Overcoming the Challenges of Shooting Winter Sports

Winter is an awesome season for action and sports photography. Not only does winter just feel so much more wild and extreme, it offers a wide variety of creative options that you just don’t get during those ho-hum warmer months. Of course, as much as I like to believe it, winter is not perfect. It does presents a few limitations that can make photographing moving subjects a bit more challenging. Let’s take a look at some of these factors that come into play with winter sports photography.

Yea, there’s that. Comes with the territory. Get used to it. Unless things change drastically in the next few years, winter will always mean cold hands, feet, faces and camera batteries. Keep in mind, the effects of cold are cumulative. Unless you start out prepared, what starts out as comfortable can quickly degrade into total discomfort and even danger, both of which will negatively affect your photography.

Fortunately, even the most bitter of temperatures is relatively easy to deal with. Good gloves, hats and chemical hand warmer packs will make ALL THE DIFFERENCE. Believe me, I’ve gone out unprepared for what I though thought would be a short session that turned out to be a few hours of misery. Dress in layers, starting with thin synthetic fabrics next to the skin, and then either fleece and wind layers if you plan to be active, or down/down-like insulation if you plan to be standing around. And don’t forget about good, insulated footwear. Cold feet will ruin your day.

Camera Batteries
For the most part, those big fat DLSR batteries work pretty well in the cold. Even if they get sluggish, taking them out and warming them up in your pocket will usually give them some life again. Just make sure they’re fully charged before you head out into the cold. When it comes to smaller compact cameras, though, forget it. They’ll die in no time if it’s below about 10 degrees F. Always keep at least one spare in your warm pocket.

Snow and Contrast
Question: What’s the worlds biggest photographic reflector? If you said the snow, you’re absolutely right! If the ground is covered in a blanket of white powder, then essentially, your entire visible world is acting as a giant reflector. This means that there are greatly reduced shadows everywhere.

The result is that you can shoot in situations and locations where you can never handle in the summertime when everything is green and brown. You’ll find that often times you can shoot in bright sunshine and still see definition in the shadows. Just make sure that you still expose for the sunny areas or you’ll completely blow out your highlights. This really opens up possibilities for composing photos and using a variety of vantage points.

It also means that with so much light bouncing around, it’s usually bright enough to allow for very fast shutter speeds, even in the shade or when it’s overcast. This lets you freeze your skiers as they carve turns and capture the explosion of powder from showshoe runners.

I’ve found that today’s camera meters are smart enough to recognize and exposure for the snow, so I don’t usually worry about compensating. If needed, you might need to bump up your exposure in your post processing software just a little bit. Doing that as a batch adjustment on groups of images will save you time.

Sometimes snowflakes can be so big that they fool your autofocus. I’ve had a number of situations where the focus sensors locked onto the falling snow and gave me tack sharp flakes in front of slightly blurry subjects that are a few feet behind. Not much you can do except try to keep your focus locked onto your athletes and pay attention to when you’re pressing the shutter.

That said, I actually like this effect. I feel that it gives the shot a wonderful sense of environment and mood. I’ve had this happen a number of times and it always ends up looking totally cool. Try it. Next heavy snowfall, go outside and watch your camera get confused.

Warm Light
Oh the light!! It’s quite possibly the best part of winter, although I live in Alaska, where January means sunset light all day along. All 6 hours, that is. Even if you don’t live at extreme latitudes, the sun skims a more shallow path across the sky, which gives you some great warm light. Plus, you don’t have to get up quite as early or stay out quite as late to catch it. Photography is light, so take full advantage of those short winter days!

Overcast skies
Ok, so it’s not always sunny in the wintertime. What do you do when the sky blocks out with that big sheet of grayish white and makes everything look dull and flat? There a couple of ways to handle severe overcast. Since huge patches of white sky can often make for unappealing photos, try moving in towards the action and get closer to your subject. Even if you still have lots of sky in your photo, your viewer’s eye will be drawn to the subject more than the sky.

The other option is to use a flash. This can help add a bit of contrast back into your scene, which will give the photo more life and pop. You really don’t need much, in fact, just a slight fill can make a big difference. When all else fails, throw bright colored clothing on your models and hope for the best.

So, get on out there into the world of white and have fun with your cameras. When you get back, be sure to leave a comment and let us know if you discovered any new tips of your own that you’d like to share!

Winter is no stranger to professional Alaska based photographer Dan Bailey. He’s been shooting in the snow and cold for over twenty years and has had photos published by a wide variety of editorial and commercial clients. For more creative photography tips, check out his eBook, Behind The Action – Creating Adventure Imagery, Step by Step. You can also read his blog and follow him on Facebook.

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    • "Good gloves, hats and chemical hand warmer packs will make ALL THE DIFFERENCE."

      But there is not a single word in the article about HOW to dress and stay warm. A shivering photographer is not likely to follow any of your tips.

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    • Robert K may want to read para Two again, under subject heading: Cold, which provides detailed sound advice on clothing to wear.

      Were we both reading the same article?

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    • If the author had not revised this article since my last post, then I stand corrected and owe him an apology. Otherwise, I stand by my comment. The first time I read the article, the last two sentences in that second paragraph were missing.

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    • Nice article.


      A few more tips for Overcast days:

      1) Exposure.  In bright light your camera will get it right, but when the light is flat you'll need to increase exposure, else the snow will turn grey.  Try adding one stop of compensation.

      2) Flash.  If it is snowing, do not use onboard flash.  You'll get backscatter from the snowflakes, ruining your shot.

      3) Aperture.  Shoot wide-open if you can.  This will defocus snowflakes between you and your subject.  Also, it will help you freeze motion in low light.

      plus, as Dan Bailey suggests, focus on action and detail rather than sweeping landscapes.


      and, don't forget to put your gear in a ziploc when coming inside after a cold day out.


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