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Photography In The National Parks: Dealing With Dancing Snowflakes
Recently a friend wrote to ask where I was spending the winter and when I replied, "Yellowstone," they appeared to be dumbfounded.
This was his reply, "Deby, I can't believe you are spending a second winter there. It must be so cold and lonesome."
Several weeks ago I had a gallery opening in Spokane, Washington, and when looking at the snowy set, printed on metal and hanging on a brick wall, was when I realized that winter is my favorite time for photography. There is nothing like a clean, white, snowy background to photograph wildlife in, and with snow covered trees, icy rivers, animals trudging through snow and quiet snowflakes falling, what is not to like?
Well, to be honest, photography in the snow does have many challenges but once you are able to overcome the difficulties, then it is time to have fun and be creative. It does take practice and there is always something new to learn.
The challenges of snow:
The first thing I learned about photography in the snow is that the lens is going to want to focus on the snowflakes instead of the subject, which is easily overcome by using manual focus. Don't be lazy and hope for the best because you will be sorry when you get home and look at the images on the computer.
The next thing is that blotches of snow over the animal are not pretty! Some of these blotches can be minimized in Photoshop or whatever editing program you use for post processing. Just remember, just because those big flakes look pretty coming down does not mean they are going to look good in the photo.
Snow gets on the lens and creates blotches of another type. Remedies for this problem are, use your lens hood, tilt the lens down when not shooting, check your glass often and carry a lens cloth for constant cleaning. And, be careful not to smear your lens.
Challenges of lighting in snow and inclement weather:
Quite often, during the winter, the days are overcast and somewhat dull looking despite the presence of the sparkling snow. Don't despair, manipulate your settings. The animals on these dull days, against the snow, will often come out as dark blobs unless carefully and meticulously exposed, which isn't always possible when photographing moving wildlife. Don't worry about the exposure of the snow, worry about your subject. I do this by bumping the exposure up 1/3 to 2/3 and keeping it that way unless the light changes.
By doing this you are getting the details of the animal and catchlight in its eye on a bright white background, which can be stunning if done properly.
Then there are the days when it is too bright. The sky is blue, without a cloud anywhere and the sun is overhead and bouncing off of the snow, killing your eyes and blowing out the light parts on an animal. The head of a bald eagle will simply vanish in these conditions and so it is time to step the exposure down 1/3 to 2/3. Again, with moving animals the light might change, making this a bigger challenge than a constant gray day, so continually check your images to make sure the detail is there. Shooting in RAW will help because you will be able to bring back some of the details during post-processing.
It is cold outside! Get over it. Dress warm in good boots that don't slip easily, snow pants, hat, warm jacket, and gloves that will allow you to operate the camera while wearing. Put some toe warmers in your boots, throw some hand warmers in your jacket pockets and have some extra layers in your daypack for just in case. I like to get down in the snow for a better angle of an animal on the landscape and tend to get a little wet sometimes and so there are dry clothes, socks and soft boots in the car, waiting for me. And, if you can and still get a good shot, shoot from the car but turn the engine off. My body tends to become intolerant of the cold at 10 degrees, but that takes a little getting used to. Most importantly, you won't miss the good shots because it is too cold outside, if you are prepared.
When shooting subjects in the snow I tend to look for nice clean backgrounds that are free of branches and such, just like at any other time, and tracks or lines that add interest to the image. Winter is when I go for the minimalist images the most. Action images with snow flying and tracks left behind are nice also, particularly if there aren't a lot of other distraction in the photograph. Drama - the struggle through the snow, the emotion of living in winter and the beauty of it all, such as the water running beneath the ice or the morning sun lighting frozen trees. Shoot a lot and experiment. And, watch where you make your own tracks as they might ruin a beautiful shot of pristine snow.
Throughout much of the year my editing is normally limited to levels, contrast, colors and minimal cleaning up of images, such as dust spots or a branch in the wrong place. But, bring on the snow and all bets are off because careful editing can turn a nice image into a spectacular one.
As I said earlier, I like the minimalist look and snow makes it easy to accomplish this with some simple editing. For one thing, if properly exposed your subjects will show up better on a clean white background, even at great distances, as opposed to the same subject, at the same distance but in a landscape covered in plants.
If you have an animal in a snowy landscape but the sagebrush is only partially covered by snow, it will tend to distract from the wildlife. Try using your cloning tool and selecting a clean snowy area to use for covering up the plant life until the foreground is free of distractions or to your liking. Be careful with consistency of white color and avoid dark blotches. I generally go over an area several times until the white is consistent throughout.
For a little extra sharp detail against the snow I will sometimes throw the image into an HDR program for tone mapping. but this is tricky with snow because you don't want it to look neon or have dark edges. Experiment. I generally do the levels and contrast and then play a little with changing the image to black and white, which can be very effective with a beautiful white background, or saturating the color. I am not one for big color saturation most of the time, but don't be afraid to bump it up so that the color of your subject stands out nicely against the snowy background. After doing the basic editing, I create a duplicate file and play around with different techniques, such as HDR or adding a hint of color. You might also want to try taking out all grasses, branches and other background elements so that it is just your subject and the snow.
Create several versions of the same image and then compare and see which one you like best. As long as you are editing an art print, all bets are off and edit away. But, if you plan to sell the image for editorial/photojournalism purposes, removing elements would be unethical.
Know what you are going to use the photo for before editing or keep two versions. I keep the original, RAW files, just in case it is necessary to go back and re-edit.
The snow is on the ground in many of your national parks, the trees are laden with white stuff, and the animals are trudging through as they forage for their winter survival so get out, take a hike and shoot up the snow. Most of all, have fun and don't forget to lay down and make a snow angel or have a snowball fight.
Happy Holidays - hoping that you find good laughter, clean fun, and sharp shooting.