Seven winter landscape photography tips from National Trust photographer, Hugh Mothersole

When we think of winter landscape images of places looked after by the National Trust, we often think of picturesque, snow-covered scenes, but in many of the lowland parts of the British Isles snowfall can be a fleeting event. We need to think beyond the Christmas card cliché and to consider shooting in the some of the more usual winter landscape conditions.

1. Clothing

Wrapping up in warm, dry clothing, and wearing strong boots or shoes that grip well, are essential when we venture outside in the winter months. Thick gloves are great, but they are a real challenge when trying to operate a camera, so look out for special photographers’ gloves or skiing gloves with fold-back finger tips. The ability to expose just the thumb and forefinger offers a real advantage over ordinary gloves. Your fingers will still get cold, but you can at least provide them a respite between shots. As always, safety comes first, so check local weather reports before you venture out and please let others know where you are going.

2. Equipment

Try not to take your camera directly from a warm home or car into the cold as the lens may mist up. Give it a while to adjust to the cooler outdoor temperatures. In bright conditions, especially with snow or a frost, attach a polarising lens to reduce glare. If the weather is wet, use a lens hood and a cover to keep your camera and lenses dry. If you are working in low light, a tripod is essential, but in bright light you may not need it.

3. An early start

Be prepared to miss breakfast. Some of the best winter images are taken just after dawn, so get out early. At this time the sunlight is low, the shadows are long and the landscape may be draped in frost, mist or perhaps a dusting of snow. Pop a snack or a flask of hot tea or soup in your bag for when the hunger sets in later in the morning.

4. Mist and Frost

Mist can be one of winter’s photographic treats when it pools in valleys and hollows, or when it wafts gently through winter woodlands. The river valley below Cliveden on the Buckinghamshire/Berkshire border is perfect for this, or Capability Brown’s rolling valleys at Stowe in North Buckinghamshire. Mist is more common near bodies of water and wet landscapes, both early in the morning and in the late afternoon towards dusk. Mist tends to reduce contrast. Landscape features progressively lose contrast the further away they are in your scene, so it can help to emphasise depth in your shot and enhance the differences between near and far objects.

Ice and frost can transform the look of many natural subjects, bringing a temporary beauty. Look out for frosty details like the shapes and patterns on everyday objects such as fence posts, frozen puddles, cobwebs, grasses and tree bark. A standard lens will focus close enough for most subjects; while a short telephoto or a macro lens will help you isolate details such as a cluster of icicles.

5. Winter Reflections

Reflections in rivers, ponds, lakes and even puddles can be used to add both light and interest to your photographs. The water meadows of Maidenhead and Cookham Commons by the Thames in Berkshire are a good place to photograph reflections, or the landscaped lakes of Stowe. Capturing a perfect reflection depends on the amount of wind, any wind at all will cause ripples on the water surface. On a still day, there will be a better chance of finding still waters in the morning before the day-time breezes begin, and your image will be even better if you can capture the morning’s first rays reflected in the water.

If the light is good or if you are using a tripod, try to select a high f-number such as f/11 or higher, this will help to maximise your depth of field. Try focusing on the subject, then try focusing on the reflection. The results will be slightly different, depending on whether you want to emphasise the object or its reflection. Finally, think about the angle of the light and how it affects the reflection and its position within the body of water. If possible, you may want to explore different viewpoints to find the angle at which the reflection is most visible or perfectly framed by the water’s edge.

6. If it snows

If it does snow, try shooting while the snow is still falling. Pick a suitable subject, avoiding wide-angle views where the snowfall effect is lost, and build your composition around a dominant feature, such as a tree, a small building or a gate. Hughenden in Buckinghamshire or Basildon Park in Berkshire has the perfect parkland for snow pictures with a character tree.

Try to introduce a small area of localised colour to give an image a focal point and lend some variety to the scene. If you have a macro lens, try shooting individual or clusters of snowflakes. Snow also lends itself well to monochrome (black and white) images. Be aware that shooting snowy landscape scenes in colour with a bright sky will often lead to the shadows becoming dark blue. You may want to experiment with your camera’s white balance settings. Take your camera off auto white balance and perhaps set it to 8,000K for a warmer feel.

As snow and frost surfaces are very reflective, they can play havoc with a camera’s light metering system, which normally determines the correct exposure by looking at all the different tones within the scene. This can lead to underexposed, dull images. To brighten images, you can adjust the image brightness settings to a positive exposure compensation; something between +0.7EV to +2.5EV should do. Adjust the positive exposure compensation until the data reaches the right-hand side of the histogram on the camera’s screen, but not beyond it.

If you take your images in RAW format, you can make similar adjustments to exposure and to white balance when processing your image.

7. Shooting ‘contre-jour’ (towards the light)

In the winter months, the sun doesn’t rise as much above the horizon, which makes it a good time to shoot towards the sun. The best approach is to obscure the sun with part of your subject such as a tree trunk, a building or a person, as this will reduce the risk of lens flare. The result will be a high-contrast image that shows the subject virtually in silhouette with strong shadows. Vertical structures, such as trees or tall buildings make ideal subjects for this technique, and it works well when there is still some mist in the air.

Above all, keep safe, have fun and experiment, bearing in mind that with digital photography you can take as many shots as your memory card will allow, and nobody will see all the shots that you delete!