5 Tips for Photographing Wildlife in the Snow

Photographing Wildlife in the winter snow

It’s that time of year again. Winter is right around the corner, and wildlife photography is about to get a little more challenging. Deep snow and cold temperatures can cause a few problems for wildlife photographers out in the field, but I find that producing great images in these conditions is far more rewarding because of it. Falling snowflakes and steamy breath add some extra drama to our photographs, and it’s these refreshing elements that make winter my favourite time of year for wildlife photography.

In this tutorial, I’m going to look at how you can take better photos of wildlife in the snow.

Photographing Wildlife in the winter snow

#1 Make sure you’re prepared for the cold

The most important thing to make sure of before you head outdoors, particularly when there is snow on the ground, is that you are properly prepared. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have the right gear on when you’re outside in full-blown winter conditions. There’s nothing worse than having to head home early because you can’t feel your fingers or your toes anymore!

It may seem like stating the obvious, but decent winter boots with thick socks are essential, as well as a warm hat and gloves. Snowshoes make life a lot easier if the snow is deep, too.

I always recommend a decent layering system with winter clothing, rather than one big jacket or pair of trousers. Regulating your body temperature is much easier with layers, and this can make a huge difference to your comfort if you plan to be out all day. I wear merino wool base layers against my skin, followed by a slightly thicker merino mid layer. On top of that, I wear a fairly thin insulated jacket (usually synthetic as it will continue to keep you warm if it gets wet unlike down which will clump together and stop working), followed finally by a hard shell such as Gore-tex to protect me from wind and moisture. If you’re trekking or hiking, and expending a lot of energy, you can easily shed a layer or two to regulate your heat.

Photographing Wildlife in the winter snow

#2 Learn to properly expose the snow

One of the main challenges we face in the winter is exposing the snow correctly. Our cameras will always try to achieve that mid-tone neutral grey if left to their own devices. In any other circumstance, this might help us out by avoiding burnt out highlights, but when we’re shooting snow it tends to cause rather dull, under-exposed shots. Therefore, always remember to compensate by adjusting your exposure positively. Overexpose by a whole stop or two to make sure those whites come out white and not grey. Ideally, you’d still like to see some detail in the snow, but even a large blown out area is more appealing to look at in a snowy scene than that awful grey tone.

Read more: High-key Wildlife – How to Create a White Background

Photographing Wildlife in the winter snow

#3 Think about how the cold affects your kit

Another challenge to always be aware of is how the cold affects your gear. Freezing temperatures will zap your battery life quickly, so make sure your batteries are fully charged before you head out, and always carry a spare (or two!). I tend to carry my spare in an inside pocket of my jacket, rather than in my backpack.

If it’s really cold, I’ll switch my batteries regularly, to make sure I’ve always got a warm replacement ready to go when I need it. Be sure to pack everything back into your camera bag before you head indoors too, and let them warm up gradually for an hour or two before you open it up again. The condensation caused by bringing a cold camera into a warm room can do some damage otherwise, which is something I learnt about the hard way several years ago.

Our camera bodies and lenses are pretty weather proof these days, but I also carry a plastic rain cover to help keep my gear dry too, just in case. After all, snow does melt!

Photographing Wildlife in the winter snow

#4 Getting proper focus during snow fall

By far the most frustrating obstacle when trying to photograph wildlife when it’s snowing is the snowflakes themselves. This issue only arises when it’s coming down thick and hard, but trying to autofocus on your subject’s eyes when there are thousands of snowflakes between them and your lens is near impossible.

Your camera will constantly try to focus on individual snowflakes as they pass through your focus point, and the only quick fix is to switch over to manual focus and hope that your subject stays relatively still for you. The alternative is to fire off a burst in autofocus, and hope that at least a few of the shots come out sharp. As you can imagine, the hit rate is very low when you do this, so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re completely out of other options.

Read more: Back Button Focus – A Game Changer

Photographing Wildlife in the winter snow

#5 Use the snow to your advantage

Finding your target species is often a lot easier in the snow, especially if you’re searching for something more elusive than an ungulate, such as wolves or a lynx for example. A fresh blanket of snow provides us with a blank canvas of information, and so much of an animal’s day can be understood by looking at the tracks they leave behind. Even if the tracks aren’t that fresh, and our chances of finding or catching up to the animal are slim, they can really help us learn about the habits of that species.

By seeing where they bedded down for the night, or where they hunted, we gain a much greater understanding of their behaviour, which increases our chances of finding them on another day. You can research certain species for days online or in books, but nothing can beat that first-hand knowledge that’s been gained through hard work and by putting in the hours out in the field.

Cai is a nature photographer originally from South Wales, but is now found living in the Canadian Rockies. Cai specialises in Canadian wildlife, and enjoys photographing "free-roaming animals doing what they do naturally."

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