As much of the Northern Hemisphere slips further into winter’s grip during December, we can expect the coming months to be characterised by lower temperatures, reduced daylight hours, and more frequent storms, some with snow and ice. Generally, these conditions become more extreme the further north you go but, as is becoming increasingly apparent in recent years, the climate is changing. Today, winters in northern Europe are milder with fewer incidences of heavy snowfalls, or of lakes, ponds and canals freezing over. This means photographers are having to become more alert to the weather forecast in order not to miss out on that elusive white winter’s day.
When it does arrive, the best time to get out with the camera is early in the morning just before first light, when your subject is undisturbed and the air temperature remains freezing cold. Whether walking in the wilds of Europe’s high country, or looking out from your living room window, an overnight covering of snow makes your surroundings seem brighter. This is because snow reflects much more light than other surfaces, even at night.
A light covering of snow or a sharp frost in the first hour of daylight is an exciting prospect for the landscape photographer. The uniform whiteness can alter the landscape beyond recognition, removing colour and covering extraneous clutter and messy detail, so that a once familiar scene takes on a different appearance and becomes a study of line and shape, an exercise in compositional minimalism and balance.
In urban and other populated areas, the earliest possible start improves your chances of placing your camera in front of a scene that has not yet been marred by footprints or car tyres. That said, the delicate shapes of animal and bird tracks on a frosty or snowy surface make for a compelling lead-in line for a wider landscape view, or as a separate subject for a close-up shot. An early start also means you will have more time before the inevitable thawing out begins.
Once the sun rises, many photographers long for clear blue skies during the brief winter’s day, but more often than not you should expect cloudy, overcast conditions where the sun may only breakthrough weakly for a few minutes. While the sky may be an unattractive grey as a result, those clouds act as a diffuser to create an even, shadow-less light, ideal for making accurate exposures across the whole view. Correct exposures become more difficult when shooting under a clear sky, particularly when the bright blue above the horizon is graphically paired with white snow in the foreground. This is because the direct sunlight increases contrast where blank expanses of white are interspersed by grey-blue shadows cast by vertical points of interest in the scene, such as bare trees, lampposts or fence-lines. In such high contrast scenes, metering accurately can be a challenge.
Frost, ice and snow are highly reflective, particularly beneath the direct sunlight of a bright sky, so camera meters are susceptible to giving exposure readings that are too fast, thereby resulting in underexposure. Of course, camera metering systems are more sophisticated these days and many use special automatic settings such as Matrix or Evaluative modes that use thousands of algorithms programmed to recognise a wide array of lighting conditions. High Dynamic Range (HDR) is another technological advance that helps photographers achieve greater success with high contrast scenes.
Controlling the light
Ultimately, making successful exposures of the frozen landscape depends largely on your ability to measure and control the light to the image sensor. Despite the abilities of Photoshop, Lightroom and other image processing software, there is still a role for lens filters to ensure that more is done to get the picture ‘right’ in-camera than resorting to the computer.
A polarising filter (aka polariser) is the best known filter for controlling the amount of light entering the camera lens. It reduces the amount of light reaching the image sensor by two stops, thereby increasing contrast levels in the scene. As a result, the polariser needs to be used with care in areas of heavy snow and ice and bright skies, such as the Alps or the Arctic, as too much polarisation can darken blue skies appreciably to an almost unnatural hue. An easier option is a warm-up filter which is designed to counteract the blue cast that occurs in many snow scene images.
Polarisers are a better choice when photographing close to icy surfaces such as frozen ponds, lakes or river edges. It is the smaller, shallower expanses of water such as puddles and garden ponds that freeze first. Similarly, small brooks and streams will freeze far quicker than a major river. Ice and frost are more frequent occurrences than snowfalls, so listen to the weather forecast and make a note if the overnight minimum temperature is expected to drop below freezing and skies will be clear. These are the perfect conditions for overnight frost and ice, so have your camera gear ready.
Such a morning of harsh frost and ice is often accompanied by bright low sun, hugging the horizon. If you’re framing a picture to include the edge of a lake or stream, with your camera and wide-angle lens low to the ground, surface reflections and glare are likely. This is the time to fit the polarising filter to all but eliminate unwanted reflections and reduce the risk of lens flare. By mounting the camera on a tripod it becomes easier to make fine adjustments to the camera angle that can help reduce the effects of surface reflections and avoid the intrusive optical refractions caused by lens flare.
Of course, the winter landscape isn’t just the preserve of the wide-angle lens: a macro lens is also a worthy addition to your choice of gear. Macro enables the photographer to capture those small details of nature frozen by winter’s icy touch. The crystal-like cover of hoarfrost coating plants, grasses and bare branches look at their most spectacular when photographed in close-up. In addition, keep your eyes open for sources of dripping water that might have been transformed into a long icicle-spear after a sub-zero night, and look closely for branches, twigs and garden plants that have become encased in a layer of clear ice. These make fascinating macro studies and best results are achieved by using a tripod to keep the camera absolutely still and to frame and focus precisely before firing the shutter. Even the outline of a dead leaf frozen beneath the surface of a puddle takes on a different guise that is unique to this time of year and worth framing.
At the edge of ponds and streams, overhanging grasses will be covered in solid ice after a freezing night, while the stream itself will form into thin, wavy, icy patterns, the reminder of where the water flowed before freezing. For these types of subjects, keep the camera securely on a tripod and stop down your lens to the smallest aperture for maximum depth of field. The resulting shutter speed may be slow, but the tripod will keep the camera still and a higher ISO setting can be selected instead to increase the shutter speed, while leaving the aperture unchanged.
It might be stating the obvious but winter landscapes look more spectacular on the higher ground of mountains, moors and alpine peaks, as these are the places where snowfalls are most prevalent and longer lasting. The steep slopes and jagged peaks of mountain ranges are also more dramatic and provide the natural diagonals and lead-in lines so important to compositional depth.
Snow acts like a shroud in such settings. It covers mountains like a piece of white canvas and requires the photographer to study the camera viewfinder intently to see what distinctive shapes, lines and patterns stand out. The time of day will play a part in determining the quality and direction of the light, the position of shadows and the focal point for your composition.
In less dramatic rural environments where the land is flatter but more accessible, it may be harder to find something to focus on after a snowfall. Points of interest may be minimal but that may add prominence to a feature that would have no significance in warmer weather. For example, a line of bare trees such as poplars, evenly spaced and forming a vanishing point, has graphic impact, while the steep angle of a church spire rising above an undulating white landscape and beyond the horizon has obvious geometrical appeal.
LYS: An Intimate Journey To The North, by Sandra Bartocha and Werner Bollmann; LYS Publishing; €65 (hardback)
Iceland: Above & Below, by Hans Strand; Triplekite Publishing; £26 (hardback)
Svalbard Exposed, by Roy Mangersnes & Ole Jørgen Liodden; Wild Photo Travel; $59 (hardback)
Accessory option: Warm-up filters
The 81 series of warm-up filters (81a, 81b, 81c – £32.99) are a simple and effective means for reducing the bluish cast that is often rendered when snow is photographed, particularly in overcast conditions. The 81c is the strongest and therefore the one you are most likely to use when photographing snow and ice. It reduces the amount of light reaching the film plane or image sensor by 2/3 stop.
Lens option: Wide-angle zoom
Frozen landscapes are usually captured with a wide-angle lens to match the view seen with human eyes. The Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 DG HSM II zoom (£530) includes five low dispersion glass elements to improve resolution and offers an angle of view ranging from 84° to 122°. The lens is also splash proof, focuses down to 27cm and is compatible with full-frame and cropped sensor (APS-C) cameras.
Camera option: Weather-sealed DSLR
Wintry weather places extra demands on the ability of a camera built to perform in wet conditions as well as extreme cold. The new EOS 5D Mk IV (£3,600 body only) is a new full-frame DSLR from Canon, packed with the latest autofocus and metering technology. The magnesium alloy and polycarbonate body is dust and weather-sealed, making it ideal to use in the worst of winter.
This was published in the December 2016 edition of Geographical magazine