Photographing Australia’s alpine snow regions – a few essential tips for photographers

Written by Gary on July 19th, 2011

Alpine snow regions in Australia are confined to the south-east and have a relatively short season from June-September.

Snow mainly falls down to altitudes of 1400m, but on the uncommon days of very cold Antarctic blasts, snow may fall to as low as 900m.

During the snow skiing season, photographers have limited access to these regions as snow ploughs clear the road and heap snow on the sides of the roads preventing ability to park your vehicle other than at designated areas – not very helpful for photographers!

Most of Victoria’s snow fields are within 2-4 hours drive of Melbourne, but those with 2WD vehicles will need to use snow chains once they reach the snow, while those with 4WD vehicles will need to carry snow chains.

Treacherous cold beauty of winter on Mt Buffalo. Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus ZD 7-14mm lens ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/80th sec, 13mm focal length, uncropped, minimal post-processing:
Treacherous cold beauty of Mt Buffalo

 

Planking on a cliff face photographing a waterfall with care. Canon 1D Mark III dSLR camera with Canon 135mm f/2.0L lens, ISO 200, f/2.0, 1/500th sec, uncropped, contrast enhanced in post-processing:
Planking on Mt Buffalo

Be safe:

  • most Australians are occasional visitors to the snow and thus lack of experience can be a major issue – the snow regions do create significant risks, not only of vehicle accidents on black ice, but personal accidents due to slipping on ice which could easily result in a broken limb or serious head injury from a simple fall onto the boulders. Furthermore, it does not take much to get cold, wet, hungry and even lost.
  • tip #1 – if possible take an experienced person along with you, if you are a keen photographer, consider hiring the services of local professional photographer and alpine hiker such as John Mitchell – I can highly recommend him – not only will he pick you up and drop you back to your accommodation, but he will supply lunch, drinks and watch for your safety as he takes you to great locations which you would otherwise not consider, and help you with your photographic skills one on one.
  • tip #2 – be prepared and keep yourself warm and dry:
    • very waterproof leather boots (apply Dubbin or a bees wax product to them before going)
    • wear 2 pairs of merino wool socks
    • layers of clothes with an outer waterproof layer over your pants (you do need to get down on your knees to get good shots sometimes) and of course, a waterproof jacket
    • consider waterproof gaiters which attach to boot lace and and can be laced under the boot to ensure a snug fit to minimise snow getting up your trousers.
    • several pairs of light weight gloves designed for operating your cameras – once a pair gets wet with rain, you need to change to dry pair – if your fingers get very cold, that is the end of your photography for the day – prevention is better than cure!
    • beanie or similar for your head
    • use lip balm to prevent chaffed lips and subsequent cold sores
    • if sunny, wear wrap around UV sunglasses to prevent UV burns to your eyes from reflected sunlight from the snow
  • tip #3 – don’t slip and fall over, or get lost:
    • walk with knees bent to keep your centre of gravity low and help ensure you fall forwards instead of slipping backwards and giving yourself a signficant head injury.
    • avoid walking on ice – stick to the snow
    • cloud and snow can hide crevices and cliffs – keep to the paths and don’t wander off alone as one can get disoriented very easily, and your iPhone GPS is not going to be much help
    • consider bringing a radio beacon in case you do get lost (which you won’t be silly enough to do), or to call for help if your vehicle or yourself becomes incapacitated.
  • tip #4 – don’t carry too much gear:
    • try to anticipate what you will need
    • if it is thick cloud on the mountain, bring a wide angle lens – you almost certainly will NOT need a lens with focal length greater than 100mm in 35mm terms – you will not be able to see much more than 20m in front of you anyway and a telephoto is not likely to find much use in those conditions. Likewise, a large sensor camera to get the shallowest depth of field and lovely bokeh is not going to be so important, so consider making life easy for yourself by taking a smaller camera with a wide angle lens and perhaps a macro lens.
    • you should consider a nice light weight carbon fibre tripod if you are wanting to photograph waterfalls or streams with long exposures (consider bringing a polariser or ND filter to help here)
    • do bring that lens hood – not only will it help to reduce flare, but more importantly, it will help prevent rain hitting the front element of your lens, and we definitely do NOT want that happening, even if you do have a filter on!
    • if you have an assistant, a towel to shelter under (not wipe your glass!), or even better if it is raining but not windy, an umbrella to help protect rain from hitting the front element of your lens.
A Panda bear on Mt Buffalo? Canon 1D Mark III dSLR camera with Canon 135mm f/2.0L lens, ISO 200, f/4.5, 1/125th sec, uncropped, contrast enhanced in post-processing:
Panda bear on Mt Buffalo

How to take great photos in the snow when it is covered by cloud:

  • tip #1 – make sure your batteries are freshly charged and bring a spare
    • lithium ion batteries are not as susceptible to the cold but it is wise to optimise the battery life in the snow
    • consider keeping them warm when not in use (eg. in your pocket)
    • avoid excessive battery usage – minimise LCD use. minimise AF use, turn camera off when not in use
  • tip #2 – keep your camera gear dry
    • if it is raining, your camera is going to get wet
    • most camera bags have a rain protective cover – use it
    • if you have a pro camera and lens, this moisture is not an issue for the electronics or internal glass elements as these are usually sufficiently weatherproofed
    • if not, allowing your camera to get wet is risking it suddenly stopping working – my Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera did get quite wet but luckily functioned flawlessly for me apart from the usual “Lens not connected properly” error message I get when using an adapter for lenses and they are not tightly connected.
  • tip #3 – keep front element of your lens dry
    • water droplets on the front element will mean NONE of your photos will be usable!
    • use your lens hood
    • keep lens facing down as much as possible
    • have an assistant provide shelter for the lens
    • droplets on your lens as well as dust on your sensor become more obvious in your images at smaller apertures (eg. f/8-16) and these small apertures are often needed in landscape photography to give adequate depth of field, or allow for long exposures if you forgot your ND filter.
  • tip #4 – avoid condensation on your camera and lens
    • fog on your front element will seriously degrade your image quality and wiping the fog off should be avoided – let it evaporate
    • fog in your viewfinder will make it hard to use
    • if you bring your cold camera into a warm, humid environment such as under your jacket or indoors (eg. in a warm car), you will get condensation forming which not only will cause issues by fogging the front elent and your viewfinder, but can risk moisture getting inside your electronics.
    • even placing your camera with lens down into your external jacket pocket will result in lens condensation – keep it away from any warmth!
    • consider placing camera inside a sealed plastic bag until it warms up, or keep it in a cold bag to keep it cold if you plan on using it outside again (but consider removing the battery to keep it warm).
  • tip #5 – set camera to RAW mode
    • low contrast scenes in cloud with snow mandates sugnificant post-processing to adjust contrast – give your photos the best chance by using RAW files instead of only 8 bit jpegs
    • snow scenes are difficult for automatic white balance so RAW mode makes adjusting this in post-processing much easier
  • tip #6 – use custom white balance
    • AWB on your camera is not likely to give the best results
    • do a custom white balance preferably off a gray card, but you might be able to use gray clothing
  • tip #7 – use manual exposure
    • camera light meters are not good enough to get reliable exposures of snow scenes as they will be trying to make all your nice white snow look 18% gray
    • so set your exposure mode to manual and determine the settings yourself
    • the best option is to use a hand held incident light meter
    • alternatively, one can use the histogram to ensure highlights are not being blown out
    • if you must meter with the camera, then try to find something which is 18% gray such as a boulder or a jacket
    • if in doubt, bracket your exposures by +/- 0.5 – 1.0 stops
  • tip #8 – avoid deleting images in the field
    • you never know what can be retrieved by adjusting contrast, etc in Lightroom or Photoshop
    • avoid judging an image based on the appearance on the camera’s LCD screen
  • tip #9 – look for color contrast to add punch
    • snow scenes tend to be largely gray scale affairs with low contrast
    • look for brightly colored subjects to add color contrast – consider using an ultra wide angle lens to get in close
  • tip #10 – images still look crap when you get home?
    • as long as you have got your exposure reasonably close and your composition is good, don’t despair as most snow scenes in cloud need some post-processing to add contrast and alter tone curves to give you the ambience you want
    • consider converting to monotone given they are largely monotone anyway
Anyone for a nippy dip? The swimming pool at the deserted chalet. Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus ZD 7-14mm lens ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/80th sec, 14mm focal length, uncropped:
swimming pool
When you get too cold and wet, time to move down the mountain out of the cloud for relative warmth and different scenery. Canon 1D Mark III dSLR camera with Canon 24-105mm f/4L lens, ISO 100, f/8, 0.8 sec, polarising filter, uncropped, minor enhancement in post-processing:
Eurobin falls
Time to get the macro lens and tripod out at the top of a waterfall. Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus ZD 50mm f/2.0 macro lens ISO 400, f/16, 0.62 sec,uncropped, no post-processing:
macro
Who can resist the ambience of a mountain stream. Canon 1D Mark III dSLR camera with Canon 24-105mm f/4L lens, ISO 100, f/16, 2.0 sec, polarising filter, uncropped, minor enhancement in post-processing:
stream
Ice on the rocks with the Canon. Canon 1D Mark III dSLR camera with Canon 135mm f/2.0L lens, ISO 200, f/4, 1/125th sec, uncropped, major contrast enhancement in post-processing:
snow on the rocks
Fallen tree. Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus ZD 7-14mm lens ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/60th sec, 8mm focal length, uncropped:
fallen tree
Patterns in nature. Panasonic GH-1 Micro Four Thirds camera with Olympus ZD 7-14mm lens ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/60th sec, 14mm focal length, uncropped:
patterns

What have you learned from the above images?

1. you don’t need ISO above ISO 400 so any modern cropped sensor camera will handle this scenery well – don’t get yourself worried about all those camera tests comparing ISO at 12,800 – high ISO shooting is really only needed for certain niche photographers. The landscape photographer, like most photographers, generally shoot at low ISO and preferably with a tripod.

2. the limiting factor is not the camera or lens, but YOUR ability to adjust the camera’s settings effectively and to ensure the lens glass remains clear.

3. don’t forget your tripod and polarising filter for those waterfall shots.

4. in the cloud, an ultra wide angle lens comes into its own while a telephoto has limited utility, but try to avoid getting too much brighter cloud in your image, as viewer’s eyes tend to go to bright areas, and this cloud will have little detail to warrant the viewer’s attention, and thus generally will detract from the image.

5. with more endeavour and time, a number of different imagery styles could be derived from the initial base images, and these could be further “enhanced” because the initial exposures generally included the full dynamic range that was important with minimal if any blown highlights. Note I have intentionally under-exposed a couple of the above for effect.

As an aside, I am really looking forward to a weather-proof Olympus Pen Pro with built-in EVF and image stabiliser to use with the very nice new Olympus 12mm f/2.0 lens, so please Mr Olympus, bring it on!

 

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