10 Ice Photography Tips

Andrew James

18 Jan 2018

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Photographer Andrew James Gives Some Advice for Shooting in Icy Landscapes

Andrew James has served as an expert photographic guide on NWS expeditions to Greenland and Antarctica. In this blog, Andrew shares his top tips on how to get the most out of your photography in the Polar Regions.

1. Avoid grey snow

A snowy scene is tricky for a camera to exposure correctly. All those light tones make the camera’s inbuilt meter think it’s brighter than it really is. As a result, you get photos of snowy scenes that look dull and grey rather than bright white and pristine. All digital cameras with control over exposure allow you to add positive exposure compensation to get around the problem. How much + (plus) exposure compensation you need depends on the brightness of the snow and how much of it your scene includes but typically it can be +1 to 2 stops extra. You can see how much you need by either shooting in Live View or by taking some test shots. Make sure that you are not overexposing detail in the highlights, because if you burn these out completely you will ruin the photo. 

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2. Change the mode

If you are using a Compact Camera that only has automatic modes so you can’t manually add exposure compensation to make sure your snow is white, then there is probably an answer lurking in your scene modes. Look out for a Snow Scene mode as this will be programmed to automatically add some exposure compensation in. If you don’t have a Snow Scene mode then look for a Beach Scene mode. Similarly, this scene expects bright, light reflective sand so will act in the same way when it comes to exposing for the lighter conditions.

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3. Keep it clean

Snow is snow, right? Wrong. There are all sorts of snow and the stuff you want in your image is the clean, pristine, glistening sort and not the dirty sort. Snow can be contaminated by various things from general pollution to animals doing, er, what comes naturally! If you’re lucky enough to visit a penguin colony you’ll see exactly what I mean. Dirty snow always looks unsightly, so try to frame your subject to avoid it. 

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4. Snow fall

Shooting when it’s actually snowing will add a magical element to your photo. A fast shutter speed will freeze the snow in motion so that it has that classic picture postcard snowfall look, but if you want to show movement in the snow then you need to reduce your shutter speed. Try 1/60sec or even 1/30sec. The image you get will be more evocative of the conditions but could come at a high price. Unless careful, you risk blurring your photo by moving the camera slightly or by the subject’s own movement. Wait until your subject is very still and make sure you are equally static or, better still, put the camera on a tripod.

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5. Filter it

Using a polarising filter in bright polar conditions can help you control glare and intensify colours. I like to use the circular screw-in type of polarising filter that attach directly to the lens because this means that rain and snow can’t get onto the underside and compromise image quality. Okay, it can still get onto the front of the filter but there it’s easier to quickly wipe off with a microfibre towel or cloth. 

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6. Lens hoods

Your lens came with a special hood so use it. A lens hood should be used on almost all occasions but is especially useful when photographing in cold and bright conditions. This is because a lens hood helps to reduce flare from stray light. In icy landscapes this can be directly from the sun itself or bouncing off surrounding water or ice, so this makes using the lens hood even more important. With a lens hood on stray light is kept to a minimum so your images have greater clarity. A lens hood also acts as protection from snow, sleet and rain. 

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7. Go abstract

Snow and ice is great for shooting abstract patterns and shapes. The way snow is blown across an object or how ice has formed on a lake will inevitably create some really interesting shapes and patterns to photograph. 

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8. Crazy ICM

Want to try something really crazy? Then choose a slow shutter speed such as 1/15sec and deliberately move the camera during the exposure. This is known as ICM (intentional camera movement) and it can create some very interesting effects that look almost like paintings. To work effectively you need contrast so if you have snow and rock, you’re onto a winner. Focus on the rock, turn the autofocus off on your lens and then just move the camera in a flowing motion as you fire the shutter. Results are naturally hit and miss but they can also be very arty and interesting.

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9. Black & White snow

The very nature of snow and ice means that it’s suited to a black & white treatment. You can shoot mono in-camera and see how a scene looks in black and white on your LCD panel on the back of the camera by changing your JPEG Picture Setting (also known as Picture Control or Film Simulation) to Mono. Even if you shoot in raw (as I’d recommend), the image will appear as black & white on the camera’s screen but when you go to process it you’ll get all the normal colour information in the file, leaving you to process it however you prefer.

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10. Pretty as a picture

Just because a snowy or icy scene is stunning to the naked eye, it doesn’t mean it makes a great picture without help. You still need to carefully think about how you are going to compose it to make the most of it. 

You need to lead the viewer’s eye through the scene and keep them captivated so try to have a foreground that’s interesting but leads you onto explore the image further.   

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More Information

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