Although winter photography requires an extra level of preparedness, the beauty of the season can make the effort very worthwhile.
There you sit next to a roaring fire in your favorite easy chair, with a good book in your hands and a good dog curled at your feet. Outside the frost-framed window the wind howls as you gaze at six inches of freshly fallen snow wrapping your world in a beautiful new blanket of white.
Then out of the corner of your eye you see a flash of scarlet red as a half dozen cardinals alight on a snow-covered dogwood, preparing to mob your feeder at the far edge of your yard. Arranged like ornaments on a Christmas tree, they would make the perfect photo. As you take another sip of hot cocoa and stoke the fire, you see your camera bag hanging on the coatrack by the door. Should you stay in your toasty den or grab camera and go? The roaring fire, book and dog will wait, but here in Nebraska the snow may not, so I say go.
Photographing nature in winter can result in magical images, whether it's a flock of cardinals at a bird feeder, lone deer tracks crossing a snowy plain, or a beautiful winter landscape scene like those out of old Currier and Ives catalogs. Winter nature photography can also be a frustrating and uncomfortable experience if you are ill-prepared. Here are a few basic tips that may help make your decision to brave the snow and cold a wise and successful outing.Controlling Exposure
Snow is white, but a built-in camera meter (the device that determines exposures) tries to make it gray. All camera meters, whether they're in a point-and-shoot camera or a high-end 35mm SLR, are designed to render the subject you point them at as medium-toned, regardless of what the subject is.
Point a camera at a medium-toned subject in a medium-toned scene, such as a brown deer in a green field with a blue sky, and it's likely the camera meter's normal setting will render the scene correctly, because brown, green and blue are generally medium tones. However, point the camera at a dark scene, like a black bear standing in shadows, and it will take that dark-toned scene and overexpose it, making the bear appear a medium gray. Conversely, point the camera at a polar bear on an iceberg, and the meter will try to make the scene darker, again resulting in a gray bear.
Remember, meters don't think. You do. A simple rule I follow to properly expose snow on a sunny day is to overexpose the image one stop from what the camera meter indicates is the correct exposure. On an overcast day, I overexpose my images by two stops. However, because metering is not an exact science, I use these only as starting points - if the subject gives me time, I take a few frames of the same scene at slightly different exposures, "bracketing" around my base reading just to be safe.
These days, in the age of digital cameras, digital darkrooms and imaging software, there is a temptation to not pay as much attention to exposure because you figure you can always "fix" the image later. That is true to a point, but I would much rather make the correct exposures in the field rather than spend considerable time at the computer trying to fix my mistakes.Dressing for Warmth
To me, the fun index in winter photography is directly proportional to how warm you are. If you are cold, there is very little joy. If you get too cold, hypothermia sets in, which at the very least impairs judgment and can sometimes do much worse.
When I dress to photograph in the wintertime, I think hands, feet, head and core. The majority of your body heat is lost through your extremities, so quality gloves, boots and hat are a must.
For my hands, I like to wear insulated overmitts that go up past my wrists to protect them from wind and snow, with liner gloves underneath that are thin enough for me to make fine adjustments to camera controls without having to use bare hands.
For my feet, I wear insulated pack boots with thick wool socks if I'm going to be doing blind work and sitting for long periods. If I'm going to be moving a lot, I use lighter weight, insulated hunting boots and carry along gaiters that go up to my calf to keep out snow or slush. They also provide a little extra warmth and are easily removed and stowed away.
For a hat, I use a balaclava that can cover my whole face or be pulled up to wear as a hat. Sometimes I use a neck gaiter if it is particularly windy. All this and several chemical heat packs can be stashed easily into the bottom of my pack or in a large inside pocket of my coat.
I like to think of my core as the furnace where most of my heat is generated. It needs to be insulated and fed. To insulate, I dress in layers, starting with a base layer that uses capilene and other synthetic materials that wick moisture away from the skin and pass it to the surface. This keeps sweat from building up and cooling the skin. If I know I am going to be actively moving through an area, I prefer wool as my outerwear as it is quiet, rugged, drab in appearance, and insulates even when wet.
In extreme cold, nothing beats a good-quality down coat and insulated overalls. I usually carry these on the outside of my pack until I am ready to settle in somewhere. Regardless of what I am wearing, I try to dress on the cool side of comfort, adding layers as needed.
To fuel the furnace I carry easily packable, high-energy foods like Cliff bars, which do not freeze or get hard in cold temperatures. Equally important is fluid to keep hydrated, so I carry a large bottle of water and often a small thermos of hot tea or cocoa.Camera Gear Challenges
Condensation is probably the number one issue with camera gear in winter time. Cameras and lenses can easily fog and ice up on both interior and exterior surfaces. It is impossible to eliminate condensation, but you can attempt to manage it effectively.
It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to fight condensation is to simply keep your camera gear cold. You can take camera equipment from a warm environment to a cold environment with no problem, but taking cold camera gear into a warm environment will instantly cause condensation on interior camera body surfaces, which can mess with electronics, and it will fog your lenses and their inner elements, sometimes for several hours, rendering them useless until they have sufficiently warmed themselves up to room temperature and the condensation has evaporated.
In a perfect world, once the cameras go outside, they should stay outside. But realistically, as a photographer you are often moving in and out of heated vehicles, people's homes or a motel room, and it may not be safe or convenient to leave your equipment outside.
If the equipment must go inside, I carry big, two-gallon Ziploc bags to hold my cameras and lenses. I put them in the bags outside, then squeeze out all the air and seal them. As long as I do not break the seal they are fine. If I do not have plastic bags, I put the gear in my backpack and stuff coats or other loose clothing around them, zip the pack up, and leave it in a cool spot by the door of the motel room or house, in the garage or in the back corner of the vehicle where they can warm up very slowly.
While you are keeping your camera and lenses cold, you must keep your batteries warm. I always carry extra batteries with me for my cameras and keep them in a front interior pocket of my coat or coveralls. If I leave my cameras outdoors or in a cold vehicle for the night, I take the batteries inside with me. If I am in a tent, I sleep with them in my bag to keep them warm.
One problem I have never solved is how not to breathe on camera gear while shooting. Doing so in extremely cold weather causes icing on the back of the camera and the viewfinder. It is nearly impossible to scrape the viewfinder free of ice, and it hurts like heck and makes you feel like an idiot when your face sticks to the metal parts of the camera surface. I have tried holding my breath while shooting, exhaling through straws and snorkels, worn about a dozen different facemasks, but have yet to figure it out.Winter Wildlife
Wildlife can often be found en masse during the winter, gathered together in large numbers for protection and warmth -whether it's rafts of ducks piled into a warmwater slough along the North Platte River valley, a deer yard along a
Winter is tough on wildlife. During these cold months nature is stripped down to its essence. It is survival of the fittest, and those that are not fit die. So it is important not to push wildlife during this time. As a photographer, you must be able to read and understand an animal's zone of acceptance with your presence, and if you recognize you are adversely altering their behavior, especially in the wintertime, then disengage and give them the space they need to go about their day. Their lives depend on it.
So grab your camera, put on your woolies, and head out the door. If you move quietly and step softly, there is a great white world that awaits you.