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Winter Forest Photography: Tips, Ideas and Challenges

January 14, 2019  •  4 Comments

Many photographers don't bother taking pictures in the bare winter forests unless there is a nice blanket of snow. The trees have lost their leaves, the sky is often grey and the atmosphere is not incredibly uplifting most of the time. Still photographing winter in the forest is amazing for many reasons and I have several forests that I only photograph in winter, because in the other seasons they are too overgrown to reveal the structures.

Winter Forest Photography: 10 tips and solutions to possible challenges and problems when photographing in the cold

Let's start by giving you some ideas of what kind of pictures work great in winter.

1. Silhouettes of trees against a snowy or pale grey sky can be very impressive and the desaturated tones make for great minimalist shots

December Day

2. When there is a dusting of snow and there is not a whole lot of it, look for trees with great texture in their barks, which hold onto the snow better. In cases like these I never photograph beech trees, but stick to acacias, oak trees and any other tree with a textured bark.

Frozen Fairytale

3. Winter is great for forests with a lot of undergrowth, like bushes, ferns and grass. In most seasons it is very hard to take clean images in these kinds of forests, but then winter comes and reveals the structure of the forest. I especially love photographing forests like these on very foggy mornings.

Danse de la Neige

4. Look for trees with whimsical shapes. A straight row of beech trees can look pretty uninspiring in the snow, but a group of whimsically shaped oak trees look amazing in winter. I actually prefer to photograph oak trees in this time of the year

Winter Tales II

5. Winter is also great for more gloomy pictures with dark atmospheres and grey days are also perfect for scouting in the forest, without harsh highlights and shadows to make assessing a forest scene almost impossible

Mystified

6. Hoarfrost....When frost and fog meet, the most magical things happen to trees and forests. If the sky is blue, try to find a single, remarkable tree and photograph it against the blue sky. On grey days, find some groups of trees in different sizes to add interest to the scene. I find that straight lanes with hoar frost are much harder to photograph in an interesting way, especially if the bark has turned black because of the humidity. Contrast will then get very high. 

Willow tree covered in hoar frost by a frozen-over lake

7. Icicles....Last year I was photographing in the forest and all the branches had dripping icicles on them. It looked like a crystal fairytale. Icicles will also form in waterfalls, which makes them look quite magical

Fairytale oak tree with branches covered in icicles

8. Winter light....I love the winter for its softer light during the day. In summer I sometimes get half an hour of the right light after sunrise, but in winter I can take pictures for hours if the conditions are alright.

9. Winter is also great if you don't like to get too much colour in your images. Forests are not just as chaotic in winter because of less undergrowth, but the colours are also very muted. If you are not into the lime greens of spring, winter is a treat.

10. Wind in the winter has less of an effect on trees than in other seasons, which means you can get away with longer shutter speeds. In other seasons wind is always a cause of trouble if you want to prevent watercolour effects caused by moving leaves.

Misty Winter Wonderland

One other huge advantage of winter in this part of the world is that the sun does not rise at a ridiculously early hour of the day. 


Possible challenges:

1. Snow messes with your exposure. This means that you need to overexpose with a full stop (+1 EV) or more to keep the snow white. Keep an eye on your histogram though to check if you are not blowing out any highlights

2. Batteries run out of power really quickly. I keep some in an insulated wallet that I carry in the inside pocket of my jacket to keep them warm

3. Snow can suddenly fall down on you from branches. This is something that happens often and if the snow is melting, what can happen is that large amounts of snow fall  either on you or on your camera or both with the tiniest gust of wind. Look out for this and always cover your camera. I have mine in a plastic ziplock bag and I carry large microfiber cloths to wipe the camera off if it gets wet. 

Old beech trees in a foggy winter forest

4. Snow can prevent your camera from locking focus on your subject. It might instead focus on the nearest snowflake and this is not what you want. Keep this in mind and switch to manual focus instead

5. It can be pretty dark in a winter forest and so....you will need your tripod more than ever. I never photograph in the forest without one, but in winter it is even more important. 

6. When you go home, put your camera in the camera bag and leave it in there....Put the bag in the hallway, not near a source of heat and let it adjust to the the temperature. This will prevent condensation to build up inside your equipment. 

7. LCD screens can go funny on you. I have one camera that has issues with spider like veins building up in the corners of my LCD screen. Funnily enough its twin, the same camera, does not have this issue. Don't worry, the LCD screen will look perfectly fine again when it warms up.

8. A polariser is something to watch out for when photographing winter skies. They tend to look unnatural if you are not careful. If you can't decide, take one shot with and one shot without your circular polariser

Frozen

9. Large gaps of bright sky attracting attention in forest pictures are always something to watch out for. In winter this is even more true. The brightest spot in the wrong place in your photo will ruin the entire image, so look out for these bright spots.

10. When photographing boulevards and lanes in the winter what often happens is that the right side of the picture has a blueish tone in the sky whilst the other side might be yellowish or white. This is hidden in other seasons, but I find it terribly distracting. What you can do in post processing is desaturate the blues, for example in the HSL panel. This most of the time is enough to get rid of any unwanted colour.

As you can see, winter has so much to offer from a photographic point of view. Buy some special photography gloves, make sure you stay warm and keep in mind that you will be standing still for longer periods of time, which means you might get cold quicker. 

If you would like to learn more about forest photography in all seasons, how to process foggy winter pictures and how to compose pictures in a chaotic place like the forest, I have written an eBook about forest photography called : The Magic Of Forest Photography (Dutch translation coming up soon)

Winter Forest Photography: 10 tips and solutions to possible challenges and problems when photographing in the cold


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Bernhard(non-registered)
Really nice winter pictures. Like your style

Bernhard
Bernhard(non-registered)
Nice and dreaMful pictures

Regards
Bernhard
Dalibro(non-registered)
Hello Ellen, thank you for the article and for sharing your beautiful images - I really admire anyone who is able to find order in the chaos of a forest.
I've started just recently with a bit more woodland photography and I find it incredibly calming. And especially in winter, forests are so quiet and empty + the chance of good photographic weather (=miserable weather) is really high :D
Bernhard(non-registered)
Nice pictures, especially the winter images.
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