How to Shoot in the Snow
By Brian Ach
13 Jan 2011
On 1/11/11, New York City received over about 10 inches of snow in a short amount of time, starting at around 10pm. Travel was stunted, and getting around extremely difficult.
After spending the earlier part of the evening shooting the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures celebrity arrivals, that meant only one thing to me--snow shots!
Shooting snow scenes after a blizzard is easy enough, but sometimes, you want to get shots during a blizzard. When it is snowing this hard, there are many things I have learned over the years that you should do in order to maximize your picture-taking prowess. When you thaw out and take a look at what you shot, you'll be glad you kept these tips in mind.
This 10 Tips will concentrate on shooting in the snow at night. Shooting in the snow during the day is pretty much the same, with notable exceptions--your exposures are a lot shorter! So...grab your coat and here we go!
1. Dress appropriately. This is serious. Since I knew the snow was going to be coming at night, when temperatures are down, I brought clothes to my studio that would keep me warm and dry. I was wearing thick corduroy pants, waterproof boots, a base layer long sleeve shirt, another tshirt, a thermal hoodie, a down jacket, and a fully waterproof shell. I also had a wool hat with ear flaps and good gloves. Being cold is not fun when you are working. It is very easy to get frustrated, bitter, and wonder why in the hell you are out there doing what you are doing when everyone else is inside, warm, and watching Pawn Stars. At the least, it takes your mind off shooting, which is not where you want it to be. It might take a while to find good shooting locations (and you might get lost) so prepare well, and you will congratulate yourself.
2. Tell someone where you are going and when you will return. I left my studio after 11pm and didn't arrive home until about 3:30AM. I was in contact with someone, so if they didn't hear from me after a certain time, they would know something is up. Also, the park was technically closed, so I had my press pass with me to put the police at ease. However, if I slipped and fell, no one would have ever found me. This is important to remember, and a reason why you have to let someone know where you are.
3. Pack the correct gear. This may seem obvious also, but really think about what you want to be hauling around in a blizzard. Stuff is going to get wet. You have to be ok with that. If not, then leave that gear at home. Weather-sealed cameras are good for work like this, and cameras with a larger sensor are better in general for night work as they have less noise. In my bag (water resistant, as you will not have anywhere dry to set it down) were: Eos 5D Mark II, 17-40L, 24-105 L IS, Pentax 67 (film camera) 55mm lens for Pentax. I also had lens hoods for all three lenses to keep snow off lens, and two microfibre lens wipes. Bring a tripod also which is covered below. You will want to minimize changing lenses, as moisture will get on the sensor. Bring spare batteries if you have them. The batteries in the 1D Mark series of cameras stand up to extremely cold weather much better than the ones in the 5D and 60D ranges. Put the battery from those cameras in an inside pocket as soon as you are done shooting to keep it warm and charged. Then put the camera in your bag before moving on to the next location.
4. Plan a route. I was going to 59th st., walking to around 75th in Central Park, walking across the park, then walking to Times Sq. Try to plan your route carefully while you are dry and warm, and stay to your route while working. Cover as much ground as you think you can without getting too cold or tired.
5. Bring a good tripod. I have a light weight CF tripod that would have been great on my back, but it really isn't sturdy enough to support the Pentax or to stand up solidly in the wind. So I took my ancient green Manfrotto. Was it heavy? Yes, but I didn't want to do all of this work and come out with blurry pictures because of the 10 second exposures in the wind. A ball head or a pistol grip head will help you compose your shot carefully and quickly.
6. Shoot in RAW or RAW+jpeg. You will want to be able to correct for the awful white balance the sodium vapor lights produce and also to dial out any other color casts. RAW let's you do this easy and quickly. Also, if you are going to use these for stock, you want the best image you can get out of your camera. It also makes black and white easier.
7. Shoot low, low, low ISO. At night, it would seem to make sense to shoot at a high ISO so your shutter speeds are not that long. For shots in a blizzard, however, I find very long exposures are the best at making the scene look magical. Most of the shots in this series are at least 2.5 seconds long, and some of them the exposure was 10-12 seconds. This let me use an ISO of 100, so the pictures have virtually no grain in them and look super smooth and sharp.
The best thing about long exposures during heavy snow is that the snow disappears from the shot, and you get the stunning views of an otherworldly nighttime picture. With a short shutter, like the picture in Times Square, you can see how hard the snow was actually coming down in all of these shots.
8. Find interesting things to shoot. Things that are interesting to shoot during the day are usually more interesting to shoot at night, and even more interesting to shoot at night...in the SNOW. Keep a logbook of things that you want to shoot, and when it snows, go do it!
9. Take multiple shots of a view once you set up. Once you have found a good thing or area to shoot, take shots from different angles, focal lengths, zoom in, zoom out, and go vertical. You just don't really know what will end up looking good when you are back home and warm. You generally have only one chance to get it right, so shoot as many shots as you can until you feel that you have it, then move to your next spot.
Shoot a lot, but don't over shoot. I would rather have 7 amazing shots of 7 different locations, then 20 shots of 2 locations. This makes for a more interesting photo essay.
10. A little effort goes a long way. Not many other photographers were doing what I was doing two nights ago, in spite of the wonderful opportunity. Why? Because this stuff is HARD. It takes a lot of effort and to plan and execute a successful shoot like this. Just walking in the snow is hard enough, let alone with 15-20lbs of gear on your back. However, the payoff is spectacular. Some of the most iconic shots of NYC that have stood the test of time were taken in the snow or during a blizzard. I want a piece of that pie also.
So, when you finally get home, take all of your gear out of the bag, all lenses off the bodies, and set them near a radiator or heating vent. Wipe your gear down, then let everything dry out naturally. Take your memory cards out, and download them immediately. Yes, at 4AM. You don't want to take the chance of losing images to dampness etc.
Then, go to bed. It will be all worth it when you get up in the morning, have some Folgers, look at your images, post them, and have people ask you, "WHEN and HOW did you take that?