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How to Photograph Landscapes in Winter Light

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Although it can be hard to motivate yourself to go out and photograph landscapes in the winter, it can yield some of the nicest results, particularly if you make calculated use of the light this time of year. Learn how in this tutorial.

How to Photograph in the Winter

Protect Your Kit

Firstly, if you’re photographing in cold and inclement conditions, it’s wise to protect yourself and your kit. I’ll assume that you’re sensible and will wear appropriate footwear and clothing, so let’s move on to your equipment!

Here are a few tips I’ve found useful:

  • Sandwich bags are handy for temporarily keeping small items dry, but don’t leave them in permanently as they may collect condensation
  • Take a towel with you to dry off your tripod legs and any damp kit
  • Invest in a good camera bag that has a waterproof pullover
  • Take spares of everything and try to keep things like batteries warm: they drain faster in cold
  • If you’re walking around and want to keep your camera handy, tuck it under your coat to keep it out of the elements
  • Keep silica gel in your kit bag to attract any moisture, the pouches that comes in shoes and electronics are perfect
  • Take a plastic bag (or another towel) to stand your camera bag on if the ground is particularly muddy or wet
  • When you get home, leave everything out to dry thoroughly before you put it away

Photograph When the Light is Right

Winter days are shorter, but shorter days have benefits. The angle of the sun to the earth is lower in the winter, so even though the length of the day is shorter the amount of time you have a nice quality of light is increased.

The lower angle also exaggerates shadows, making them long and deep, which can be great for dramatic, high contrast pictures. The winter sun can create lots of great colour, too, as in the example below.

Timing your shoot is more important in winter: you have a smaller window of daylight to work in. Sunsets and sunrises can be particularly stunning, and apps like SunCalc are great for working out where the sun will be and at what time. The sun rises later in the winter, which means that you don’t have to drag yourself out of bed at an unreasonable hour to get the perfect moment.

Remember, when you're shooting for the colour of the light (usually sunrise and sunset) adjust your white balance manually, otherwise your camera will attempt to normalise the image, pulling out all that lovely colour. It's worth getting to grips with the Kelvin System so that you're confident with your choices.

Pastel sunrise over windmills in winterPastel sunrise over windmills in winterPastel sunrise over windmills in winter
Pastel sunrise over windmills in winter by iPics from Envato Elements

Sometimes Winter can also feel like a dreary affair, where you have no option but to photograph a very grey landscape in cloudy, overcast skies. Even in this situation there are positives, however: It's a great chance to make perfectly-exposed images where everything in the scene falls inside the camera's native dynamic range. We'll post-process just such a photo later in the tutorial.

What Kit to Use for Winter Landscapes

Your photography kit for winter landscapes will depend on exactly what it is you want to photograph and how, but I tend to use a 24-85mm lens to give me a little flexibility, plus a tripod. I also take along some filter packs; here are a few situations in which you might want to use filters during the winter:

  • Polarising filter: this will take the edge off particularly bright days, which is really useful if you’re photographing bright skies, snow or water
  • Neutral Density (ND) Graduated: If you just want the edge taking off the sky, then a 'grad' is perfect and creates no hard horizon line
  • ND filters are available in a number of ‘stops’ (how dark they are) and are great for long exposures

Having a remote shutter is useful for long exposures. If you don’t have one then you can try using the camera's timer instead so that you don’t have to touch the camera and cause unwanted shake in the image.

How to Improve Winter Light With Post-Processing

It's all well and good saying "take photographs when there's great light," but quite often that's just not possible. Many winter days are flat, drab and grey, but that's not to say you shouldn't go and photograph anyway.

In this section I'll show you how you can create an interesting black and white image, and pull out some contrast from a flatly-lit photo using the Nik Collection in Adobe Photoshop.

The Lake District Marie GardinerThe Lake District Marie GardinerThe Lake District Marie Gardiner
The Lake District [Marie Gardiner]

This picture of the Lake District was taken on an overcast winter day and this is it straight out of the camera. The light is very flat, which makes the image a bit dull and lifeless, but it also means it’s well exposed. There aren’t any extremes across the tones.

Raw Adjustments

I always shoot RAW (Nikon NEF, Canon CRW, Sony ARW, and other raw image file formats) so the first step is to make some adjustments in Adobe Bridge.

make adjustments in bridgemake adjustments in bridgemake adjustments in bridge
Make some basic adjustments in Bridge

Here I've increased the contrast, entirely dipped highlights to bring back all the detail and darkened the shadows a bit to help with bringing out some contrast later. I've also used dehaze and clarity to make the image a little sharper and clearer.

I'm also going to use the patch tool to clone out the annoying tree in the bottom right corner.

Silver Efex Pro 

Choose a Preset and Make Global Adjustments

 Open Silver Efex Pro from the Nik Collection in the Filter list.

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Silver Efex Pro 2, part of the Nik Collection

Once it's opened you'll see there are a number of presets on the left-hand side.

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From the presets, select Low Key 1

Choose one of the Low Key options, in this case I've selected Low Key 1. This will give you a good starting point and from here we can make specific adjustments to suit the image.

You can alter the whole image under Global Adjustments – you can see this option already has high contrast and low brightness. I like to increase the Structure slightly to make everything look sharper and more detailed so I’ve pulled that up to around 20%.

Make Local Adjustments Using Control Points

When you have the Global Adjustments the way you like them, use Selective Adjustments to make changes to targeted parts of your picture

selective adjusmentselective adjusmentselective adjusment
Make control points for selective adjustments

Click the circle next to control points to add a new one. When you hover back over your picture, you’ll see it’s turned into a type of cross-hair. Click where you’d like to add a point;  concentrate on highlights first.

Once you click on your photo, you’ll see your control point has several options. The first is to change the size of the control point and how much of the area around it will be affected by your changes. Keep these quite small unless you’re doing a big area of similar tonal range. 

The rest of the sliders are Brightness, Contrast, Structure, Amplify Blacks, Amplify Whites, Fine Structure and Selective Colouring. Push the brightness and contrast up – we’re going for dramatic in this example so really push it as far as you can go without distortion. If you keep an eye on the Loupe & Histogram section of your work space (defaults to bottom-right), you’ll be able to see how your changes are affecting the integrity of the image.

duplicate control points for similar tonal areasduplicate control points for similar tonal areasduplicate control points for similar tonal areas
Duplicate control points for similar tonal areas

Avoid blowing out your whites. While introducing some noise is fine, try not to kill detail in your picture. Once you’re happy with that control point, rather than adding another you can hit duplicate control point. It’ll appear next to your previous one and you can move it to your next editing point and then adjust to suit.

30 highlight control points30 highlight control points30 highlight control points
I've added 30 control points to places I want brightening

I’ve added 30 brightening control points and you can see I’ve focused on exaggerating the light where natural highlights were, like in the sky and water, but I’ve also brightened up what I consider to be my main points of focus: the line down the mountain to the patch of trees and small house. Keep an eye on your histogram to make sure that you’re not blowing out your highlights entirely.

Next, create a new control point and do a similar thing for your shadows, darkening the ones next to highlights for contrast, and any others to push the eye away from them and towards the lighter patches.

shadow control pointsshadow control pointsshadow control points
Do the same for shadows, this time decreasing the brightness on your slider

You’ll see that as well as lowering shadows for dramatic contrast in the sky and on the mountain, I’ve also used them around some of the brighter edges of the picture to create a sort of faux vignette.

There are some further options on your work space if you want to add some film toning or even some colour. I’ve added a very slight warm tone (9%) just to take the edge off.

Back to Photoshop for Finishing Touches

When you click okay and go back into Photoshop, your image changes will be processed and appear as a new layer on top of your original.

If you want to increase the contrast further, you can make some local adjustments on a new layer(s) using dodge and burn. Keep your brush at about 3-4% exposure and gradually work in changes.

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Use dodge and burn to make local adjustments on a new, duplicate layer

Increasing the contrast like this can highlight things like lens spots, of which there are a few on my image. So I used the spot healing tool to clean those up.

I sometimes like to add a subtle matte effect to my black and white images. If you’d like to do this, create a curves layer and bring up the very darkest shadows while keeping the rest of the range untouched. If your image is noisy, a matte layer can help to make it less intrusive.

curves for matte effectcurves for matte effectcurves for matte effect
Using a tone curve like this will give your image a matte effect

Finally, you can crop your image slightly if you think there’s a better composition to be had. I usually leave cropping until last because I sometimes see new things in the image as I’m editing it that will have a bearing on that decision.

rule of thirds croprule of thirds croprule of thirds crop
Having the rule of thirds grid up in the crop tool can help with composition

I like having the rule of thirds grid on the cropping feature as it can just help guide you a little more as to what might work best, but it’s really up to you. Here you can see I’ve lost some of the sky so that hopefully your eye is now drawn to the lighter line of the mountain, down to the tree patch and then across the line of trees to the house.

The Finished Image

The Lake District Black and White Marie GardinerThe Lake District Black and White Marie GardinerThe Lake District Black and White Marie Gardiner
The Lake District in black and white [Marie Gardiner]

 It's easier to demonstrate this effect on black and white, but it works for colour too.

The Lake District Colour Marie GardinerThe Lake District Colour Marie GardinerThe Lake District Colour Marie Gardiner
The Lake District in colour [Marie Gardiner]

This colour version was edited using Colour Efex Pro and Viveza, also part of the Nik Collection. While it doesn't have quite the same drama as black and white, you can see it's still easy to pick out and manipulate certain tones in order to create more drama and stop the image from being flat and drab.

While it's always best to try and capture landscapes when they're lit at the most pleasing times of the day, it's often just not possible and it's great to have flexible editing suites and resources like Photoshop and the Nik Collection to help enhance what you are able to capture.

If you get any great images this winter, we'd love to see them in the comments below!

More Resources for Perfect Landscapes

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