Try these effective tips from six pro landscape photographers as they share how they capture enchanting images of frozen winter wonderlands.
In 1929, Edward Weston wrote about one of his first attempts at photographing winter in Chicago. He had soaked himself in a nearby stream to get the perfect view, and he then hurried home with his pants still “frozen stiff as a board.” Weston was cold and uncomfortable, but he didn’t care; the only thing on his mind was his picture. Almost a century later, any passionate landscape photographer can surely understand the excitement he felt. A true winter wonderland is worth hours of harsh weather and difficult terrain.
We wondered about how photographers today capture timeless winter images with a modern twist. As we entered 2019, we longed to see pictures that pushed the envelope, so we asked six talented landscape photographers to tell us how they create magical imagery in snow-capped mountains, frosty forests, and frozen lakes. Below, they take us to the stunning and surprising locations they’ve found for winter photography and share some of the invaluable wisdom they’ve gathered along the way.
1. “Be sure to familiarize yourself with the location in advance, especially if you plan to shoot at dawn.”
This is my best-selling winter photo on Shutterstock. It was made a long time ago, in the winter of 2011, in Belarus. I was not far from the city of Minsk, on the small river of Svisloch, surrounded by forest. This is an ordinary place, but in the winter, a slightly higher vantage point reveals a fantastically beautiful scene. In fact, I managed to take a lot of artistic photographs in the morning and evening of that same day. This is a panoramic shot (6 vertical frames).
Be sure to familiarize yourself with the location in advance, especially if you plan to shoot at dawn. In that case, you will have to come in the dark, and it will be difficult to find your place without trampling the fresh snow. It is also necessary to plan your route to each location so that your tracks always remain behind you and the snow remains clean and intact.
You must have warm winter shoes as well as an extra pair to change into in case you need to drive a car. It’s best to combine gloves and mittens. I personally have gloves without “fingers,” and I wear mittens on top of them. That way, it’ll be more convenient to press the buttons on your camera.
Never change the lens on a cold camera when you’re inside a car, as that will produce instant condensation! When you return from your shoot, keep your flash card and battery in your pocket, and put the camera in your backpack. Once I’m at home, I remove the backpack without unbuttoning it and keep it in a place where it will slowly return to room temperature, like the closet.
2. “One of the most important tips I can give is not to rush to photograph the most beautiful view.”
Image by Evgeny Trezubov.Gear: Nikon D810 camera, 14mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/3 sec; f13; ISO 64.
What’s the story behind this photo?
I live near Lake Baikal in Siberia. In winter, this is one of the most beautiful places on earth to shoot landscapes. I took this photo at sunset near Elenka Island, a remote and slightly dangerous place. I traveled by car over the smooth, clear ice of the lake. A fresh crack appeared in the vicinity of the shooting point. The water was not frozen yet, and it would have been easy to fall through the ice, so I had to move carefully. This island is very photogenic, and from a certain angle, it looks like a triangle. I almost lowered the camera to the ground so that a reflection of the clouds appeared on the ice.
One of the most important tips I can give is not to rush to photograph the most beautiful view. If you do that, you’ll leave a lot of tracks in the snow at the location before you find the best angle, so take your time. Since the conditions in winter can be cold, you need to prepare all of your photographic equipment before going out. Install a new full battery and flash drive, and clean your lens. Spare batteries should be kept warm in an inside pocket of your jacket.
Always check the temperature, and dress for the weather. Remember that a sharp temperature drop will have a negative effect on your photo equipment, so do not remove the camera from your backpack as soon as you find yourself in the heat. Since snow reflects light, your camera will often be mistaken about the exposure, so be sure to check the histogram while you’re in the process of shooting, and, if possible, use the exposure compensation function.
3. “Whether you’re in Antarctica or near your house, the main thing is that the photo is unusual.”
Image by Volodymyr Goinyk.Gear: Canon 40D camera, Canon EF 17-40mm F4 USM lens. Settings: Focal length 17mm; exposure 0,3 sec; f5.6; ISO 200.
What’s the story behind this photo?
Back in 2008, I was taken on a scientific expedition to the Vernadsky Research Base in Antarctica as an engineer. I’ve been interested in photography since my childhood, so I made sure I was well-stocked with photo equipment. There was a whole year ahead of shooting the fantastic landscapes of this icy continent. But even there, it was not easy to find interesting shots.
Firstly, in the Vernadsky area, according to statistics, the sun comes out only thirty times a year, and the rest of the time brings gloomy weather. Secondly, the polar winter lasts for six months, three of which are almost constantly dark, which causes depression and apathy. It becomes very difficult to pick up the camera and go out in search of a good picture.
I really wanted to spend my birthday in an unusual place, and I asked one of our experienced polar explorers about that. We took ice axes and helmets to a cave high up in the body of a glacier. There, I got this frame. It’s a unique image because the cave is constantly melting and collapsing. People from the next expedition told me that, after a year, this ice cave was almost gone.
Image by Volodymyr Goinyk.Gear: Canon 40D camera, Canon EF 17-40mm F4 USM lens. Settings: Focal length 17mm; exposure 1/500 sec; f8; ISO 200.
I advise everyone to look for unique shots, no matter where you are. Whether you’re in Antarctica or near your house, the main thing is that the photo is unusual. Look for non-standard views and non-touristic places, and always take a camera with you wherever you go.
This photo was taken about ten years ago. I was on a photo shoot in northern Finland in February 2008. We were not lucky with the weather; it was cloudy, and we almost never saw the sun. Returning from the Pieni Karhunkierros hiking trail, we decided to end the day with a drive to the top of Ruka mountain.
The day was cloudy and somber at the bottom of the hills, but arriving at the top of the mountain felt like entering another world—a sunny wonderland above the clouds. Around us lay a soft cloudy blanket in the evening sun, and a few snow-covered mountain peaks looked like islands in the middle of an ocean.
There was barely any time to take photos, and only about an hour remained before it got dark. The time had to be used efficiently. I waded through hip-deep snow, surrounded by frozen snow-covered fir trees. It was quite a challenge but one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had photographing cold and snowy landscapes.
There is no bad weather, only bad clothing. If you want to photograph winter landscapes, be it snow or ice, the most important thing is to dress the right way. Long shoots in cold conditions demand that you protect your feet, hands, head, body, and face from the frost.
Since cold conditions will consume the camera battery quickly, be sure to carry spare batteries and keep them in a warm inside pocket, not in a camera bag. When using a filter, be careful not to drop it in the snow or inadvertently breathe on it because warm breath might do it harm.
In extreme situations with a lot of slippery ice and uneven surfaces, be careful not to stumble or drop the camera with the tripod. Besides being careful about both the risk of falling and dropping your gear, remember that shooting in cold and frozen conditions is still basic landscape photography. And, of course, you need a little bit of luck to be in the right place at the right time.
5. “I always try to keep my images quite empty yet interesting.”
Image by Rudmer Zwerver.Gear: Canon 5D Mark IV camera, Canon 11-24mm F4 lens. Settings: Focal length 11mm; exposure 1/25 sec; f16; ISO 100.
What’s the story behind this photo?
This small nature reserve, Baggelhuizen in the Netherlands, was one of those places I still had yet to visit, even though it was close to my daily commuting route. One night, the winter weather arrived, and the next morning, I went out to this location. I didn’t know this place, so I started walking around, progressing with care so that I wouldn’t disturb the snow cover too much. It was a nice morning with a fluffy clouded sky and rimed trees. This created a mystical ambiance and resulted in some satisfying shots.
Try to keep track of the weather forecasts so that you can react quickly when the circumstances are right. It’s also wise to have a list of suitable photo locations in your neighborhood. They can be organized in one of those photography apps (like The Photographer’s Ephemeris) on your smartphone. Snow and rime are nicest when they’re fresh, so try to get out there as soon as you can.
Once you get there, look for patterns and find balance in the colors and textures within the landscape. It’s best to use a tripod and ISO 100 in RAW to photograph several locations from different angles and different tripod heights. The wider the angle, the more important the foreground becomes, as the horizon seems further away. The foreground will pull your eyes into the photo, and it is the beginning of the story you want to tell.
In my opinion, a landscape image has to breathe tranquility. I always try to keep my images quite empty yet interesting. Typically, I will return home with dozens of images. Yet there is always one winning photo. Besides this one, I will select a few other nice ones to proceed with. Photos that are too similar to each other are not worth the effort of editing. As my lens can’t carry filters, I typically bracket every photo with three exposures. I just make sure I have the editing latitude I need after merging the exposures.
Wear warm gloves to carry your cold metal tripod, and prepare for the worst possible weather, especially high in the mountains. Use the right filter on your lens if needed (polarized and ND are my main choices). Know your gear, find your lens sweet spot, and use the right aperture value.
In harsh conditions, make sure to protect your gear (and yourself, of course). If you’re going to remote locations, tell somebody where you are, when you’re planning to arrive, and the route you plan on taking. There are no ideal times to take images, so just find a nice location and then wait for the best lighting or weather conditions.