It´s cold. It’s windy. Your hands are frozen. You’ve been snowshoeing for hours. Now the moment comes: the light on the Gore Range is perfect, with the snow reflecting the alpenglow that brushes the peaks. You pull out your camera. It’s going to be the perfect shot. But when you press the trigger, nothing happens. Your camera is frozen.
Winter photography is full of moments like this. While shooting in summer can be a joy, with warm weather and easy conditions, winter brings its own challenges. Cold temperatures can wreak havoc with electronics, and snow and condensation are also a risk. But that doesn’t mean you should leave your camera at home after the leaves fall from the trees. Colorado’s combination of white snow, jagged peaks and changeable weather can make for truly epic photographs. Here are some pointers to get the most out of your camera when things turn cold.
Serious? Get a real camera
Today’s pocket-sized digital cameras are great, but if you’re really interested in getting great shots you need a better camera. In most cases that means a digital single lens reflex (SLR) Pro or Pro/ Consumer (prosumer) camera body that can accept different lenses, like Nikon’s D 90, Canon’s Digital Rebel XSi or the Pentax K-7. Your choice of camera body is less important than the quality of your lenses. Get the best you can afford. For those on a budget, companies like KEH (keh.com) and B & H Photo and Video (bhphotovideo.com) sell used gear. For those who want a pocket-sized option, the Cannon PowerShot G11 and the Nikon P7000 (available at Mike’s Camera, www. mikescamera.com) have full manual overrides of the automatic settings and are a good option for people who don’t want to lug a lot of weight, as they feature fixed rather than interchangeable lenses.
Basic point-and-shoots can achieve good results, but you’re relying on the automatic settings that drive these cameras. You can’t swap lenses, and they’re prone to failure in really cold weather. Ultimately, you get what you pay for.
Get up early and stay out late
This rule applies to all photographers, no matter the season. The best time to take pictures is when the light is the best, and that means sunrise and sunset. It’s very difficult to get stunning images when the sun is directly overhead. Improve your chances by taking photos when the shadows are long and the light is soft. If you must shoot during the middle of the day, use your flash to lighten up faces and find interesting angles (see composition, below).
Take the time to set up shots
This is a skill that improves with practice and will become second nature. Think about light, texture and angles. Putting a body in the middle of the frame is much less interesting than a close-up of a face. Divide up your field of view and juxtapose your subject with background textures. Experiment with silhouettes. Learn to use your flash to light part of your subject. Shoot from above. Lie on the ground and shoot up. Think about what’s in the background and position your subjects accordingly. Figure out how the depth of field works on your lens to blur backgrounds while keeping your subject in focus. For landscapes, put a tree or a branch in the foreground to add depth. Experiment and have fun, and your photos will benefit.
Nail the action
You’re unlikely — though it’s not impossible — to get great action shots with a point-and-shoot. But if you’re serious about capturing winter sports action, you’ll have to buck up and get a real camera. Shoot at 1/500 of a second to freeze action like snowboard jumps and powder turns. Shoot at even faster rates of 1/2000 of a second to capture subjects like the racers at Beaver Creek’s Birds of Prey Downhill. Learn to increase your depth of focus by setting your lens at smaller apertures to ensure your subject is sharp.
Get wet, cold and snowy
While it’s tempting to only take your camera out of the pack when it’s snowed two feet and it’s sunny, don’t be afraid to take photos during storms. Colorado’s rapidly changing weather makes for unexpected moments of stunning beauty. If you only carry your camera when the sky is clear, you’ll miss out on some great shots.
Your camera is actually pretty tough
Your camera can get cold and wet and still function. Remember this and don’t leave it at home when the weather is nasty. However, when you come into a warm ski lodge from the freezing outdoors, leave your camera in your pack. Taking it out immediately will allow condensation to form on the inside and outside of the camera, which you want to avoid. You’ll also want to keep your battery fully charged, and if it’s really cold, carry a spare next to your body to keep it warm. Cold saps battery power, although pro and “prosumer” SLR cameras are much less susceptible to the cold than cheap point-and-shoots.
Have a plan for your photos
Regardless of what kind of software you use to process your photos, take the time to edit, process and organize your photos. And don’t forget to back up your digital images on a hard drive that’s separate from your laptop or home computer. Boulder Digital Arts (www. boulderdigitalarts.com) and Working With Artists (www.workingwithartists. com) offer classes in digital photography, Photoshop and more to help you get the most out of your pictures. Finally, delete your missed shots. Only save your best images.
If you take away one piece of advice from reading this story, this is the most important: there are no rules as to what is right or wrong. Photography is an extension of your personal vision, of what you think is interesting, cool or important. Experimentation is easy with digital cameras: you don’t have to pay for film or processing, and memory cards are cheap. Experiment and have fun.
When it comes to photography, every rule is made to be broken. Except, of course, this one.
The recipient of the 2009 Hirsch Award for ski photography, Tom Winter’s photos have been published by ESPN, The Los Angeles Times, Skiing Magazine and many other national and international media outlets, as well as Boulder Weekly.