Five important steps for successful winter landscape photography

Winter can creatively be a slow time of year if you’re a landscape photographer.  You may even photographically feel like joining the grizzly bears in hibernation until Spring.  However, there are significant advantages to photographing in March that many landscape photographers often overlook, especially where I live in Banff, AB, Canada.   I’ll point five important steps towards successful winter photography here and add a few suggestions to help you overcome the unique difficulties you’ll face when photographing landscapes in the winter.  

Snowdome Sunset on the Columbia Icefields.  © www.brianmerry.ca

1/  The biggest advantage to photographing Banff in March is that is that you can still get out to photograph “Winter in the Mountains” without worrying too much about getting frostbite.  The landscape still looks like “Winter” in Banff for most of this month but the -20 or -30 degrees celsius is pretty well done for the season.  Also, towards the end of winter we tend to be a little better acclimatized to the weather and staying warm while out in the field is a little easier.  Making sure that you stay warm and comfortable is one of the most overlooked, and most important, things to consider when planning a winter landscape photography trip.  I suggest wearing a few layers including a somewhat thick down jacket even if the temperature is around freezing.  You’ll tend to cool off quickly as you stand around composing your photographs.  If your down jacket doesn’t have a hood then be sure to wear a good hat too.  I also wear wear a thin pair of gloves that are small enough to fit my hands inside my down jacket pockets when I’m wearing them, but also thin enough to operate the camera controls.  Lastly, make sure you have good pair winter boots to keep your feet warm.  The Kamik arctic boots from Canadian Tire are a good pair.

2/  The second thing I do to prepare for a winter landscape photography session is to be well fed and watered before I head out.  Yep, just like children, we tend to lose interest if our stomach is grumbling when we’re out shooting the sunrise at -20 degree Celsius at 7:30am and we haven’t eaten breakfast yet.  I like to grab a coffee and a muffin as I leave town to drink while I’m out there.  My morning Timmies coffee really helps to wake me up and relax so I can start to concentrate on my creativity. 

Once I’m warm, comfortable, and my creature comforts are taken care of, I’m ready to brave the cold.  But is my camera equipment ready for it?

3/  We’ve all heard that cameras fail fairly easily in the cold.  I’ll point out a few common reasons why they fail here and how you can manage their vulnerabilities.  First off is the big one, the batteries.  Most camera batteries today are Lithium-Ion batteries.  They are very good at maintaining a good burst of energy but they lose their charge extremely fast when they’re cold.  The way I avoid this is to only put the battery in the camera when I’m actually taking a picture.  After I’m finished photographing at a location and I’m ready to move on, I’ll pop the battery out of the camera again and store it in an inside pocket close to my body to keep it warm.  When I’m at the next location I’ll simply pop it back in my camera and start shooting with a warm, strong battery.  I also always have a fully charged backup battery in case the first one dies.

The Rundle Diamond, captured on a very cold winter morning in Banff.

4/  Another common problem photographers face when shooting in winter is condensation building up all over, and inside the camera body and lens.  In an extreme case, heavy condensation can cause damage to your camera.  It’s a really good idea to avoid or reduce condensation.  There are two ways I’ve found to do this well.  Firstly, when I go outside I always leave my camera in my backpack or around my neck so it is exposed to relatively the same temperature for the whole session.  The camera will cool off when you first go outside and it’ll stay cold the entire session.  This won’t cause a problem with your ability to take photographs.  Remember, it’s the battery that fails when it’s cold.  Generally cameras are fine in the cold as long as they don’t have condensation on them and their power supply stays warm and fully charged.  Remember my battery tip?  One think to avoid is repeatedly pulling your camera in and out of your jacket in a futile effort to keep it warm.  This will cause a lot of condensation and frost all over and inside of your camera in no time all.  Think -> Condensation=>Bad

5/  Another good tip to avoid condensation when you go back inside is to put your camera in a ziplock bag while you’re still outside, and leave it in the sealed bag when you bring it inside until it warms up.  After it’s warm you can remove it from the sealed bag and not worry about condensation forming on it.  This is little tedious but it’s worth the extra effort in high humidity environments.

I hope these tips help you manage the cold for both yourself and your equipment the next time you’re out shooting outside in the winter.  Sometimes our best photographs are created under the harshest conditions.  A prepared photographer manages the elements so they can focus on their emotional communication.