When I was a kid, I loved snow. I had a blast building snowmen and pummeling my parents with snowballs. Then I got a little older and had to learn to drive in the stuff. Suddenly, snow wasn’t my friend anymore – until last winter. We had very little snow last winter, but after seeing all the great frosty shots posted on Nature Photographer’s Network, I thought I might be missing out on something. So, when we finally did get some of the white stuff, I bundled up, headed out, and rediscovered a little love for winter and snow.

This year, we’ve had around 6 inches more snow than is typical in an entire winter season, and I’ve made an effort to get out and enjoy it, camera in hand. Here are a few tips that you might find helpful should you decide to resurrect your inner Frosty:

Inner layers need to keep you warm, but not too warm.  You really need to think how to dress for the cold, especially if you plan to be out for any length of time. Layers are the way to go, but if you put on too many layers, you’ll overheat and get sweaty, which isn’t good because you’ll end up chilled and in danger of hypothermia. My cold-weather dress has consisted of thermals (top and bottom), a flannel shirt or sweatshirt, and waterproof ski pants. Yes, ski pants. They are waterproof, they have elastic around the ankles to keep snow out, and they’re insulated. When I kneel down to compose a shot, they cushion the ground a bit and keep me dry. Which brings me to my next point.

Outer layers need to keep you dry.  If you’re dry, it’s likely you’ll feel warmer.  My outside layer consists of my waterproof Goretex hiking boots, winter coat with detachable hood (which unfortunately isn’t waterproof), a scarf, a fleece headband with ear flaps, and top it off with a light pair of liner gloves over which I wear mittens.  When I get ready to shoot, I yank off the mittens and the thin liner gloves keep my fingers from totally freezing while allowing me flexibility to operate the camera controls.  If your coat doesn’t have a hood, definitely wear a stocking cap or something on your head because that is where you lose the most body heat.

This configuration of layers hasn’t been tested below 10 degrees, and might need adjustments if you are going to be outside for a very long time. Also, adjustments would need to be made if you plan to do some heavy-duty hiking in between shoots. While hiking, your body heats up but then when you stop to shoot, it cools off. Experiment and find what works best for you and your particular situation.

Buy covers for your tripod legs.  There’s nothing worse than grabbing an icy cold metal tripod when it’s freezing outside!  Some tripod manufacturers actually make padded coverings for tripod legs, but I’ve got a cheapo alternative. Buy some foam pipe insulation (it comes in long round tubes) at the hardware store.  The inside diameter should be big enough to fit around your tripod legs but small enough not to fall off.  Cut it to length, cut a slit down the length, place it over the tripod legs, and secure with duct tape. This also provides some cushion if you haul your tripod slung over your shoulder.  I have yet to do this, but plan to before I go shooting in the cold again.  I keep having visions of that little boy in “Christmas Story” who gets his tongue stuck to the flagpole – I sure don’t want that to happen to my hands while handling my tripod 😉

Bring extra batteries.  The cold totally sucks the life out of batteries, so bring extras and keep them as close to your body as possible. If you are carrying a GPS, bring extra batteries for it as well.

Bring tissues!   Inevitably, when I’m outside in the winter, my nose starts running and dripping.  Don’t be a guy and wipe it on your sleeve! Besides being totally gross, eventually all that moisture will make your arm wet, and you’ll get cold. Bring some tissues and use for those nasal drips.

Bring a lens cloth and protection for your camera.  If you’re shooting while it’s snowing, you definitely need to bring a lens cloth to wipe moisture off your lenses while shooting. There’s nothing more annoying than to discover that great shot you took is practically useless because of the big water drop right in the middle!  If the white stuff is coming down really hard, you’ll need to cover your camera.  Again, there are expensive camera covers available. I find that a small plastic grocery bag works well.

Use your creativity.  Winter presents us with some spectacular photographic opportunities that just aren’t possible any other time of year.  See and think creatively!  Go beyond the pretty tree covered in snow, and look for intimate shots or abstracts of details.  Icicles, snow drifts, sparkling snowflakes and textures in the ice are all wonderful subjects to shoot.  Also, since in the gloom of winter, there may not be a lot of color to be found, think about converting your shots to black & white and focusing on the tones and gradations of shadows and light.

I’ve had a lot of fun this year playing in the snow.  I hope you get out and take advantage of the cold weather, too!

I dreamed of a white Christmas, and Nature delivered – in spades!!  My part of Kansas had an old-fashioned, all-out blizzard which started on Christmas Eve around noon and didn’t finally wrap up until sometime late Saturday evening.  The Topeka airport officially reported 10 inches, but I think here in town we received somewhere between 7-10 inches total. Because the snow was being blown around by howling winds gusting up to almost 50 mph at times, it’s difficult to get an accurate amount.

Unfortunately, the residential side streets were a total disaster and best avoided after the storm. I didn’t venture out at all, except into my backyard to try and figure out how much it snowed and to check out this cool drift on top of our garage roof. 

Wind-whipped snow creates some fascinating shapes on the rooftops

The snowfall itself wasn’t very photogenic because it didn’t stick to tree branches, etc. due to the high winds.

It was probably a good thing I didn’t try to get out – I got stuck in the snow on a side street TODAY on my way to work (two full days AFTER the snow stopped). I hope those darn plows get started on the residential streets soon, and that some snow will remain by the weekend so I can get out with my favorite buddy (Mr. Canon) and capture some snow-covered scenes at either Lake Shawnee or MacLennan Park, two of my favorite local haunts.

Topeka last saw a white Christmas in 2007 when around 4 inches remained on the ground from a recent snow.

Despite the nasty conditions, Santa managed to find his way to my house. I received a really beautiful book “Audobon Society’s Guide to Nature Photography” by Tim Fitzharris, and enough money to possibly put toward a new camera body or buy a new zoom telephoto lens, a Singh-Ray vari-ND filter, a replacement 3 stop GND filter and maybe some cool software like Helicon Focus for my floral work.  But which to buy?  Decisions, decisions!!

After waiting for 19 days with no precip, we finally got another dusting (1″) of snow on the 16th! Because the temperatures overnight didn’t stay that cold and were predicted to rise into the lower 40’s the next day, I knew I had to work fast before the snow melted and the trails turned to a total mud pit, so went back out to MacLennan Park at sunrise on the 17th. I finally got to play a little with my new Canon 10-22 mm lens. At 10 mm there is some distortion, but sometimes that’s a good thing. It lends an interesting effect to tall trees.

Last weekend, I started my lens testing procedure and finished all test shots for the 10-22. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to review all the images but after looking at a few, it was no surprise that the sharpest apertures were in the mid-range and not at the largest or smallest settings.

With this shot, for example, I wanted to capture the starburst so used the smallest aperture at 10mm (F22). When comparing this shot with another shot at F14, it was very evident the sharpness of the lens fell way off. I hope to finish my lens testing the next few weeks and be able to label my lenses with which apertures are the sharpest. I also purchased a hyperfocal chart and hope to use this to improve the sharpness of my images. Through trial and error, I’ve been using different sharpening techniques for images I post to the web. So far, the technique that Marc Adamus (member of Nature Photographers Network) uses seems to work fairly well. I’ll keep working on it! Since I’m a self-taught photographer, I’m used to the trial and error method of learning. There are certainly a lot of resources at my disposal, and membership in NPN has been one of the best things I’ve done to improve my photography skills. NPN has many talented folks who never seem to mind sharing their opinions and techniques. Just viewing the images of these talented photographers has made me look at my own work much more critically and see flaws that I wouldn’t have noticed a couple of years ago, and makes me want to improve my techniques.
This scene is found on the Blue Trail. The stream was totally frozen, creating a great photo opportunity with a nice bend in the stream, the warm sunlight on the right, and the small falls frozen in time. As I was shooting, I noticed the sun coming up and creating a nice starburst. I got off about 4 shots before it moved behind more trees and the starburst was gone. I showed my husband this photo and he knew right where it was at and said “Yeah, I remember it. I had a bad bike wreck there!” Guess he and I will have different feelings about this location 😉
After getting the big scene, I got some more intimate shots of the falls with my 70-300 lens. I’ve never been a big fan of winter, but now that I’ve been out a few times with my camera, I’m starting to develop a different attitude. The snow makes everything look fresh, pure and beautiful. The air is clean and crisp. There is a peacefulness and serenity not present during other seasons. I really enjoyed my 4 mile hike, and I’m hoping for yet more snow SOON! MacLennan Park certainly has some beautiful places to explore.