Winter Wildlife Photography

Photo of a snowy owlA snowy owl on a winter day

Winter can give some of the most beautiful photos when shooting wildlife. The backdrop of fresh untouched snow against the wildlife can be simply breathtaking. But winter presents an entire host of challenges from the ability to get sharp photos due to heat haze and air density to blue tinted white show to gear working in cold weather it takes a lot of work to get good photos in winter conditions. But when it all comes together the images can be outstanding.

In a previous blog post last winter I covered proper exposure, equipment and lens hood producing heat shimmer. Carrying on from that this time I am going to write about sharpness and winter photography. 

A bald eagle in wintertimeA sharply focused bald eagle in the winter achievable because the eagle is above the colder air near the ground

Living in Northern Alberta I spend 4-5 months a year shooting in cold weather, often snowy and overcast. I am forever fighting to get sharp images in the winter time. Lots of this has to do with the weather conditions and not your equipment, although at first you will think it is an equipment issue. Do you remember back to your school days and science class, the old saying "hot air rises" well it does but the opposite of that means cold air sinks. But air is air what should that matter for photography you might be wondering? Referring to another science lesson as particles heat up they expand and as they cool down they contract. This means air when cold is contracting, the particles are coming closer together and the air is getting denser. The colder it is the more dense the air becomes and the more it refracts light. The refraction of the light will make it very difficult to get a crisp sharp photo. Refraction means the light changes speed as it passes from one area to another as the density changes. Light will refract at different rates depending on the density, as you can imagine the density of  the air will vary considerable with pockets of colder air and warmer air trapped near the ground. This means the rays of light as they strike your camera are travelling a different speeds and makes it impossible to get a sharp image. The further you are from your subject and the more cold air you are photographing through the harder it is to get a sharp image. 

Great gray owl in the snowShooting down on this great gray owl and being close helps to get a sharp image

For example I can photograph a coyote in the summer time in a field a 100 meters away and have great detail even with the coyote small in the frame. The same image taken in winter on a cold day, there is no way I am getting detail, almost every time I am going to have a soft image. It is not your equipment it is the environment factors affecting how your camera perceives what it is seeing. 

Photo of a coyote in the fieldCoyote in the fall time where light refraction near the earth's surface is not normally an issue
A coyote leading in the field in the winterCompare to a coyote in the winter time taken from about the same distance and refraction due to air density prevents a sharp issue

The other phenomenon that happens in the winter is heat shimmer. Most people are familiar with heat shimmer in the summer time. Drive on an asphalt road on a really hot day and right on the horizon you will see shimmer, that hazy blurriness caused by the heat. The exact same thing happens in the winter time believe it or not. The heat from the earth is escaping into the cold air, it is rising from the ground, the difference in temperature between the air and the earth causes heat shimmer. The same effect can be found on the animal itself sometimes it has a heat shimmer around it as it gives off heat to its surroundings which is especially notable on extremely cold days below -30C. 

Porcupine photo in winterAlthough I was able to get close to this porcupine its heat shimmer due to the bitter cold at -42C prevented a sharp image no matter how hard I tried 

If you want to remain in the comfort of your vehicle in the cold and photograph from your window, the warmth of your vehicle will cause heat shimmer around it as will the hood of your vehicle if you are using it as a base to shoot from. If there is heat shimmer you will never get a sharp photo it is simply impossible. Light is being refracted too much by the shimmer and your camera cannot pick up the details of the subject. 

Often you can see the heat shimmer in your viewfinder or with the naked eye, the waviness to the background is a give away to the heat shimmer that is occurring in this instance when I was trying to photograph a snowy owl

So what can you do? First do not try shooting at ground level on really cold days. Instead stand up and get above the ground where the cold air is densest and where heat shimmer from the earth may be present and try to shoot above this area. This will result in shooting downwards or in the case of a large mammal like a moose at eye level to your subject.

Moose in wintertimeBeing close and at eye level allowed for a sharp image

Do not shot from a warm vehicle or the hood of your vehicle the difference in temperature will cause a heat shimmer even if you do not visibly see it your images will be soft. Take off your lens hood to release any warm air trapped inside and then reattach it to your camera. Get as close as you can to your subject, the closer you are the less air you are shooting through and the less refraction of light. Lastly if the animal you are shooting has visible heat shimmer around it, enjoy watching the animal, maybe shoot some video or set your subject in a landscape shot but be resigned to the fact you are not going to get a sharp image of it on this day. 

Landscape of snow buntingsIf you cannot get a sharp image try pulling back and go for a landscape image or one in which the detail is not so important to the composition

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