Extreme Winter Photography

by Ian McGregor

When you think of winter, you often think of a freshly fallen snow or a Christmas scene with people skating in a park or the welcoming light from a warm window. Depending where you are capturing winter though, it can be a lot more extreme offering white-out conditions in gale force winds with extreme temperatures and a real risk of frostbite. Winter can turn deadly quickly, especially if you get lost or exposed to the extremes for any period.

I have been capturing winter from first snow fall, to the frozen depths to the spring melt-off for several years on the Canadian Prairie, and it never fails to surprise me with its beauty and the challenges it offers a landscape photographer.

Whtie Desert of Canada - Ian McGregor Photography
White Desert of Canada

I learned early on to pack appropriately. For me, I wear several layers of clothing covering as much exposed skin as possible, and in the extreme cold I also bring heat packs I place under my coat and into my gloves and boots – these make all the difference, especially when I am a good walk from my truck (which I never turn off when its below minus 20 Celsius). I always carry a phone (although there isn’t always coverage), a good flashlight, and gloves which give my fingers the freedom to operate my camera buttons (though I tend to set my camera up in my vehicle as much as I can prior to going out into the cold). I also wear insulated waders/overalls when I plan on being any more than waste-deep in the snow. Make sure your vehicle has the appropriate survival and first aid kits, be prepared to have to wait to be pulled out of a ditch (this has happened to me), something to dig out your vehicle or just keep you warm, hydrated and fed. Always bring food and spare dry clothing. Don’t forget a phone charger!

For my camera, I make sure I have the lens I want already attached – I prefer not to change lenses in blowing snow for example. Contaminating the sensor or freezing the mirror is just not worth it and will ruin a trip out with only one camera body on-hand. I am also carrying several spare batteries, as they typically don’t produce as many shots in the freezing temperatures. I have had a shutter freeze on me, but I am usually good to capture down to -50 degrees Celsius, if I keep my excursions outside of my warm truck short. I like to spot out where I am going to shoot on a prior occasion, and arrive just at the right time to capture the rising sun or whatever it is I am going for. I generally don’t have fogging issues in Saskatchewan, as the winters are very dry and even the large changes in temperature don’t prove to much of an issue. I have shot photos in temperatures below -50 degrees Celsius with wind, and had no problems other than being very, very cold. This is a testament to my camera and its lens: nice work Nikon!

Frozen Rise - Ian McGregor Photography
Frozen Rise

What I particularly love about winter photography in this part of the world and latitude is the color the weak sunlight can produce. I tend to start shooting before sunrise (morning civil twilight or sometimes nautical twilight). I prefer this time over the evening as there are less mad-made distractions.

A Winter's Morning - Ian McGregor Photography
A Winter's Morning

I think getting out into the extreme cold is worth it, and you can capture truly unique and beautiful images.

My most go-to lens for landscapes is the Nikkor 14-24/f2.8. I shoot on a tripod only when I must, as I prefer the freedom (and shorter time exposed to the cold) you get by shooting hand-held. My Nikon D810 and an f/2.8 or f/1.4 lens give me this ability in quite low light without introducing too much noise. If I am going to use a tripod, I have it attached and generally shoot very close to the ground – not just to give a different point-of-view, but to help avoid some of the wind and avoid camera shake. I often find myself huddling around my camera when the shutter is open to block some of the wind.

I am usually good to capture down to -50 degrees Celsius

Winter Unlimited - Ian McGregor Photography
Winter Unlimited

My recommendation would be to find someone who is crazy enough to get up before dawn and venture out into the extreme cold with you for safety. This is the hard part. I usually compromise and have someone waiting back at my truck if no one is willing!

These are some samples of my winter photography. See more of my work in my gallery.

Journey To Sunset - Ian McGregor Photography
Journey To Sunset

This article and all images are © Ian McGregor.