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Towards better winter photos

David LinternDavid Lintern shares a few tips and tricks for photos in the finest season of them all.

It seems ages since we’ve done one of these photography articles, and the start of the winter season is as good an opportunity as any to return. No one does anything creative so they can follow the rules, and my only real rule on workshops is that rules (not legs or hearts) are meant for breaking… but that said, banking a few ideas about foreground, leading lines, light and so on means you can concentrate on being in the moment and going with the flow, which is what it’s really all about. There’s a few practicalities to do with fiddling with dials and buttons in -15degree windchill that are worth a mention too.

So, without further ado, let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first…

Snowy hills are an obvious choice for black and white conversions – here the purpose was to emphasise low sunlight from the left, highlighting the 3 small cornices. The figure stands out on the horizon, and also gives scale.

Practicalities

Being cold, or a technical hitch with the camera, will put a real damper on your photo ambitions, so give yourself a fighting chance at the creative stuff and prepare well. Eat more, have a flask or a stove with you for a hot drink, and pack an extra jacket layer if you’re planning on being stationary – maybe with a tripod – for any length of time. Gloves are really important for everyone at this time of year, but you may want to revise your needs still further if photographs are a priority. Chunky leather mountain gloves can be impractical for cameras, so I sometimes use a liner pair plus some warmer pile or primaloft style mitts for inbetween all the technical nonsense. An extra pair of socks can be handy too, as you are moving and pumping the blood around a lot less – it’s amazing how much cold comes through your boots. Think of all of this as preparation for a ‘picture belay’, and dress accordingly!

The minus temps can also spell disaster for battery life – especially if you are using a smaller, mirrorless system camera. These have electronic viewfinders and tend to be more power hungry anyway, plus the cells are smaller and drain much faster. Pack extra batteries and keep the spares, plus remote timer in an inside pocket and close (but not next) to the skin, if possible… and if not, definitely keep them out of the windchill, well inside your pack.

3 students on a recent winter photo workshop, properly suited and booted in extra layers, as dawn light hits the Bookle.

Keep 2 or 3 lens cloths in your camera bag, and cycle them through a dedicated trouser pocket (keep tissues separate!), using the ambient warmth of your leg pocket to dry off any moisture from cleaning. If you are using filters of any kind, clean often and avoid breathing near them – they will fog up easily.

Talking of which, if you are camping, it can be a good idea to keep your camera outside your inner tent (but inside the outer – you don’t want it buried!). Big changes in temperature can cause the lens, mirror or even the sensor to mist up. Outside is easily wiped dry, but moisture inside is best avoided and may take a good while to evaporate – I’ve lost a fair few sunrise photo opps this way…

Available light

While all the above can be an extra challenge, some things about winter photography are actually easier. For a start, sunrise isn’t at the ungodly hour of 4am, but a much more civilised 7 or 8am. An earlier dusk between 3 and 4pm can have it’s advantages too, but be careful not to cut yourself too short of time if photographing high on the hill. Lastly, the long, cold and clear nights can mean plenty of time for photographing the night sky.

Sunset turning the windblown snow architecture purple and pink, with Stob Binnein in the background.

Otherwise, the low angle of the sun and the cold, clear air can make for beautifully lit landscapes. Light ‘leaks’ in down glens and over bealachs, meaning dramatic, higher contrast scenes with deeper shadow areas, rather than the high summer sun flattening and bleaching everything out. It can also help enhance colour and texture near the ground – everything from light filtering through moorland deergrass, to sastrugi or snow sculptures on a windblown top – all of which can make for subjects in themselves or provide interest in a wider composition.

Equally as interesting for me is the flat, chalky light of mid winter – the sky that threatens snow! Silhouetted backlit or luminescent side-lit hills are eye catching, but do factor in ‘matt’ and ‘vinyl silk’ light into your compositions, as well as the more obvious ‘high gloss’. Having an eye to the quality as well as the amount of light, can change the focus of your hunt for composition or subject entirely.

A useful planning tool if you are going out specifically to photograph is the Photographer’s Ephemeris (http://photoephemeris.com/). Even if you consider yourself a more casual or opportunistic snapper, knowing when the sun will set and thinking about what hills might be lit up might persuade you of the value of a simple change in the direction of your walk, or a setting of the alarm 15minutes earlier…

On another technical, but light-related note, it’s definitely worth ‘shooting to the right’. Your camera’s light meter is standardised for midtone greyscale, so if you let it do its normal job, snowy images will be too dark. If you choose to use exposure compensation, it’s worth dialling in somewhere between + 2/3’s to + 1.5 stops. As always, if your camera allows it, shooting in RAW format gives you the option to change this after. Be careful with exposure comp’ though – it’s all too easy to blow out the highlights in the sky and trash the image beyond repair. Point the camera at both sky and ground and try to take a working average. I’ll cover the use of graduated filters in a future article.

On the North ridge of Ben Starav, early morning. The frozen pool is both foreground interest and leading line, this is a study in blue, not white… and was approached carefully so as not to disturb the snow.

Snow and Ice

Technically, snow on the ground lifts those shadow areas, making it easier for your camera sensor to deal with the wide dynamic range difference between the ground and sky.
On the practical front, start early in the morning, before others have walked through the wind blown fresh snow. If you are first on the scene and something catches your eye, approach it carefully… or as a recent student put it, very concisely… ‘start at the back’. Try to decide your angle and composition before getting too close – you might not want your own footprints in the final image!

If the last paragraph is bringing to mind the kind of bright, still alpine conditions we dream of as winter hillgoers, it’s worth pointing out the obvious – our Atlantic winter can be a little more, um, shall we say ‘gritty’? When it’s sleeting horizontally in a 25mph hoolie the temptation is to put away your camera, but I’d recommend you resist that impulse at all costs. Changing conditions are a huge part of the outdoors story and you can’t tell that story with your camera in your pack. The same conditions can make for the most dramatic images too, with or without people. Modern cameras may have more computer electronics onboard than the first trip to the moon, but they are very robust and will withstand a shocking amount of seasonal abuse. These toys can be expensive, so work them hard – make them pay for their keep.

Perfect story telling weather on Sgùrr Innse. Scale is mostly gone from the image, but it tells part of the tale of a friend’s first Munro and bothy experience, without a thousand words.

The large expanses of white also mean that playing with colour, or the lack of it, becomes really interesting. Of course, it’s a myth that everything turns ‘white’. All that blank canvas means the colours of the sky are often reflected on the ground: Snow can be multiple shades of blue, pink, and grey too. A black and white conversion can create even more drama in conjunction with that low angle of the sun (as in the top image)… but it may not be needed – winter tends to leach a lot of the colour from the landscape altogether, especially in the darkest months of December and January. Those isolated fragments of colour which remain – be it moss, grass, rock or a brightly jacketed friend, can be really effective.


An abstract from Stob Coire an Lochan, Glen Coe. This is a colour photo, not a black and white conversion, and the size of the break in the snow is difficult to discern… just like being there, in winter our senses are confused.

Which leads me conveniently onto simplicity, and scale. For me, winter is the most exciting time in the photographic calendar because of the ‘graphic’ element. Our winter weather can be a physical and mental challenge, but it does serve to remove a lot of distractions from the frame, leaving you to play with the smooth curves and sharp edges of cornices and other features, and pick out solitary features as the subject of your image.


Pristine, wind blown snow reflecting a powder blue sky, a strong corner diagonal leading to a solitary figure for scale, deep in the Cairngorms.

At it’s most abstract, this can mean playing with a sense of scale, as rocks, slopes, trees and other forms we use to judge size in the composition are covered by a blanket of white. If good picture making is about balancing light, line and subject, winter photography is the perfect time of year to practise distilling your craft to the bare essentials, and working out what it is you enjoying looking for in a photograph the rest of the year.




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