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Winter Photo Tips from One of Iowa's Top Nature Photographers

Winter photography tips from Iowa Outdoors magazineDon’t let winter weather keep your camera up on the shelf, as the season can provide excellent opportunities for shooting picturesque winter landscapes and photographing Iowa’s wildlife at a time when they’re most visible and easy to find.

Still, cold temperatures and winter conditions can present special challenges for photographers (keep those hands warm!), so be sure to follow these tips from renowned Iowa nature photographer Ty Smedes, excerpted below from a piece he wrote for the January/February 2012 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine.

Snow creates spectacular settings
Snow is dynamic and turns a good photo opportunity into a great one. If you’ve anticipated well and have photographed a bird or mammal during a snowfall, you know it provides a great atmosphere and stunning setting. Snow falling around or on a bird or fur-bearer is special, adding mystic and power to images. Photographing a handsome animal with big snow flakes sticking to fur or feathers is a photographer’s home-run.

Equipment preparations and protection
Top-off rechargeable batteries right before you go outside—or at least the night before. Replace very old rechargeable batteries as they lose their capacity to hold a full charge, especially in cold weather.

The use of an anti-fog eyepiece, if available for your camera, may prevent your breath from fogging the viewfinder at the critical moment when that elusive fox bounds in front of your lens.

Most successful wildlife photography requires a telephoto lens of 300mm, with a 400- or 500mm lens even better. Digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) use interchangeable lenses and are very versatile. Models with high-speed motor drives capable of five frames per second or faster provide more chances to capture a bird in flight or a running mammal at that perfect moment. 

Use a tripod whenever possible, especially with heavy telephoto lenses. When hand-holding, the camera and lens weight can compress insulation in your gloves, resulting in stinging fingers. Frosty fingers can quickly cause your stamina to wane.

When photographing during a wet, heavy snowfall, be sure to prevent snow from melting and creating moisture around control buttons and knobs on the camera or lens. Bringing camera equipment directly indoors following a cold-weather shoot can cause damaging condensation. Before returning indoors, seal the camera and lens inside a plastic bag. Warm, moist air will condense outside the bag instead of on the electronic gear. Another option is to keep cold gear inside your camera bag and let it acclimate inside for two hours or more before opening.

Winter photography techniques
There are several ways to capture winter wildlife images and perhaps the best and most comfortable is using your vehicle as a photo blind. Both birds and mammals become somewhat tolerant of motor vehicles over time, and I know many birders with excellent image collections obtained from a car. Approach wildlife by gradually slowing to a stop. Many subjects aren’t apt to move when hunkered down in the cold or feeding vigorously along a roadway. Use caution and don’t stop along a busy highway with little or no shoulder. Safety should be the primary concern, with roadside photography done along infrequently traveled gravel roads.

Another comfortable method uses the window of your home. Place a backyard bird feeder close to a window that opens. Use a piece of cardboard or plywood cut to the size of the open window to prevent cold air from entering. Last, cut a hole for the telephoto lens.

You can also shoot from a commercial or home-made blind placed along a trail or location that wildlife frequent. 

Proper exposure for snowy images
Images of snow can often appear slightly gray as exposure meters use an overall average for lighting conditions. You can meter snow (and only snow), then manually set your aperture and shutter-speed settings to add 11/2 stops more light. But be sure to take your meter reading in the same direction as the picture. On a cloudy day add two f-stops of light, ensuring your camera’s meter reading is in the same direction as the photo. In early morning or late in the day, snow will take on a blue cast, especially in low light. This is natural, so don’t be surprised. You can remove some blue to suit your tastes with an image editor like Photoshop.

If you don’t want to set exposures by shooting in manual mode, correct the automatic exposure by simply changing the exposure-compensation setting to add light until the image on your LCD display looks correctly exposed. Be aware as the size of the animal, and the corresponding amount of bright snow, can change when the animal moves. This affects the camera’s auto-metering algorithm and the camera will adjust the exposure—often incorrectly. Just remember that well-exposed snow looks very white, and only a small amount of detail needs to be retained to show its texture. Under-exposed snow will look sooty, gray or dirty.

Respect the animal’s welfare
There’s one special and very important consideration when photographing winter wildlife. Animals often face food scarcity caused by deep snow and deadly ice that sometimes covers food supplies. Consequently, the lack of consistent food can make malnourished animals very vulnerable when precious energy is used to flee a well-meaning photographer. A prized photo isn’t worth jeopardizing the well-being of the subject. Simply keep your distances
to wildlife reasonable.

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