Winter photography can be one of the most rewarding types of photography out there. Crisp clear skies, perfect powdery snow, quiet and calm scenes or moody and stormy scenarios that only the heartiest of photographers get to experience.
It can be one of the most magical seasons to photograph but as any winter photographer will tell you, it can also be one of the most frustrating seasons too. If you've found yourself mesmerized by the magic of winter but unable to translate what you see to a well-composed image, you're not alone.
Getting a balanced exposure takes practice and lots of patience and it’s essential to know your camera’s settings and get familiar with shooting manual. Not sure how to do that? No worries, we’ve got you covered. Let’s start with the three main basics to help fast track your winter photography.
Let’s keep it simple. Aperture controls your depth of field. Full stop! Along with ISO and shutter speed, Aperture is one of the main components controlling how much light enters into your camera sensor, however, its most dramatic feature is controlling the depth of field. You know those nice portraits that have a well-focused point of interest and a blurry background? That’s all thanks to aperture.
Technically, aperture refers to a small set of blades in the lens that allows light into the camera’s sensor. The larger the hole, the more light that is let in. If you get confused, relate it to the pupil of your eye. The bigger the pupil, the more light gets in. The smaller the pupil, the smaller the light.
Aperture is measured in f-stops. Here’s where it gets a bit confusing. The smaller the f-stop number, the larger the opening. For example, f/1.4 lets in a lot of light versus f/18.
For winter photographers, it’s often easy to shoot with a small aperture in bright, snowy conditions. This means most of the items in the photo will be in focus. If you want to make the aperture wider, you’ll need to adjust the ISO and the shutter speed so you don’t overexpose the photo.
A narrow aperture is great for landscapes where you want to have most of the image in focus.
Shutter speed is exactly as it sounds: the length of time a camera shutter is open to let light onto the camera sensor. You can think of the shutter as a curtain that sits in front of your lens, keeping light out. When the curtain opens, light is let into the camera, affecting the exposure of the photo. Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of a second. A fast shutter speed would be 1/800 of a second. A slow shutter speed would be 1/60 of a second or slower.
Shutter speed is used for mainly three reasons 1) Freezing motion 2) showing motion 3) low light.
1. Sometimes in photography, you want a nice crisp shot where the motion and action is capture cleanly without any blur. For these instances when you want to capture motion, you’ll want to keep your shutter speed high. Getting a clean image without any blur will take some trial and error. You’ll need your shutter speed to be at least as fast as your moving subject. To capture snowboarding and other action sports requires a shutter speed of 1/800th of a second or higher.
2. Conversely, sometimes you want to show the motion of a photo for artistic effect. By having a slower shutter speed, you’ll be able to show the motion blur and illustrates a moving object in a still photo. A longer shutter speed often called a long exposure is great for showcasing waterfalls, moving clouds, a body of water, etc. Winter sports photographers will also use motion blur to portray the speed of a snowboarder or other moving object.
3. Photography is all about the light, without it your image is black. Thus in low light situations, you will need to leave your shutter open for a long amount of time (long exposure) allowing the small amount of light to hit the sensor and build an image. This could be 1/5th of second to 30 minutes and beyond.
Think night photography, northern lights, star trails, etc. If you’re aiming to capture something in low light, you’ll likely need to have a slow shutter speed to allow more time for light to hit your sensor. Of course, with a long exposure, your camera is susceptible to any sort of movement so to eliminate blur all together, you may want to utilize a sturdy tripod and a remote timer to eliminate any blur from your hands.
A higher shutter speed is needed to freeze the motion of this speed flyer.
ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light. Back when film photography ruled the land, ISO was an indication of how sensitive the roll of film was to light. Now that digital photography is king, ISO still functions the same but now refers to the sensitivity of the image sensor, not the film.
ISO is measured in numbers. The higher the number, the more sensitive your sensor becomes to light. The lowest ISO setting on a camera is 100 and from there, the sensitive doubles in number as the ISO increases 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, etc. High ISO is used in very low light conditions and low ISO is used in bright conditions.
So why do we need to change the ISO? Often when we adjust the aperture or shutter speed, we are left with a dark exposure. To compensate for this, we need to bump up the ISO. Be mindful, though, as a higher ISO leads to grainier images. A high ISO is especially important for night photography or northern light photography. you’ll want to have your aperture as wide as it will go and you’ll also want to keep your ISO high enough to get enough light to your sensor.
ISO is a key part of the exposure triangle and adjusting the ISO settings will have a direct effect on the aperture and shutter speed. Bumping up your ISO to 400, for example, will make the exposure brighter, allowing you to increase the shutter speed or have a smaller aperture (both of which decrease how bright the exposure will be).
A higher ISO is needed for darker images such as this shot of a starry sky.
Now that you know the basics, the key is figuring out how all three of these crucial elements work together to give you the perfect exposure. It takes a little bit of knowledge and lots of trial and error. The good thing is we’ve laid out everything you need to know in our brand new Winter Photography Basics Course.
Learn the ins and out of shooting manual as well as all other aspects you need to consider for winter photography such as how to dress, what equipment you’ll need, how to create killer compositions how to adjust ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed plus how to edit your photos in post-processing.
When we were starting out in winter photography, we desperately scoured the internet for a comprehensive course to help steer us toward the right path but were left empty. Now, we’re sharing all the goodies with you! What’s taken us nearly a decade to master, we give to you in a few hours. Follow us out into the field where we give real-life examples on how to fast track your winter photography.
Cheatsheets, field exercises and lots of juicy nuggets of information are waiting in every course!
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