Temperatures drop and snow starts to fly: winter is coming in the Northern hemisphere. It can present awesome opportunities for action photography, but has its very own set of challenges to overcome. Here are some tips to help get the most out of your winter action photo shooting.
Adapting to winter – Gear Up!
Winter environments can be tough on gear, but don´t let that keep your camera indoors. I use weather sealed camera´s so I don´t need to baby my gear too much. If a camera is not sealed or for flashes I use clear plastic bags and tape to make a snow cover. I use a car chamois cloth for drying lenses before cleaning with a lens cloth, it´s also great for drying soaked cameras in nasty weather. On sunny days bring good sunglasses, I keep them on as much as possible while shooting, snow blindness is not a photographers friend.
Dress warmer than normal for the sport you´re shooting. There is usually a lot more standing around, setting up and waiting. Good gloves are your best friend, you have to keep the ability to handle the camera and frostbitten fingers is no fun. A trick I learned from ice climbing is rapidly swinging your arms in circles, 30 – 40 of those gets the circulation back to warm your fingers, keep moving and you should stay warm. Batteries don´t like cold, while shooting I keep a spare camera battery warm in an inside pocket. I’ve even had assistants put huge flash batteries inside their clothes, while hanging off a cliff to keep the charge through the shoot. In extreme cold I stick hand warmers onto gear to keep batteries warm.
Beware condensation! Condensation can be a big problem when shooting in extreme cold if you don´t take precautions. Never take cold cameras or lenses indoors if are you are headed back out to keep shooting. The warm moist air inside will rapidly condense in the camera and lenses. And when you go back outside it will freeze, often rendering gear useless for the rest of the shoot. If I have to bring my gear inside, I keep it inside my camera bag and don´t open it. The trapped cold dry air warms up very gradually, preventing condensation.
Is winter different?
Snow acts like a giant reflector – keep that in mind while shooting. All year round I prefer to get out early in the morning and evening for that magic light when the sun is lower in the sky. But this holds even more true in winter. Snow reflects and can lose contrast, shape and texture when the sun is high in the sky. The bright snow can also fool a camera metering to expose darker than it should because it´s aiming for a neutral grey. I shoot manual most of the time and in the snow usually expose a stop or two brighter or dial that into my exposure compensation. When the going gets tough the tough get going. Bad weather can make for epic shots, snow and high winds can result in dramatic scenery and incredible cloud formations just before and after bad weather.
Winter sports can be extremely fast. If I am working with an athlete and can control the situation I like to use pre-focus. I figure out exactly where the peak action will be and set my focus there waiting for the action.
For more unpredictable action, let´s say at a sport event or when I don´t know exactly where the athlete will go. I use the continuous AF autofocus mode, so the camera can track the subject and I can shoot at any time without the camera locking up.
Make THE picture
One of the most important things for a good action shot is being able to envision the final result and work with your athlete to get there. This holds especially true in winter, where movement can be difficult and tracks can ruin your frame. Figure out where the best action will be in a scene and set your composition for that moment. Work with the landscape around you to emphasize or support the action.
Work closely with your athlete, you are making this picture together so get them involved. Often they will have a great suggestion to improve the image and it´s important everybody is clear how the shot will play out before jumping into action.
Now get out there and make some awesome shots this winter!