Photo tip of the week: Capturing winter in the Snowy mountains

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Tim Wrate is an Australian landscape photographer with an affinity for exploring and capturing the wild and rugged Great Southern Land with a special emphasis on remarkable light. Have a look at more of his work here.

The Snowy Mountains, like no other landscape I have photographed, has a magnetic draw that keeps on pulling me back. Why? It is simple; there are very few words that can convey the feeling of standing alone on top of a remote mountains waiting for the light to morph the snow-crusted landscape from silver to gold.

©Tim Wrate

The Snowy Mountains, affectionately known as “the Snowies” are the highest Australian mountain range stretching from the Australian Capital Territory through Southern New South Wales and into Northern Victoria. The Snowies contain Australia’s highest mountains including the Australian mainland’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko, which reaches a meagre 2,228m above sea level. 

The Snowies offer a distinctly Australian charm from the weathered groves of gnarled and twisted Snowy Gums, to the rugged granite tors of the Rams Head Range and to the history of the many cattlemen’s huts scattered throughout the region, During the winter months a white blanket covers the landscape and transforms the landscape into a winter wonderland.

©Tim Wrate

Winter in the Snowies provides the perfect combination of unique photographic features and an intense draw that lure me back to shoot them time and time again.

Whether you are bound to the confines of a ski resort or a keen backcountry adventurer, there is something for everyone to shoot. Here are some of the considerations I take into account when shooting snow–blanketed scenes.

©Tim Wrate
1. Never underestimate the weather

Winter in the mountains can be idyllic one minute and brutal the next. Unpredictability and changeable weather patterns are the norm with winter temperatures that can fall suddenly to below minus 10 degrees Celsius. It’s not uncommon for snow to fall on the peaks and even the lower slopes of the Main Range mid-summer; so it’s worth getting a weather forecast before heading out with the camera.

Weather plays an important role in mountain photography. If you’re staying in the Snowy Mountains and you get the opportunity to shoot a mountain, never put it off until the next day. With rapidly changing weather conditions special light in the mountains is fleeting.

Complete white-outs (where snow-flurries, clouds or blizzards engulf the mountains) are common during winter; don’t use this as an excuse to stay in the warmth of the lodge! Fog, mist, cloud and white-out can be used to create moody and atmospheric images – it enables you to add depth to the image or to be able to isolate a point of interest such as a rock, a skier or a snow gum. 

©Tim Wrate
2. Dress for the conditions

Dress warm and wear insulated and waterproof clothing. This may sound obvious, but you'll be amazed by how quickly you lose body heat in the pre-dawn cold. A great tip is to buy photography mittens (fingerless gloves) they help keep your hands warm but still enables you to fully manage your camera settings. 

©Tim Wrate
3. Look for detail in the landscape

There are plenty of opportunities with snow, from delicate close ups, to snow clad Snow Gums and frozen expanses with crystal clear blue skies. While it can often be tempting to shoot wide and fit the entire scene in the frame, often utilising a longer lens such as a 70-200mm will enable you to focus in on specific detail or that interesting distant peak.

Be sure to include some other elements in your photograph besides snow. Sure, the powdery goodness is very enticing, but it has an unsettling propensity for blending together in the camera, making it hard to decipher where one batch of pure white ends and another begins.

Beyond the grand landscape vistas and gorgeous mountain peaks, the wind tortured snow gums make fascinating photographic subjects. As if painted in watercolour with pastel reds, blues and yellows and shaped by the harsh winds and heavy snows the Snow Gum is a uniquely Australian tree. The twisted tree branches can often look like tentacles swirling through the scene. Some of the best Snow Gum groves can be easily found from winter playgrounds of Thredbo, Charlotte Pass and Falls Creek. 

Be mindful of your surroundings, you may come away with an image you never intended or planned on taking.

©Tim Wrate
4. Keep your camera cold and your batteries warm

Batteries drain faster in colder temperatures, so it is wise to carry extra batteries. I often keep them in a pocket, closer to my body heat. Newer lithium ion batteries have less problems with the cold, but its still good practice to keep them warm, as you don’t want your battery to die before that magic moment.

Have you ever noticed how your windscreen fogs up when you get in your car on a cold winter’s morning? Well, the same thing can happen with your camera and result in condensation on the lens or moisture on the electrical elements. This is best avoided by keeping the camera cold by keeping it in your camera bag and not on your body.

©Tim Wrate
5. Be mindful of your colour balance

The white snow picks up noticeable shifts in the colour balance of the image. This is most noticeable in images where sunlight produces cool blue tones in the snow. White-out conditions also have the effect of making the scene appear grayed out. One way to overcome this is by using a gray card and setting a custom white balance.

©Tim Wrate
6. Watch where you walk

As you’re walking through the snow, keep in mind your intended shot. Be careful that you do not walk through an area that you hope to include in a future shot unless footprints are the intended purpose. Footprints are noticeable in snow and can often be difficult to clone out in post-production.

©Tim Wrate
7. Don’t use your flash

Don’t use a flash when it’s snowing as the flash will bounce off the falling snow and create distracting white overexposed blobs on your final image!

8. Slightly overexpose your images

While snow looks beautiful, crisp, and white to the human eye, your camera doesn’t always see it as such. The main issue is the brilliance of the snow can often play tricks on the camera’s light meter, resulting in snow that can looked washed out and grey rather than white. There are several techniques that can be used to avoid this problem including but not limited to:
Bracket your images by taking one image -1EV and one image +1EV from your base exposure.
If there is any mid-tone in the scene you are shooting (a grey rock, snow gum or cattleman’s hut for instance) take a meter reading off these as this will be the closest to 18% grey. You may have to compensate slightly (by -1/3EV to -2/3 EV) to ensure the snow is not blown out.

©Tim Wrate
9. Use filters carefully

The irregularity of the horizon mountains means that the horizon is seldom straight, and thus using graduated neutral density filters can often be difficult. This can be easily overcome by using soft graduated neutral density filters, as opposed to hard. Alternatively bracket your images and spend time in post processing to blend the images together.

When shooting when the sun is high in the sky, it is best to use a circular polarizing filter, which will cut through any unwanted glare reflected on the bright snow. This will enable you to capture more detail in the snow and will help manage the snow becoming a white mess and result in finer detail in the snow. A polariser will also saturate the sky and give you an inky-black effect to the sky when the sun is high.

10. Chase the alpenglow

The rising and setting sun create the effect known as ‘alpenglow’ - the reddish glow seen on the summits of mountains as a result of the setting / rising sun. The alpenglow can produce beautiful oranges, pinks and magentas reflected on the snow.

The Snowy Mountains are an incredible landscape. They may not have the sweeping vistas of the European Alps or the dizzying heights of the cliffs of Yosemite but what it lacks in grandeur it makes up for in their unique charm. If you struggle to capture the image you have envisioned, don’t worry you’re not alone as famous mountain photographer and author of “Mountain Light” Galen Rowell once remarked “I find it some of the hardest photography and the most challenging photography I've ever done. It's a real challenge to work with the natural features and the natural light.”  

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