and selected the look of Kodak Panatomic X film, a 32 ISO film known for its fine grain. (This film was popular for many years but is no longer made.) Compare how the black-and-white version creates a different creative look to the luminous colors of the original.
Here’s another example of a winter scene (Fig. 3). This photo was made in Great Basin National Park just across the Nevada line, also with a 4x5 view camera and film. The snow makes the foreground bushes stand out in ways they wouldn’t at other times of the year. The bare white branches of the aspen trees stand out against evergreens and the peak of Mount Wheeler finishes out the composition.
And here’s a shot (Fig. 4) I made two years ago in Arches National Park, with snow bringing a magical look to hoodoo rock formations in the Garden of Eden area. The snow makes the red rocks stand out. A polarizing filter helped bring out the colors of the rocks and sky. This was made with a Canon t3i camera and Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens.
Here’s hoping 2016 will be a great year for you. Keep on clicking.
David L. Brown is a long-time landscape photographer whose pictures have been published thousands of times around the world. He lives in Moab where he leads local photo tours and workshops. You can visit his web site at www.imagequest.photo.