Cold Air, Warm Light – Winter Photography Tips

Now that the first day of winter is close (though winter began months ago in some places), there is no reason to put your photography in hibernation! In fact, my favorite light of the year is winter. This is mainly because the sun doesn’t get as high in the sky and thus, yielding more hours with great light.

I spent much of the afternoon a few days after Christmas last year searching for the location I wanted to shoot sunset from. The night before it had snowed heavily and the forecast was for clearing skies later in the day. This was a predictable “great light” scenario over the Organ Mountains in southern New Mexico after nearly a foot of fresh snow. This was a very cold airmass for southern New Mexico and as usual, cold air yields warm winter light.

Generally speaking, if you live in a location that has real winter, defined by frequent temperatures below freezing and snowfall, the colder the air the better the light. Cold air produces warm light and winter landscapes in warm light make fantastic images. It may be uncomfortable on my fingers, operating the camera in well below freezing air, but very cold air, especially shortly after a frontal passage, often contains ice crystals suspended in a cloudless atmosphere. These ice crystals create backscattering and reflection of the longer (warmer) wavelengths of the visible light spectrum back toward the light source often creating a pink alpenglow opposite of the sunrise or set. High humidity in the lowest levels of the atmosphere in sub-freezing air can also produce a beautiful warm color wash shooting into the sun.

This was one of my best selling winter images ever. In a very cold (highs remaining below zero) airmass, I found a small body of water near Anchorage that didn’t freeze. Water vapor rising into the very cold air scatters the light creating a warm glow shooting the setting sun. This image follows the cold air-warm light formula.

WHEN TO SHOOT: I study forecast transitions in weather patterns. Pay attention to the forecast changes from clear to stormy weather and visa-versa which usually produces the most dramatic light. Approaching storms in the mid-lattitudes often produce dramatic and colorful clouds at sunrise and storms that clear in the afternoon often produce rich vibrant colors at sunset, especially if associated with a fresh snowfall. I also look for fog, especially if you live in hilly or mountainous regions where you have a chance to get above the fog. If you wake up and you can’t see across the street, rejoice! Grab your camera and try to get to the edge or top of the fog layer. That is where the photo magic is happening.

This shot of a runner is from Park City, Utah a valley that gets frequent winter fog. In the valley, it was grey and dismal (and colder) Driving to the top of the fog yields this crisp backlight with a high-key soft box feel. The freezing fog was at this height earlier and deposited “dew” on the snow, known as surface hoar giving the snow a bright crystal look.

TECHNIQUE: Snow is the easiest thing to shoot and expose for. It is nature’s best fill card, bouncing light everywhere and allowing for images not possible without it. You can shoot snow-covered spruce trees into the sun with amazing detail on the shadowed side. Over expose from what your meter is saying to bring your snow to a crisp bright white, otherwise, your images will be underexposed and muddy. Don’t forget to shoot images while snow is falling, especially if the flakes are big. When this happens you can get the most dramatic results if you place your subject, a person or animal (wild or domestic), against a dark background such as evergreen trees. Shoot with a telephoto lens to make dramatic images of falling snow around your subject. Pay careful attention to your focus. Snow falling in front of your subject can make your AF search needlessly and focus on something other than your subject. More often than not, I manual focus when I’m shooting in falling snow. I love portraits in falling snow which beautifully enhances bokeh.

I love shooting shooting during falling snow. The soft bright light is great for skin tones and portraits. Images in falling snow can yield great results. Using dark colors on your subjects and dark backgrounds enhance the feel of the falling snow. The falling snow feel is even further enhanced by the using telephoto compression. This shot of a happy couple in Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico was shot at with the exposure compensation at +2/3 or .7 of a stop above what the camera meter read to brighten the subjects’ faces.

The most appealing and best selling winter images (tracking sales reports) are of two things: really warm light and alpenglow, fresh snow with a winter wonderland looking landscape, and portraits in falling snow. In general, the coldest air, especially after a fresh snow, produces the warmest light with pink and orange sky and clouds.

This was a dawn alpenglow shot of the setting moon on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in late December. This was 2 days after a snowfall and the morning temperature was around zero Fahrenheit.

My favorite light is backlight and shooting into the sun is my favorite tactic to render a scene. Had this been a hiker in a snow-free setting with the dark spruce trees, this shot would not have worked. The fresh snow and “winter wonderland” look reflecting light everywhere is what makes all the detail on the shadowed side of the trees and skier possible.

Winter Solstice Alaska Assignment: Wireless Speedlites in Extreme Cold

Winter scenic near Anchorage, Alaska

Sun at solar noon, shot at Otter Lake near Anchorage, Alaska near winter solstice

Only 3 days from the winter solstice I was on assignment shooting environmental portraits of 2012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey near his kennels near Willow. With the sun reaching only 5 degrees above the horizon at mid-day I was lucky to be nearby a lake where the trees were far enough away to give us some beautiful open sunlight. This time of year that meant about 3 hours of unobstructed sun. This far north, clear skies in the dead of winter mean only one thing: cold. This was a short trip (only 4 full days) and luckily the weather held for another day giving me a chance to spend an afternoon shooting winter landscapes around Anchorage. It was good to get re-acquainted with the Alaska winter landscape.

Winter scenic near Anchorage Alaska

Mid day sun on Otter Lake and Chugach Mountains near Anchorage, Alaska

My main concern was the cold. It was -22F (-30C) in Willow that morning and this time of year the daily temperature range is usually 10 degrees or less.  We started shooting about 12:30 and it had warmed very little.  Being on a lake, a low spot where cold air pools, it was -15F (-25C) max.

Canon Wireless Speedlights: This shoot was the first time I would use the Canon 600EX-RT speedlights fired wirelessly with the new ST-E3 transmitter in extreme temperatures. Knowing that alkaline and my rechargeable nickel metal hydride batteries would die quickly in this cold, the speedlights, the external power packs, and the transmitter were all outfitted with lithium AA batteries which have the best cold weather performance.

On assignment in Willow, Alaska in sub-zero weather. Lynn Wegener and Karen Combs with Canon 600EX-RT speedlights equiped with Spinlight 360 light modifiers with Michael DeYoung shooting environmental portaits of 2012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey.

Photographer Michael DeYoung on assignment doing environmental portraits of 2012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey near Willow, Alaska in sub-zero temperatures.

The lighting plan was simple. Use the beautiful sub-arctic sun as sidelight and backlight, and fill the shadows with the speedlights. The RT wireless system worked flawlessly in the bright light and cold for about two hours when the recycle time started getting over 20 seconds. I love being able to control the ratio and mode (Manual or ETTL) from the transmitter though I still had to take my hands out of my gloves to make the changes. In these temperatures, I got about 150 shots before the recycle time became intolerable. Luckily the shoot was winding down.

SpinLight360: This was also the first shoot that I’ve used the new SpinLight 360 Extreme light mod system in these temperatures. I was concerned with the plastic becoming brittle and breaking during my typical hard use of my strobes. This system is mainly targeted for wedding and event shooters but I have really taken a liking to this system. Once the base unit spin ring was attached to the flash with Velcro ,which is very secure, the modifiers (dome, snoot, grid, bounce cards) were easy to attach in the cold with gloves on; a big plus in extreme conditions. I used a the diffuser dome, the grid and snoot and I am really impressed with the quality of light from these mods as well as their light weight and ease in attaching and removing various mods.

Photographers with Canon Speedlites and Spinlight 360 light modifiers near Willow, Alaska

On assignment in Willow, Alaska in sub-zero weather. Lynn Wegener and Karen Combs with Canon 600EX-RT speedlights equiped with Spinlight 360 light modifiers with Michael DeYoung shooting environmental portaits of 2012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey.

Near sunset, with the temp dropping I wanted to get a shot with Dallas and two of his dogs hooked up in front of his sled. I set up my 2 speedlights with snoots with the group B:A ratio of about 3:1. Group B, operated by my assistant Lynn, lit Dallas’s face. Since this was a wide angle shot Lynn had to maintain a fair distance and thus the snoot worked better than a grid by not reducing the light output as much. I aimed group A on a separate stand at Hero and Porter, also champion athletes in the foreground. The snoots did a very good job at focusing the light on the dogs and keeping unwanted light off the snow.

Dog musher at sunset near Willow, Alaska

012 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey with sled dogs Hero and Porter at sunset near Willow, Alaska.

I also got to spend an afternoon shooting landscapes around Anchorage where I had a mix of sun and fog. The image of Otter Lake shows the mid day sun at how low it stays in the sky. From the same vantage point is a side-lit shot of the Chugach. An hour later near sunset I found this scene –  the frozen birch forest and peaks behind Ship Creek and Arctic Valley – diffused by the lingering freezing fog and stratus.

Frozen landscape close to winter solstice near Anchorage, Alaska

Winter landscape close to sunset, frozen birch-boreal forest looking up Ship Creek Valley and Chugach Mountains near Anchorage, Alaska

This short trip reminded me of just how nice winter landscape photography can be in mainland Alaska. Here is the shot I missed: Mt. McKinley, Hunter and Foraker glowing in warm light with beautifully lit snow-covered forest near Willow in the Susitna Valley. I didn’t stop because we were running a little late for our shoot and the client was more important than a landscape. But it was probably near the best I’ve seen of a winter view of the south side of McKinley and the Alaska Range.

What Does Minus 40 Look Like? Warm Memories of Extreme Cold.

Winter frosted trees, setting moon, and morning alpenglow in Copper River Basin near Glenallen, Alaska

My “coldest” image, I think. This was a moonset and morning alpenglow at about minus 50 west of Glenallen, Alaska in the Copper River Basin. The soft arctic alpenglow at high latitudes is the most ethereal I’ve seen. I had an auxiliary battery pack that I had to keep under my parka. This was hard wired to the camera. This is the only way to keep the camera operating in extreme cold.

First, a little background story about my early Alaska days.

A client recently expressed interest in images of bitter cold. Not much of that in Northern New Mexico and western Colorado Valley this winter. I am planning a late winter trip to Alaska this year. But, I always keep up with what’s happening with winter up there.

I saw something I hadn’t seen in a while. Interior temperatures hit minus 60 the last few days of January. Minus 40’s and 50’s are common but minus 60’s have been rare in this era of climate change. The National Weather Service office even mentioned how this January was similar to the winter of 89-90.

The winter of 1989/1990 was my second winter in Alaska and I remember it well. The Army sent me camping in the Interior in January and again in March! And the coldest air of the winter hit while we were camping. I should know. I was part of an Air Force weather detachment that participated in Army exercises and made official weather observations.

The first night was only like minus 45 and we had minus 40 and colder for the entire two weeks we were out. We were lucky as we were in the hills above Delta Junction and thus a little warmer. Some of the lowest valley locations, like Nenana, south of Fairbanks, hit minus 71. Even east Anchorage got close to minus 40 that January.

Being in air that cold is just painful. It hurts to breath. It feels like slivers of broken glass in your nostrils when you inhale. When you walk it feels like the wind is blowing because the air is incredibly dense. Normally cushy vehicle seats feel like slabs of concrete. Alkaline batteries don’t work. For cheap amusement we’d throw a cup of hot liquid up in the air and it would never hit the ground as it would just freeze into ice crystals.

What does all this have to do with photography? Well something happened that first night I’ll never forget. I saw my first real aurora borealis display and it blew me away. It was a brilliant emerald green display over a moonlit landscape of fresh sparkling arctic snow.

I tried photographing them. They sucked. It was my first time. It was 40 below. I was still an amateur and I was working the graveyard shift out of a tent on an Army field trip – not exactly ideal conditions for photography. But, it sealed my interest in photographing the aurora borealis.

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) over Kathleen River, Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory, Canada

This is one of my favorite and my most commercially successful aurora borealis image. This is from Kluane National Park in the Yukon the 3rd week of March. This is the Kathleen River just downstream from the outlet of Kathleen Lake. The lake is very deep and upwelling prevents the first stretch of river from freezing. The shot took place around 3AM on a full moon night. It was balmy and only a few degrees below zero.

After active duty was over in 1992 I made journeys into the extreme cold of Interior Alaska on my own terms trying to photograph the aurora.

I’ve made some successful aurora images in winter, but my favorite and coldest photo was of a morning moon and alpenglow in a black spruce forest east of Glenallen which was minus 50 that morning. I’d been up most of the night waiting for an aurora that never materialized.

For a while there was something alluring about enduring extreme weather painful as it was. But I learned this long ago: Simply enduring adverse conditions doesn’t make your images more creative. There is no correlation between degree of difficulty and creativity. However, when you make a great or even good image during challenging environmental conditions it makes it more satisfying.

P.S: Here are some geeky weather facts.

Arctic airmasses are very shallow and dense, usually having extreme temperature inversions. So the coldest air is in the LOWEST elevations such as valley floors.

Minus 40 is where Celsius and Fahrenheit are equal i.e. -40F = -40C

Ice fog is a purely man made phenomena occurring during arctic air in settlements, villages and urban areas. At temperatures in the minus 20’s and colder air cannot hold any moisture. So moisture from internal combustion engine exhaust and exhaust from residential and commercial gas fired furnaces is enough to generate incapacitating fog that remains trapped under sharp inversions. Ice fog can reduce visibility to no more than 100 meters sometimes, but is usually no more than a hundred feet thick vertically.

At minus 20 and colder, exposed flesh can literally freeze, i.e. your nose and finger tips can turn into blocks of ice—not good!

Need more? Check out Jim Green’s Alaska Weather blog. He produces a yearly wall calendar called ‘Alaska Weather Calendar’.

Handy Cold Weather Photography Tips

New Mexico and Alaska Adventure, Landscape, Lifestyle photographer

Michael DeYoung shooting with liner gloves and fleece windbloc fingerless gloves

I love winter light, especially fresh snow clinging to trees on a crisp winter morning! The hardest thing about winter shooting for me has always been keeping my hands warm while operating the camera system, including the tripod. Even with the big pro bodies I just don’t have the dexterity to operate the camera/lens the way I prefer with big warm gloves. So over the many years of winter sports and landscape photography in Alaska, the Yukon and the Rockies, I’ve developed a 3 glove system that works well and will keep your hands functioning for hours in moderate cold – say single digit and teen temperatures. Hopefully, these tips come in handy.

First, not to sound like I’m preaching, you must keep your head and neck warm. This is where you lose a majority of your body heat. Keeping your head and neck covered is the first step to minimizing cold fingers. When your body is trying to keep its core warm it starts by cutting off warm blood flow to your extremities.

Liners. I’m always searching for the perfect liner glove. My current favorite is the Atlas 370 which has an amazing grip on the palm and fingers. Sizing is critical. Too tight and your fingers will get cold quickly. Too big and you don’t get maximum dexterity.

Fleece Fingerless Gloves. Over the liners go a high quality Windstopper™ fleece fingerless gloves. Glacier Gloves are good. I currently use Simms that cover everything except my finger tips. They easily slide over the liner gloves. I got both of these at a flyfishing store. Steelhead anglers know all about needing dexterity in typical wet cold steelhead fishing weather. Ever try tying a blood knot with cold fingers?

New Mexico and Alaska Adventure, Landscape, Lifestyle photographer

Atlas 370 liner glove has a great synthetic palm grip that grips great on focus rings and CF tripods

A Little Chemical Help. Here’s a trick that helps most people. Place a chemical hand warmer in your palm, between the liner and the fleece windblock glove. This will help warm the blood and you can close your hand around the warmer to warm your finger tips. Remember, these things only work when they are enclosed in something.

Backcountry Christmas Holiday lit tent in Wyoming

Winter holiday scene in Wyoming. Temps were near 10F. Glove system worked well in setting up tent, props and working the camera. This image is a Palm Press Holiday Card available at REI

Big Mittens. For ski photography or traveling on foot in between locations in really cold weather, the first two gloves easily slide into a heavy mitten, the kind you can get from REI. Most high end expedition mittens will have a retainer cord. And most high end parkas will have a small d-ring about 6 inches up the sleeve. So on a ski shoot, I’m skiing to my next location keeping my hands toasty in the mittens. When I’m ready to grab the camera and shoot, I just slide off the mittens as they just dangle from my parka. With my liners and fingerless gloves, I’m ready to rock and roll.

Michael DeYoung is an adventure lifestyle photographer based out of the ski town of Taos, New Mexico and Anchorage, Alaska