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How to Photograph Winter Wildlife

“Winter is coming” is a well-used phrase these days, particularly amongst those of you familiar with Game of Thrones; for many wildlife photographers it is the most eagerly awaited season. Considering that here in the Scottish Highlands the day light hours are very short, at just 5-6 hours at best, that might seem surprising to some. Sometimes the weather can be fairly unpleasant, too. But winter wildlife photography is one of the highlights of my year, and here is why.

Red deer stag surrounded by snow. Lake and mountain in background

Without doubt, snow is a very photogenic and certainly ranks very high for why this season is so popular. It adds another dimension to your images, particularly if you get falling snow.

The quality of light is another reason to explore with your camera in the winter. Throughout the main winter months (November to the end of February), the sun remains low in the sky – even in the middle part of the day – effectively giving you a good chunk of daylight hours that are bathed in a warm winter sunlight.

Finally, the change in many species’ behaviours makes for unique images. Mountain hare, crested tits and red deer, to name a few, are far more easily photographed over the winter months.

Red squirrel in snow

Exposing for snow in photography

Snow can easily fool your camera’s light meter into underexposing the shot. Before you reach your subject, it’s well worth taking a few test shots nearby to get a setting that looks correct rather than one that is several stops out.

On overcast days, this might mean overexposing by two stops in some cases. On brighter days with a blue sky, less compensation will be necessary and often just one stop over would suffice.

Use the screen on the back of your camera to check exposure regularly. It’s also worth turning on your camera’s highlights warning, ensuring that any completely overexposed areas flash black on the LCD screen when reviewing images. It’s a good, quick reference point to instantly see if you have overcompensated.

Mountain hare in snow

Whether you use manual or aperture priority mode is your choice, but personally I use a bit of both in snowy conditions. If the light is constant and not changing, then manual is great. But if the light is varying a lot and constantly changing, I will shoot in aperture priority and have some exposure compensation dialled in to suit the conditions.

On overcast days, particularly with white subjects like ptarmigan and mountain hares, it is worth trying some high key techniques, where you are intentionally overexposing parts of the scene.

For this technique, you would overexpose the shot by at least another couple of stops. Don’t get too carried away with it, but in the right circumstances it can work really well and can give your image a new flare of creativity.

Taking wildlife photos in falling snow

This has to be the ultimate winter condition in my book. Having your chosen subject right there in front of you, with snowflakes falling around it, gives your images a completely different feel.

To show falling snow properly, you need to have a darker background than the foreground of your scene. In bright, or completely white, surroundings the snow just merges into the background and is less pronounced.

In a whiteout, it’s possible to show falling snow against the darker body of the animal itself. But for the entire scene to be covered in snowfall, you’ll need to think about the background.

Getting as low as you can will also help. By shooting at ground level, you can isolate your subject from the background more easily, allowing the snowflakes around the subject to be more readily seen in the background.

Snow falling around a stag in a forest

Another worthwhile technique is to vary your shutter speed. By doing this you can determine how the falling snow will look in your image.

A faster shutter speed, perhaps 1/250th of a second and above, will freeze the flakes pretty much as you see them. With slower speeds like 1/60th of a second, you will start to see the snowflakes streak. The streaks will get longer as the shutter speed gets slower.

If the subject is nice and settled and you have time, try and do both. But always start with the faster shutter speed option, as it is the quickest and easiest option with less chance of camera shake or motion blur.

Creatively, either can work well. That is why you should try both, and then you at least have the choice to see which one looks more pleasing and interesting.

Read more: How to Get Rain & Snow Streaks

capercaillie stood in a forest, snow falls around it

If the snow is falling heavily, the chances are that your lens’ autofocus will pick up the snowflakes in front of your subject and struggle to focus on the actual target. If this happens, you will have no option but to turn off the autofocus and focus manually on the subject.

Another tip for photographing winter wildlife in falling snow is to take bursts of images. Try shooting 3-4 at a time, as this way you will get the snowflakes falling in different patterns.

There is nothing worse than getting home to your computer and viewing your hard-earned pictures, only to find that a snowflake is blocking on the subject’s eye. Taking short bursts will often get around this potential problem.

capercaillie close up with snow falling around it

The best winter clothing for photography

Never underestimate the need for suitable clothing in winter weather – you will do so at your peril! Whether you are sitting in a hide or walking in the hills, the best thing to do is to layer up with around four garments on the top half of your body. A thermal under-layer, then shirt followed by a fleece type jumper and finally an outer waterproof jacket.

On the bottom half of the body, thermal underwear is essential and a pair of wind resistant trousers, if not waterproof ones. If possible, avoid the noisy, rustling type materials as this could cause problems with some nervous species.

Mountain hare action shot on snowy mountain

If walking you may need to lose a layer if you start to overheat; that’s where the fleece jersey is useful as you can remove it and pack it away in your backpack.

On many occasions, when photographing species like mountain hare and ptarmigan, you could be walking for large distances and thus not feeling the cold so much. However, once you find something to photograph, stopping perhaps for several hours without moving much, will mean that you risk getting very cold.

This is why ensuring you have enough layers, even if some are temporarily stored in your bag, is incredibly important. The more comfortable you are, the longer you’ll be able to stay out in the elements.

Red grouse close up surrounded by snow in winter

Good, warm footwear is also essential along with a good pair of warm socks. There is nothing worse than cold feet and hands for that matter, so remember to bring a suitable pair of thermal gloves or mitts.

Working your camera with either gloves or mitts it not easy, but there are some options with fingers that fold back which allows you to access functions on your camera more easily.

Finally, ensure that you have a warm hat. If you find that your face gets cold easily, you could also bring a lightweight merino wool balaclava to take the edge off.

Read more: Essential Equipment for Photography in the Snow

Crested tit on a pine tree branch with snow falling in the background

Dealing with the weather

It should go without saying, but always treat the weather with respect particularly if you are heading into the hills. Check the forecast for the area you are heading to the night before, and if it looks extremely bad then make new plans and wait for another day.

If you are already on the hills and the weather turns bad, which it often can, get yourself down to lower ground as quickly and safely as you can. Remember, getting caught in a whiteout can completely disorientate you. Ensure that you have a map, compass, and GPS unit with you. Don’t just rely on your phone’s GPS and Google Maps – mountains and harsh conditions can throw the reading off entirely, and often you won’t have signal anyway.

Ptarmigan sat on a snow covered rock

Driving conditions are also worth thinking about. Snowfall can easily render you stranded, particular if you don’t have a 4×4. Seriously consider swapping your car’s summer tyres for winter tyres, and carry snow socks or chains with you for particularly tricky conditions.

A snow shovel and some pieces of old carpet are also good to dig out a car that has been buried whilst you’ve been out photographing wildlife! If you have an older car in particular, a pair of jump leads and a remote starter pack could be a lifesaver.

Always think of the worst case scenarios, and if you are stuck in a remote area and can’t move your car, you may have to spend the night. Ensure that you have a good sleeping bag so you can wait it out.

Final tips for winter wildlife photography

  • Make use of the weather and get out when it’s frosty and snowing. These weather elements can add so much atmosphere to your pictures.
  • If the temperature is particularly cold, take extra batteries and keep them warm in your pockets close to your body.
  • If conditions are snowy or wet and combined with a strong wind, remember shooting into the wind will more than likely mean you get a lens hood full of snow or a very wet front element.
  • Pristine, untouched snow looks great. If you see an amazing scene or foreground, don’t go trampling all over it and covering it in footprints.
  • Protect your camera and lens with rain covers. They can be a bit fiddly, but it’s worth it and allows you to be out in these wintry conditions for longer.
  • Keep the lens hood attached as this helps to keep the rain and snow away from the front element.

Stag against dark background with snow falling around it

In conclusion

Convincing yourself to get out on these less favourable days can be the toughest bit. I felt like that many times in the past, but now I savour them.

Nowadays, some of my best images have been taken on these tougher days. If you make the effort to get out there and persist, the satisfaction you will feel when everything comes together will surely be worth it.

Neil McIntyre is a professional wildlife photographer based in Aviemore in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park. He specialises in mainly Scottish species and runs photo tours concentrating on these around the Cairngorms and the Scottish islands.

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