Photography In The National Parks: Winter Essentials

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Snow day at Park Avenue, Arches National Park. Rebecca Latson photo.

Every season presents its own challenges when it comes to photography in a national park. Issues run the gamut from exposure to color balance to white balance to protective gear for you and your camera.

At this time of year, winter waxes as fall wanes, so I thought it pertinent to now emphasize the concerns and rewards of winter photography, be it in the sub-zero temperatures of Yellowstone or along the balmy beaches of the Virgin Islands or the moss-carpeted downed tree trunks of Olympic National Park.

Winter, for me, brings to mind the purity of snow and ice. Such adjectives as “crisp” and “stark” come to mind. There is a clean, cold beauty to photographs captured during the winter season. The air is clear and the landscape presents clarity of resolution and color.

Winter’s Photographic Trickiness

OK, so most of us think of winter photography in terms of snow and ice. Photographing a snow-covered scene in the winter can be tricky. The chance of over-exposing (“blowing out”) the white areas or under-exposing the dark areas increases, thereby losing much of the compositional detail. This kind of thing is also an issue with photographing very light to almost white sands along a beach or amongst the dunes.

Case in point: while visiting Arches National Park in early February, it snowed 5 inches. I could barely contain my excitement as I carefully maneuvered my rental SUV through the white stuff, only the second person to have entered the park that morning. Stopping off at Park Avenue first, I fired off some shots and was rewarded with striking red rock, an overexposed snowscape, and an almost totally blown-out sky. Forgot about fixing those camera settings - ahem.

On top of that, I realized I also needed to utilize a graduated neutral density filter to even out the bright sky vs. the darker ground. In addition to my exposure snafus, I had a slight issue with color.

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Photography can be problematic concerning light-to-white colors like snow and sand because of the slight blue or gray color cast often imparted to images. Where’s the white??

Thanks to the current wealth of image editing applications out there, mistakes in exposure and color can be fixed post-shutter click.

Adjusting your camera’s settings to the correct white balance and exposure in the first place, however, will minimize post-processing time on your part.

Exposure, Metering, and the Histogram

If you keep your setting on Auto Mode, then your camera’s metering system will take an average reading of the bright and dark areas of your scene to come up with a sort of “middle” exposure. Along comes this large area of bright white snow or very light-colored sand and the camera’s metering system is still going to do its best to get that “middle” average. The result may be an underexposed, “muddy” grayish image.

To brighten and whiten that snowy/sandy scene (pre edit), your best bet is to either put your camera in Manual Mode and experiment with shutter speed and f-stop combinations to create a specific look for a scene, or use one of the other modes like Program, Aperture Priority, or Shutter Priority, where you can utilize the Exposure Compensation (EC) dial. EC can add or subtract anywhere from a fraction up to an entire stop or more from your current exposure setting. You don’t even need to know a lot about f-stops or shutter speeds to use this function. You *do* need to test your settings, though, in order to feel comfortable with how it all works.

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Turrent Arch wrapped in 5 inches of fresh snow, Arches National Park. Rebecca Latson photo.

If you are shooting digitally, then you can see the results via your LCD screen right there in the field. The ability to see the results immediately in-camera, has saved my photographic life more than once.

You can also check your digital camera’s histogram, which displays in graph format the distribution of an image’s brightness. If your graph is skewed to the right, then your photo is overexposed (very bright). If the histogram is skewed to the left, then it’s underexposed (very dark). No, your histogram absolutely needn’t be a perfect bell curve – it depends upon what you are photographing (ex. a histogram for a night sky is going to be skewed far to the left of the graph). The idea for a well-balanced scene (aside from night sky shots) is to *not* have the ends of your histogram hitting the extreme far right or far left.

White Balance

Ok, so now you have corrected for exposure. To your chagrin, you still seem to be getting a sort of blue or gray tinge to the white / light-colored portions of your image. You can fix that in-camera.

A camera’s white balance setting allows you to select a particular color cast in order to create a correct color rendering of your scene. Nowadays, most digital cameras - from SLRs to point & shoots - have white balance presets from which to choose (Auto, Daylight/Sunny, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Flash). If you are a DIY photographer, you can even create your own custom white balance by selecting a specific color temperature (yes, color has temperature measured in degrees Kelvin).

And yes, you can see the results on your digital camera’s LCD screen immediately after you’ve clicked the shutter. Just don’t forget to change the white balance (custom or preset) when you move from one type of lighting to another. A white balance set for a bright sunny day is not going to work so well with photos taken on an overcast day.

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Shafer Canyon Overlook, Canyonlands National Park. Rebecca Latson photo.

Baby, it’s Cold (Or Humid) Out There

Winter photography in very cold climates creates a set of issues that can cause you to miss a potential shot and perhaps harm your camera if you don’t take precautions.

You see, when you suddenly expose your camera to the frosty elements after having stored it in a nice warm environment for a period of time, everything fogs up. That resulting condensation may cause permanent damage to your camera’s electrical components as well as create water spots within the lens interior.

Winter photography in very humid climates (ex. the Hoh Rainforest or the Everglades) presents essentially the same challenge. You’re walking out of a nicely air-conditioned building or you are driving around in a car with the AC blowing full-throttle. Suddenly, you step out into the humid environment, uncovered camera in hand, the lens fogs up and parts of your camera may even feel “sweaty.” Yikes.

The best method for introducing your camera to extreme temperature change is to put that camera in your bag/backpack or a Ziploc-type bag, maybe add one of those little packets of silica gel (to soak up any moisture), and gradually move your covered camera from its current location to a less warm/cool place en route to its final chilly/hot & humid destination.

Oh, and speaking of missing a potential shot, did I mention that camera batteries lose their “juice” faster in a cold environment? Nothing puts a damper on your day of winter photography like discovering one or more of your camera batteries are dead from the cold. Keep all those spare batteries fully charged, covered, and warm until it’s time to pop one into the camera.

Winter Gear for Yourself and Your Camera

One last thing about camera protection: in the winter, it can snow, rain, or hail on the scene – sometimes within minutes of it being a bright, sunny day. This applies not only to the parks in the West, but parks everywhere.

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Snow and blue sky, Mount Rainier National Park. Rebecca Latson photo.

Way up northeast, in Acadia National Park, you might find yourself standing very near or even within the water (think Thunder Hole or a stormy coastline just off of the Park Loop Road). Make sure you’ve got some sort of “rain gear” for your camera, like the Vortex Media Storm Jacket, or Optech’s Rainsleeve or Lenscoat’s Raincoat RS. This “rain gear” even helps protect from wind-blown sand grains should you find yourself surrounded by sand on the beach or among the dunes.

Last but not least, let’s talk about winter gear for the photographer. For typically cold locations, it goes without saying that you should dress in layers (wool, fleece, silk, or some other thermal fabric) and wear a warm jacket. Good boots are a must – good insulated boots are even better. For typically warm locations…well….take sunscreen and insect repellent.

Tramping about on snow or ice in a national park in the winter can be risky business. For icy trails, try Yak Trax Traction Cleats or Kahtoola MICROspikes for your boots. For deep snow, there’s nothing better than snowshoes (or even cross-country skis, depending upon your location). You don’t want to risk stepping through the snow up to your knee and possibly injuring yourself in the process (I write this from experience). And don’t forget those hand- and foot-warmers you can get for gloves and boots.

Now that you’ve got those camera settings just right and both you and your gear are ready for the elements, don’t just stand there! Enjoy the winter season, hot or cold. Get out and capture those winter images!