Snowshoeing and winter sports fun creates unique photo opportunities

Preparation key to off-season park adventures

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A view of Wizard Island from the rim of Crater Lake
A view of Wizard Island from the rim of Crater Lake.

Taking pictures while out snowshoeing, or doing other winter sports like skiing, cross country skiing or snowmobiling, is fantastic. Snowshoe trekking is my winter sport of choice, but this article will hold true for other winter sports. All deal with similar lighting conditions, temperatures and need to be as light on gear as possible.

Crater Lake had just gotten four inches of fresh snow while I was up there, making great textures and contrasts on the trees.

When I prepare for a snowshoeing trip, I do something deeply unnatural. I pick only one camera body and lens. Lens swapping is always a risk in the field. I’ve cleaned gunk and grit from my gear that you don’t even want to hear about. Switching lenses is a risk I’ll take in mud, mist, salty air and buggy fens, but not when trekking on snow. Any crud flying around in the air could freeze hard to contacts or moving parts and I can’t effectively clean my gear in those conditions. I am wearing gloves, have poles tucked under my arms and boards strapped to my feet. This makes switching lenses awkward at best. I am far more likely to drop something expensive than on my usual shoots. Sometimes I can find places to sit and deal with my gear for a second, but sometimes sitting means a wet butt.

Crater Lake in winter with the fog rolling in. This is a handheld panoramic made from 6 separate shots. You can view a larger size at 500px.

Here is my complete gear list: one camera, one prime lens, a camera strap, a tablet stylus and my iPhone. This is the one situation I use a camera strap instead of lugging my bag. In the cold, you want gear easy to reach, firmly attached to you and not fluctuating in temperature. Tucking a camera in your jacket could lead to condensation problems. Check your model to see what conditions it can handle. A tablet stylus is cheap and makes working touchscreens easy. Unless your tech gloves fit you like they were made for you, using that little patch on the index finger doesn’t work very well. I am listing my iPhone because it is a camera I will have on me, but will likely stay in a zippered pocket the whole time. A warm, thin iPhone can cut through snow like reindeer pee. If you do use a cell phone, consider something to to help you hold onto it. On my last trek I saw several people using PopSockets on their phones to help hold on and use them in gloved hands.

My Olympus OMD camera is made for cold weather and has very little thermal mass. I am a bit careless about protecting my gear from cold and condensation. B&H has a great write up here if you want to see all the precautions I don’t take while snowshoeing. If I used a full sized dSLR I would absolutely follow that checklist. Using an mirrorless camera also means I am carrying less weight out on the snow. While I am not as hardcore fellow mirrorless shooter Yasunaga Ogita, who uses a mirrorless camera so he can pack more food and increase his chances of survival in Antarctica, the same principle applies: the smaller and lighter you can get your gear the better.

The single lens I took was a 25mm (50mm equivalent for dSLR users) prime lens. I wasn’t limited by it at all. As you can see above, I am very comfortable with taking multiple shots and compositing them. Having a set focal length means that I didn’t need to adjust my lens at all, which made shooting in awkward conditions much easier. I pretty much change my interchangeable lens camera into a high end point-and-shoot with full manual options.

A view of the Cascades while trekking in Crater Lake National Park.

Shade the lens!

Snow reflects light. If you’ve gone up into higher altitudes to get to the snow, the UV is even more intense. If you are snowshoeing in a group, there will be at least one person who didn’t believe how much UV is going on and winds up with a bright red face. To reduce the glare and possible lens flare, use a lens hood. It will cut out a lot of ambient light and keep direct sunlight off your lens unless you are including the sun in your shot.

Bringing a UV filter may sound tempting, but filters can increase lens flare.  If the filter isn’t perfectly clean, it might show in all that unforgiving light. A UV filter will offer some protection for your lens and that is the only real use you will get out of it. They are popular with people who do not use lens caps. I am firmly in the lens cap camp and don’t use UV filters anymore. Lens hoods on mirrorless cameras tend to be small so lens caps are easy to put on and take off, even in gloves. Figuring out about lens cap logistics takes us to our next point.

Young pine tree centered behind above Crater Lake in winter.
A baby pine tree covered in ice up at the rim above Crater Lake. It gets cold at 7,000 feet above sea level.

Do a test run before snowshoeing

Whenever you are doing winter sports, it’s good to try on all your layers and gear and walk around in them. This lets you figure out problems before you go. You can make sure your camera strap plays well with other items you are carrying, like a water bottle sling or a daypack. Make sure your gloves can work the switches and dials it needs to on your camera. My camera uses a live viewer and polarized sunglasses turn it into a blank black rectangle. I have to be able to take my sunglasses off for brief moments to frame and focus my shots.

Do some test shots, make sure you don’t run into problems with lens caps, viewfinders or other components. It’s easy to deal with problems if you know about them ahead of time. You can try using a lens cap leash or other accessories to make your shoot easier. It’s much harder to problem solve in the field.

Why shoot in snow?

A blanket of snow makes some vantage points easier to access, provided you can stay on top of the snow. White snow is a fantastic reflector, opening up the landscape and making conditions great for clear, crisp photos. Modern cameras can do amazing things in low light, so it’s easy to lose track of what shooting in bright, clear light can do. Snow is also great for night photography. If the conditions hold, I’ll be doing starlit snowshoeing in March.

Snowshoeing tracks along the shore of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.
Snowshoeing around Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. Attendance at this busy park drops off sharply in winter. I was out for a few hours and didn’t see another person. Here I used my own path as a leading line into the image.

Going to parks in winter is the real getting away from it all. Does that appeal to you, or would you rather enjoy the Great Indoors?

You can find more of Dawn Hewitt’s work, braving the off-season or exploring Portland, at her Instagram or personal website.

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