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Six Steps to Better Winter Photography

Text and Photography Copyright James Egbert
All rights reserved.

The ground hog came out and said spring is upon us. The calendar on the wall states that spring has officially arrived, but here in Colorado, all that seems like a fairy tale or funny joke...Colorado tends to change seasons in it's own sweet time. So to say it's time to get out and shoot winter scenes in April may seem a bit odd to the out-of-towner, to those nature photographers who have endured a few "Colorado" seasons, we know that Old Man Winter is still alive and well.

The thought of going out to shoot winter scenes in January seems a bit too rugged for me. I would rather be at home next to a warm fire, sipping hot cocoa and watching the weather channel showing the warm weather in Tahiti. Instead, I wait until mid-March & early April to get out my snow shoes. When all those spring-breakers are heading to Ft. Lauderdale or Miami, I'm heading up to the high country.

Two hours west of Colorado Springs are some of the most beautiful winter scenes I have ever witnessed. Just outside Buena Vista are located San Isabel National Forest, Sawatch Range, Sangre De Cristo Range and Pike National Forest, places where you can witness the most photogenic mountains that rise over 14,000 feet above sea level. On a clear day, when the air is clean and crisp, elk and mule deer can be seen venturing into the lower valleys in their search for food

Some the large snow fields in Colorado are beginning to melt at this time of year, creating run-offs and photogenic cascades to the small creeks and rivers. Most of the time, the skies are clear and the snow glistens like millions of diamonds on a carpet of white. However, in the midst of this beauty lies the potential for avalanches. As the warm spring sun starts to heat up the snow, conditions become more favorable for these dangerous occurances. So learn the warning signs of a potential avalanche and be aware of the conditions along your intended route, taking extra caution when trekking away from the main trails. Always be prepared with the extra water and supplies that may be needed should you become stranded for a short period of time. I always recommend that a travel plan and a map be left at home, detailing your routes and destinations. Also give people an idea of when you're planning on returning and a time to start looking for you if you don't report back on time.

While there are many excellent techniques and strategies for capturing winter scenes on film, here are a few that work well for me -

  1. Early To Rise - Get up early and get to where you want to shoot before the sun comes up. The best time of day for most scenes is early morning and late afternoon, when the sun is burning through more of the earth's atmosphere, casting warm-colored hues on the scene. This warm, dramatic lighting can add a mystic feel to the image.

  2. Almost 3-D - Keep in mind that it's desireable to close the aperture to a narrow opening of f/22 or f/32 in order to increase depth of field in the final image. A good nature scene should have compositional balance, the foreground leading to the main subject and through to the supporting background. Watch for distracting elements in your view finder that would detract from your subject. Be very picky! Following this guide will enhance the image to the point where you feel like you can actually step into your printed image. Most importantly, use the K.I.S.S. theory (Keep It Simple Stupid). Don't overload the image with too much of the scene, keep the subject clear and the image uncluttered.

  3. In The Zone - I suggest that if you have a newer camera that is equipped with zone or "matrix" metering, you should set the camera on aperture priority and let the camera figure out the shutter speed to balance the exposure with your selected f/stop setting. Alternatively, consider substitute metering, bracketing or use of the "sunny-16 rule" to arrive at the correct exposure in these tough-to-meter snowy winter scenes.Film selection is also important, my preference is for slower speed slide films that provide fine grain and rich color. Professional grade films enrich color and provide the best saturation to create vivid images that just pop off the paper.

  4. Lights, Action, Color - When photographing with color film, so be sure to have something colorful in the image! Red willow bushes, clear blue skies, golden dried grass and old buildings that are weather beaten but still retain some color are good examples. When set against snow, colorful subjects will stand out better.

  5. Ignore The Weather Channel - While clear blue skies can add a crisp, cool feeling to your image, many times it's more effective to have a little bad weather to make a good photograph. No matter what your subject is, look for fog, snow and steam to add depth and interest to your images. These situations will more often than not produce dramatic images that convey the real feeling of winter in Colorado. A typical exposure may require opening up by one half to a full stop, which will help details pop up from any haze in the scene.

  6. Chasing The Sun - Regardless of the time of day, your position in relation to the sun is important. The sun's position can drastically change a landscape in a matter of minutes, especially at sunrise and sunset. Follow the sun through a scene and watch for changes in light. Many times it takes several shots to capture the right balance of light, color and contrast in a scene. Also keep in mind the direction you point the lens when shooting in bright sunlight. Details tend to get lost when you are shooting into the the sun due to lens flare and ghosting. Metering is the most important consideration in these situations as green pine trees can turn black and snow can turn grey due to underexposure. Be sure you are versed in your camera's metering system and can correctly compensate in these tough lighting conditions.
Shooting snow scenes is a challenge for any photographer no matter the experience level, but persistence will pay off in the long run as you expand your knowledge and fuel your desire to be creative in your photography. So get out there, be safe and be a part of winter photography in Colorado.

Editor's Note - Be sure to visit James Egbert's web site to learn more about his Colorado workshops.

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