Snow-covered trees reflected in the clear water of a lake in Banff National Park. Photograph by Vladimir Medvedev.


Freeze frame: how to take better winter photos

Dramatic skyscapes, muted lighting from a low sun, hard edges softened by a thick layer of pristine snow – the opportunities for taking stunning, atmospheric photographs at this time of year are endless.

Former Canon Ambassador Vladimir Medvedev is one of Russia's top wildlife and landscape photographers, so he's no stranger to working in cold conditions. Heavily inspired by old Nordic photography, his 14-year career has taken him to Iceland, Norway and across northern Russia to the Kola Peninsula. The peninsula lies almost completely within the Arctic Circle and is one of the most northerly spots in the world still accessible by car.

"It's so far north that the sun rises only briefly and never gets high, which creates a very special, eerie atmosphere," says Vladimir. "It's a little humid as well, so frost forms on the trees. It's basically a joy to shoot there, even though it's difficult to reach."

You don't have to undertake a polar expedition to get the most out of this magical time of year, though. Here Vladimir shares his top tips for shooting winter landscapes wherever you are.

1. Shoot in whatever conditions the
season brings

The low sun produces softer light at this time of year. "It gives shots a very nice feel," says Vladimir. "The snow actually reflects some of the light back, so even when the sun is higher than I'd like, the shadows aren't as harsh as they would be in summer."
© Vladimir Medvedev

"With winter photography – and snow photography in particular – there is no such thing as bad weather," says Vladimir. "Any conditions you may face are in some way optimal, so even if it's heavy snow and it feels as if the sun will never come out, just see how it goes. Miracles can happen that way."

Modern equipment is more than up to the challenge of frosty conditions. "Today's cameras are capable of producing great results in cold weather – the only condition is that you need to take more batteries with you because they lose their charge a lot quicker in the cold. The quality offered today by high-end compact cameras such as the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III is absolutely stunning. But it is not only the equipment that makes the shot, it's the photographer as well."

2. Take care to expose correctly for bright snow

"In winter shots the entire dynamic range of the photos is somewhat compressed compared to summer shots," Vladimir says, so he recommends overexposing slightly to get an image closer to what the human eye perceives. "My ISO setting depends on what kind of a day it is – if I'm shooting at twilight, then I would need to raise it, but if there is plenty of light around I can set it to 100."
© Vladimir Medvedev

From a light dusting through to deep drifts, snow is central to winter photography. So it's vital to make sure you expose correctly for the bright whites in otherwise low light and against often-grey skies. "The main thing to watch out for is shots with a lot of white in them," says Vladimir. "You need to ensure you don't lose detail and highlights, while keeping the image as bright as possible."

If you choose to shoot in Aperture priority or Av mode (setting a specific aperture value while the camera selects a shutter speed to match it), Vladimir advises paying particular attention to exposure. "I would overexpose a little – otherwise, particularly in snow, things may come out looking more grey and dull than they should," he says, because your camera can be fooled by the glare from snow and step down the exposure.

3. Use snowy scenes to experiment with composition

Provided there's enough light, Vladimir likes to shoot hand-held as much as possible, rather than using a tripod. "This allows me to experiment more and to move about to find better, unseen angles," he explains.
© Vladimir Medvedev

"Winter is generally the best time to experiment," says Vladimir. "I recommend playing around with settings and various exposures. Sometimes, when people shoot winter shots for the first time, they may seem underexposed and not very exciting. Maybe overexpose on purpose and see how unnecessary details get lost – you may notice how some contours appear more prominent, such as trees or mountains."

When a landscape is hidden under a heavy fall of snow, "the composition is more minimal and appealing to the eye," he says. "Sometimes there's so much snow it can be difficult to see where the horizon is, which gives you even more creative freedom to compose your shot however you want."

If there's enough light, Vladimir prefers to shoot hand-held. "This allows me to move about to find different angles," he explains. "I'm often willing to sacrifice the quality that a longer exposure using a tripod would give me for the creative freedom."

4. Use wide-angle lenses to capture winter skies

Winter produces dramatic skyscapes, which can add dynamism to snowy shots. "Wide or ultra-wide angle lenses emphasise the dramatic effect of the winter sky," says Vladimir.
© Vladimir Medvedev

To capture more of the seasonal skies with their vivid colours, Vladimir uses wide-angle lenses. When shooting on his Canon EOS 5D Mark III or Canon EOS R, his favourites include the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM and the Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM. He also recommends the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens.

"I also like to shoot with a fisheye lens, the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM – not so much for the fisheye effect as the perspective it gives," Vladimir adds. "If you set it up so that the horizon is straight and right in the middle, then you can crop the image a little so you don't really get the fisheye distortion but the new perspective remains, which looks pretty impressive."

The ultra-wide angle Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM zoom lens is exceptionally small and lightweight, and great for landscapes when paired with a light and portable camera with an APS-C sized sensor such as the Canon EOS 250D.

A compact camera offers even more portability and convenience. The Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark III has a built-in 24mm 4.2x wide-angle zoom in a compact body you can slip in a coat pocket and take anywhere.

5. Winter photography starts close to home

You don't need to go searching for spectacular winter landscapes. You'll find striking seasonal scenes close to home.
© Vladimir Medvedev

You don't need to head to the far North to take winter photos. You might not find herds of reindeer nearby, or huskies pulling sleighs, or the Northern Lights, but seasonal shots can be taken closer to home. Venturing out if it snows at home or while you're on holiday is a great opportunity to practise, in the knowledge that you can duck back into the warm when it gets too cold. "It makes sense to try to explore your immediate surroundings, and then you're not in the cold that much," says Vladimir. "You become aware of the kind of environment it is before you go out for a longer shoot."

It's something Vladimir put into practice for Snow Storm – The Story of One Day, a series in which he spent a single day photographing in the snow around his home. "I wanted to demonstrate how many different landscapes you can see in just one day of shooting. And when a viewer understands the challenge of shooting in just one day, they feel like they're there with me."

So whether there's a heavy snowfall outside or just a picturesque light frost, no matter which camera you're using, slip on a warm coat and pop outside to enjoy and capture the spectacle of winter near you!

Written by Lucy Fulford

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