Winter does not mean it’s time to pack away the camera gear. There are some photographic adventures you can only enjoy in the winter. One of those seasonal adventures is photographing ice.

If you’re looking for a cool photographic challenge, photographing ice definitely qualifies. Not only is there the challenge of proper exposure, creative composition and keeping you and your gear warm, there is also the challenge of not falling through (so far, so good for me) and not sliding on the ice and ending up on your backside (no comment).

Frozen Lace

This delicate filigree of ice was found in the same area of the Gunnison River as the huge ice chunks in the photo at the end of this post. Amazing how many shapes and forms ice creates.

Getting Great Exposures When Photographing Ice and Snow

Exposing images properly when photographing ice and snow can be a real challenge. Camera meters aren’t designed to determine what it is you are photographing, but rather to create an exposure that falls into the land of medium gray. Since ice is highly reflective and often very bright, this can send your camera’s meter into a tizzy and you can easily end up with muddy-looking underexposed images.  And, of course, if you underexpose the ice, you’ll underexpose everything else—and this is one area where shooting in RAW isn’t going to fix the problem. Don’t get me wrong; shooting in RAW is still essential. I shoot everything in RAW. Everything. Everywhere. Every time. But proper exposure will make all the difference with ice and snow.

Autumns End

A local shopping center had a sprinkler pipe burst during an overnight freeze, resulting in these amazing patterns in the parking lot.

When photographing ice and snow, plan on adding 1 to 2 f-stops to your exposure, especially if your scene is more than half ice or snow. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but this works, even/especially on sunny days. Photographing ice and getting great images really requires some bracketing of the scene.

In addition to properly exposing your scenes, you need to pay attention to your white balance. If you shoot with auto white balance, you’re going to get some weird color casts, most often an unpleasant blue that’s hard to get rid of. My default white balance setting is Daylight. However, when shooting in ice (and snow), I do switch to shade when I’m out of the sun and cloudy when the sun sneaks behind the clouds or when it’s below the horizon (i.e., sunset and sunrise). Go ahead an experiment as you’re out shooting to determine which gives you the best results.

Using the Right Camera Gear

When you head out to photograph ice, you want to make sure you have the right gear to get the images you’re seeking. When photographing in sub-freezing weather, batteries don’t last as long. They don’t actually lose their charge and when they warm up they work again, so I always carry extra batteries in an inside jacket pocket, so I can swap them out as needed.

Frozen Flower

A south Texas ice storm resulted in an entire bed of ice-covered flowers. This tenacious little orange blossom caught my eye.

As you know, moisture is not kind to cameras. In cold weather, condensation on the camera body and lenses can be a real issue. When you’re done shooting for the day, don’t try and warm up your gear too quickly. Before bringing it inside, put it in a zipper-seal plastic bag and close it up. Allow your gear to gradually return to temperature before opening the bag. And yes, this includes waiting to preview or download your images as well.

If you’re shooting in snowy or rainy weather, you’ll want to invest in a raincoat for your camera. A plastic bag will do in a pinch, but I’ve found a camera raincoat to work better and more easily. And, at less than $20, it’s definitely a nice little piece of insurance. By the way, the back is clear vinyl so you can see your controls and viewfinder/viewscreen.

Bring a good polarizer. I have both circular and regular polarizers and find they do give somewhat different effects. A polarizer helps control the reflections and glare of the ice in your images. If you’re including sky in your images, pay attention to the polarizer’s effect on the sky as well. I often shoot at high altitude (I do live in Colorado, after all) and the sky can tend to over-polarize. Tiffen polarizers have served me well for decades and are high-quality while being inexpensive enough for me to buy them in the sizes of my favorite lenses.

A tripod with spikes or grips on the bottom will make ice shooting much easier as well. Having a tripod that will stay put is a bit of an essential. This Vanguard tripod has adjustable feet that are either rubber feet or screw down to become metal spike tips.

Frozen Waves

The patterns of the ice on Gunnison River’s Blue Mesa Reservoir remind me of frozen waves.

Keeping Safe in Cold Weather

Being cold makes winter photography no fun. It can also be unsafe. Before you go, be sure to properly outfit yourself with a few key pieces of winter gear that will help you not only stay safe in the cold, but be comfortable and make the whole experience more enjoyable.

photography glovesGloves—these are key. You need to keep your hands warm while still retaining enough flexibility to operate your camera. I HATE having cold hands so I wear two pair when I am out adventuring. The first pair is a relatively lightweight pair of gloves that allow me to operate camera controls—and my phone—while I’m out. Over those, I wear a pair of ski gloves that keep my hands warm while I’m hiking and exploring.

Along with gloves, hand warmers are a must. I could wear six pair of gloves and still have cold hands, so I LOVE these hand warmers. They also work nicely in your battery pocket to help keep batteries at a good shooting temperature.

yaktrax ice grippersIce is slippery. I know you know that, but if you’re like me when you see a great photo op, sometimes you forget. Nothing will ruin your outing more quickly than a fall on the ice. Not only might you end up with broken camera gear, you might also end up with a broken you. I have both of these types of ice grippers. The Yaktrax Pro came with a pair of boots I bought, and I bought the SnowTrax. One thing I like about the SnowTrax is that they are easy to take on and off your shoes, so you can use them when you’re out and about, but need to remove them for walking indoors.

snowshoesIf you’re planning to really get out and do some winter hiking in search of awesome ice images, you’re going to want some snowshoes. Hiking in snow, once it’s a foot deep or more, is exhausting and almost impossible. You don’t know what’s under the snow, there could be a sudden depression, rocks, boulders, bushes, small trees. Falling through the snow into a hidden hole can be hazardous to your gear–and your health. Snowshoes keep you on top of the snow and make hiking much easier and less tiring. My snowshoes are pretty similar to these snowshoes, which include the poles (yes, you want the poles) and a storage bag. Choose your snowshoes according to your weight for the best results.

Now that you’ve got your gear and you’re properly outfitted, you’re ready to get out and take on the creative challenge of photographing ice. Happy shooting!

Winter on the Gunnison

I was more than a little impressed by the thickness and the layers of these ice floes on Colorado’s Gunnison River.


Frozen Staircase

I happened upon this Frozen Staircase while marooned in San Antonio, Texas, during a mid-winter ice storm.

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