Photographing winter landscapes — an advanced guide

Scott AntcliffeReizen en landschap06 dec. 2023Leestijd: 6 min
Scott Antcliffe photos for Nikon magazine article

Photographer Scott Antcliffe makes his childhood dream a reality while travelling to Iceland to photograph the country’s dramatic landscapes. Here, he shares how to prep, ultimate camera settings and how best to photograph snow

As a child, I never had the opportunity to travel due to my family’s financial circumstances. Instead, I read the likes of National Geographic Traveller and Wanderlust magazines from cover-to-cover. They became my passport to the unknown, my escape from the ordinary. Within those glossy pages, I discovered the world beyond the horizon, igniting a flame of wanderlust that would shape my dreams and aspirations for years to come.

 

Iceland, to a photographer, is a blank canvas with endless possibilities. The ever-changing weather adds an element of unpredictability, transforming scenes from ethereal mist to vibrant sunshine in mere moments. This year, I got to tick off Iceland, a destination that previously seemed so out of reach, from my bucket list. Planning an adventure like this is no mean feat, but here are my top tips.

Scott Antcliffe
What’s in my kitbag?
Scott Antcliffe photos for Nikon magazine article
Prep like an Arctic explorer

Successful winter landscape photography starts by protecting yourself from the elements. Essentials include thermal base layers, mid-layers, waterproof outer jackets and trousers, a hat, stout boots and two or three pairs of gloves so you’ve always got dry ones handy. Pack chemical handwarmers for when biting winds cut through everything. I tend to find the fingerless gloves with a mitten cover work well.

 
Essential camera gear

The Nikon Z 9’s mixture of speed, amazing autofocus and stunning picture quality make it a dream to use across the diverse, varying subjects and genres that I photograph. I’ve had it for 18 months and I love it. In Iceland, I used the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8 ED VR and the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8 E FL ED VR with the Mount Adapter FTZ II.  

Scott Antcliffe photos for Nikon magazine article

Tripods are essential for sharpness, supplemented by remote releases to eliminate vibration. Weight hooks and gear bags acting as ballast provide stability in the often unpredictable, climatic winds that Iceland (or other countries) can have. I used my sturdy and dependable Gitzo GT2545T tripod with a quick release plate, along with the Gitzo G2020 column weight hook with a Selens sandbag filled with some Icelandic sand to provide some ballast.

 

In extreme cold, set up gear behind a windbreak or even in the car. Fortunately, during my 12 days in Iceland the coldest it measured was -9°C. Plus, it goes without saying that you should bring extra batteries. The cold weather will quickly drain the battery, as will the use of the EVF. I would also highly recommend using a camera cover with drawstrings that will cover the lens.

 

Carry a set of neutral density filters to allow slower shutter speeds for smoothing wintery waters. A circular polarising filter deepens blue skies and reduces non-metallic glare. I use the LEE 100 Deluxe filter set which has a polariser, a 2, 3 and 4 stop neutral density graduated filter and the ‘Big Stopper’   a 10 stop filter which I seldom use.

 

Read more: The essential guide to filters: what to use for snow, water and effects

Scott Antcliffe photos for Nikon magazine article
Battle exposure and metering challenges

Bright snow throws off meter readings, often underexposing mid and foreground elements. Depending on your camera and its metering system, meter an 18% grey card to set accurate exposure, then recompose or adjust if necessary. Your meter may be saying that the exposure is correct, but your actual images may tell a different story. Overexposing by 0.7 or even +1 could help render that pristine white look of snow.  

 

When overexposing, you may get a slight blue cast to your images. If shooting in RAW you may be tempted to get rid of all the blue in your image, but this could lead to quite unnatural snow images. I always shoot in RAW as it gives me much more data in the file, making editing much easier. It’s especially beneficial for landscapes with a much wider dynamic range and it gives me the flexibility to tweak the White Balance.

Scott Antcliffe photos for Nikon magazine article

If your image is blue, this would be due to the snow reflecting the sky. If there is direct sunlight on the snow, your images should have less of a blue tinge and it’s easier to get that bright white look in them.

 

Centre-weighted and spot metering readings may also help balance snow and shadows by giving you a more accurate exposure based on the amount of light available. It’s especially important in snowy landscapes as you don’t want to blow the highlights.

 

Bracket exposures to ensure proper detail in highlights and shadows are retained in post-production. It also gives you the opportunity to capture HDR images with more detail. It is a sure-fire way to guarantee you have more ‘keepers’ than culled images.

Scott Antcliffe photos for Nikon magazine article
Ideal camera settings: f/11, low ISO and 1/2000 shutter speed

The time of day, available light and the subject you are photographing will dictate the best settings for your camera.

 

For general landscapes, I use f/11 aperture, the lowest possible ISO and a shutter speed that may vary from 1/400 to 1/2000. If photographing waterfalls, have a similar ISO and aperture, but change your shutter speed to something like 1/30 or even a few seconds. I’d use an 2-stop ND filter if aiming for anything slower than 1/30.

 

For night-time photography, set your aperture as wide open as possible, especially if trying to photograph the aurora or Milky Way. My ISO would vary depending on the light available to anywhere between 1200-3200 ISO. Time wise, it would be anything from 1 second to 20 seconds depending on what I was trying to capture.

Scott Antcliffe photos for Nikon magazine article

With White Balance, I’d initially start on Auto and see if the results are close to what you are seeing with your eyes. If it’s not, you could try ‘sunshine’ or, if you are after a moody image, sometimes the ‘incandescent’ setting can work well. If you want to set your White Balance manually, try it at about 6500K, then make small adjustments as necessary.

 

A white snowy scene can be tricky to focus on, especially with autofocus, as it can constantly hunt to acquire focus. You would be better focusing manually and finding a contrasting colour, rock or building to focus on. You can always use live view and zoom in on the image to check you focus is accurate.

Scott Antcliffe photos for Nikon magazine article
Have a post-production checklist

Be prepared to carefully process winter imagery. Here’s my post-production checklist:

 

  • Adjust exposure, contrast and colour balance to accurately render glistening snow, pale skies and muted shadows.
  • Slightly tweak contrast curves to showcase sparkling highlights.
  • Increase vibrance to compensate for flat light.
  • Darken brighter snow areas via luminosity masks to pull out shadow detail.
  • Remove any distracting sensor dust spots camouflaged against the snow.

 

Wanderlust Travel Photographer of the Year, Scott Antcliffe is writer and photographer living in Sheffield, England. He photographs weddings, live music, wildlife, sport, and landscapes. Follow along on his journey here.

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