“Well, I know now,” a young Sylvia Plath once wrote in her journal, “I know a little more how much a simple thing like a snowfall can mean to a person.” Sunshine is for everyone, but snow is for poets and artists. As everyone else huddles inside, curious souls make their way into the cold, in search of something beautiful in one of nature’s most unforgiving elements.
The beauty of snow lies in its brevity; you only have a day, a week, or at most a few months to build snowmen and igloos before it vanishes for another year. The only way to hold onto the season year-round is in pictures.
In honor of the season, we asked seven photographers to tell us about their most memorable time trekking through the snow, and they gave us some tips on how to navigate extreme cold with a camera in hand. Even on rough terrain and in blistering wind, despite the foggy lenses and frozen batteries, these artists got their shot.
“Be mindful of where the wind is coming from, and continuously check your lens for snow and rain splash.”
I’ve shot in melting snow caverns, in snowstorms, and on the back of bumping dogsleds. But if I have to choose a favorite, it would be the cairn that I shot in the rolling mountains outside Trondheim in central Norway last winter. My guide and I had been snowshoeing for hours, and I was exhausted. We crested the high hilltop just as the sun was setting. The cairn at the top had an ancient, magical pull, and the soft pink and blue light of the dusk was enveloping the space on all sides, reflecting softly off the snow. It was a simple scene, full of grace. And it gave me the strength to make the long journey back. A good shot always does that.
Pro Tip: I always make sure to study the terrain beforehand or go shooting with someone who does, especially if the weather is iffy. Be mindful of where the wind is coming from, and continuously check your lens for snow and rain splash. This can be tiresome, but a droplet obstructing a great shot is even more so! Make sure you check your histogram while shooting, as cameras tend to underexpose the brightness of a snowy scene. Use your positive exposure compensation to get the right balance. In terms of creativity, I recommend making use of the way that snow can alter our perception of dimensionality. Pay attention to opportunities to use negative space for elegant compositions, and play (subtly!) with your contrast levels to emphasize an otherworldly atmosphere or to create a stark, strongly graphic image.
“Snow is a beautifully complicated phenomenon that cannot be fully tamed.”
The most difficult and subsequently most gratifying snow shot of mine is this one from Siglufjorour, Iceland. I was shooting all medium format film and battling a sticky self-timer that kept freezing. I was alone and photographing in a Fjord which has a tendency to channel its own range of weather I was trying to capture the Sisyphus struggle I was having with climbing through deep snow, wind, fluctuating light, and the isolation all of it all.
Pro Tip: Light has it’s own clock, even in the most reflective conditions. Layering is paramount, as I make brash decisions once the cold sets in, and a sturdy boot takes you so much further then any advanced lens. Be adventurous. Take your time. Wait. Snow is a beautifully complicated phenomenon that cannot be fully tamed. The Northern Scandinavian Sami have more than 180 words related to snow and ice, as should the photographer aware of the vast ways to capture such a landscape.
“If you need to warm up in a lodge or by a fire, it’s best to leave your equipment outside to avoid this.”
Shooting images in the snow is really challenging when it’s not sunny out. In the case of this image, I hauled two studio flashes up to this jump and placed them behind the trees. It was also very early in the season, and although I was using snowshoes to get around, I was also sinking a bit from step to step, which made it awkward to move. I had to go up and down a couple times to test the flashes and get the lighting right. When shooting with flashes, you only get one chance. Although shooting with flashes in this situation is very challenging, it is extremely rewarding when you nail it, like we did it this image.
Pro Tip: I prepare by having extra warm layers, extra warm thin gloves, a neck gator to place on camera and lens to keep it from getting to wet, extra batteries, lens cloths to wipe snow from the lenses, and warm tea for the soul. If it’s snowing really hard I also bring an umbrella. It makes it easier to keep the camera safe while changing lenses. Temperature changes, particularly if you’re going from cold to warm, can cause foggy lenses. If you need to warm up in a lodge or by a fire, it’s best to leave your equipment outside to avoid this.
“I look for snowflakes with interesting shapes, snowflakes that are whole and transparent.”
The most difficult from a technical point of view are the photographs where I need to build a composition out of very small ice crystals and snowflakes that melt very quickly. I photograph at -15-20 degrees Celsius, but in this weather, I can get really beautiful and transparent snowflakes. I live in Vologda, Russia, where we have quite a long and cold winter and snow from early November to mid-April, but even here, it’s rare to find good snow for photos. I look for snowflakes with interesting shapes, snowflakes that are whole and transparent.
Pro Tip: It is important to be dressed warmly and take care of your equipment during a hard frost. It’s important not to transfer quickly back and forth from warm to cold temperates. Have high-quality batteries. They take a long time to work at -15 degrees and colder. It can help a lot to practice shooting glass objects when shooting snow and ice: cups, dishes, bottles, etc. In fact, the laws that apply to illuminated snowflakes, when using the flash or permanent light, are the same as those that apply to a shot glass.
“Showing texture is key for bringing snow photos to life, or else it’s just “white.”
This capture from St. Anton, Austria was made during one of those early season opportunities where the magic light happens relatively early, shortly after the skilifts have closed. Myself and the model, Alex Koidl, had been hiding out on the mountain, waiting for the skipatrol to do their sweep of the runs, so we could go shoot more photos in the great light that happens just before sunset.
Unfortunately, last light was approaching fast so I decided to shoot some hiking shots, just in case the light was gone by the time Alex got into postion. Shortly after this capture, a cloud moved in and killed what was left of the photo day. Nevertheless, I still managed to come back with a shot that for me, shows the experience of what we were out to capture: beautiful light, deep snow, stunning winter landscape, and a skier on the move in the mountains.
Pro Tip: My preference for transporting my camera gear is in a dedicated photo backpack that provides easy access to the gear without letting falling snow inside. In my pack are also packs of silica gel to suck up moisture and a few quick-drying synthetic towels to quickly wipe the gear down after it’s been exposed to snow.Traveling in the mountains requires its own set of skills and equipment for staying safe. Solid fitness, ski ability, and avalanche awareness are crucial.
Showing texture is key for bringing snow photos to life, or else it’s just “white.” The early hours of the morning and late afternoons, when the sun is at a low angle, are best suited for snow photography. With flat, heavily diffused light, like on a snowy day high in the mountains, it can be nearly impossible to bring life into the frame. On those days, I prefer shooting in the forest, with plenty of trees for contrast in the photo.
“Being out there, enjoying the moment, and trying to capture some of the emotions you experience on such a morning.”
This image was hard because temperatures were below -20 ºC, and it felt even colder. It was one of the coldest days on record in the Netherlands. It was also a challenge because of the fog resulting in my filters freezing over. I had to make them frost-free over and over again to get a clear view. But in the end, it was just a magical morning with beautiful light. It is what being a landscape and nature photographer is all about to me. Being out there, enjoying the moment, and trying to capture some of the emotions you experience on such a morning.
Pro Tip: First of all, it’s important to wear the right clothing. That may sound obvious, but landscape photography is a passive activity. We don’t walk around much. We choose our spot with the right composition and wait for the right light. The right light is the most important aspect of your images, and the waiting can take a long time, so keeping warm and comfortable is key. It’s also important to take enough food and drinks along. In such cold conditions, you can burn a lot of calories. To me, landscape photography is more about being a weather man than being a photographer. Learn about the weather as much as you can. It increases your chances of being at the right time at the right place.
Keep a good eye on the colors. We often think we have to correct the white balance in snowy conditions, because our brain tells us snow is white. But in reality, snow is almost never white. It reflects the colors of the sky, clouds, and the color of the light. So the next time to try to correct your snow images in post production, think about that. I love color and like to preserve the actual atmosphere at the time I shot the image.
“Look for unique perspectives and unexpected angles. Consider using the foreground to hide clutter or traffic.”
This photograph of a model trekking through blowing snow on snowshoes was one of my most challenging shots. Besides keeping the camera dry, the conditions made it difficult to communicate and direct the model through the scene, since I was shooting from a distance with a long lens.
Pro Tip: When possible, I try to follow a fresh snowfall. It usually creates an ideal scene with snow on the trees, glistening flakes and no tracks/sledding traffic to work around. Look for unique perspectives and unexpected angles. Consider using the foreground to hide clutter or traffic. A long lens is great to compress space and isolate clean looking scenes. You’ll often find me lying in the snow for unique perspectives—another reason to dress appropriately! Nothing will kill your creativity more than feeling cold and uncomfortable. If using models, have them wear something fun with bright colors to pop out of the white background. Look for something to add contrast and/or color. It will bring life to those beautiful scenes of white.