Written for Visit Estes Park by photographer Sean Lara:
It’s no secret that Estes Park is home to some absolutely incredible mountain-scenery. Many would assume that the best time to visit and capture scenic photographs is during the warmer months, but the truth is there are fantastic opportunities in the winter. Snowy peaks, frozen lakes, and undisturbed wildlife are just some of the many scenic features that the colder weather offers. If you can put on a scarf and brave the cold, you will be well-rewarded.
Before you venture out on your next expedition, consider these winter photography tips to make the most out of your outdoor adventure and walk away with astonishing images.
PREPARE YOURSELF FOR THE BEST RESULTS
Prior to heading out for photos, it’s recommended you plan ahead and research your locations. A great tool to use for location scouting is Google Earth, which will give you detailed map information anywhere in the world. There are also user-submitted images as well that provide inspiration and a better understanding of what the land looks like. If you’re unfamiliar with the area, it’s also not a bad idea to chat with the locals or get help from a ranger station. If you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, a great place to go for helpful information is at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. And here are Visit Estes Park's 9 favorite winter hikes.
In addition to location scouting, photographers should also prepare for the cold weather by bringing thick gloves, crampons, appropriate snow apparel, and emergency equipment. On the photography gear list, it’s helpful to bring extra batteries (the cold weather depletes battery life quickly), a polarizer filter (which helps cut down glare), and a tripod for slow-exposure photos to prevent camera shake.
TIME OF DAY MATTERS
Arguably the best time of day to take photos is during sunrise or sunset. When the sun is low in the sky, it produces very flattering light that’s not too harsh and is easy to photograph. The directional lighting also provides a nice contrast between highlights and shadows which creates more interesting landscapes. More notably, the colors during sunrise and sunset can also be absolutely gorgeous which makes it a perfect time to capture a dramatic scene. Here in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, we have a lot of East-facing landmarks which makes sunrise an ideal time to take incredible images. So if you’re not a morning person, you better load up on the coffee!
CHOOSE UNIQUE COMPOSITIONS
One of the keys to any successful photograph is the composition, or how the scene is framed in the camera. Being immersed in a beautiful location such as Estes Park, it’s easy to want to point your camera straight at the mountains and forget the surrounding scenery. When framing your shot, take some time to carefully examine the area and look for features you can incorporate into the foreground of your photo. Trees, boulders, ice formations, and even some man-made features are things to look for. By incorporating these foreground elements, you’re able to tie a photograph together with the entire scene and make it more visually interesting.
WATCH THOSE OVEREXPOSED HIGHLIGHTS
While winter-time does present so many great photo opportunities, it does come with its own unique set of challenges. The most common obstacle is dealing with overexposed highlights in the snow. A “Highlight” is a technical photography term to describe the brightest part(s) of an image. During winter, it’s very common for the sun to reflect off the surrounding snow which can create bright, overexposed parts of the image. This usually results in a photo with undesirable distractions and a lack of detail in the parts that are over-exposed. Here are three ways you can reduce or eliminate bright highlights:
SHOOT IN RAW
One way to help overcome this is to shoot in “RAW”, which is a file format featured on most consumer cameras. The advantage to this is that it retains a significant amount of data in your photo, allowing the photographer to make a variety of adjustments during post-production, including recovering overexposed highlights. While you still need to try and expose your photo as best as you can straight off the camera, RAW files will allow a pretty decent margin of error, especially with today’s advancing camera technology.
BRACKETING & HDR
Even in RAW format, occasionally the bright highlights in a scene can still be overwhelming for your camera’s sensor to process. Another technique to combat this is to use something called “bracketing”. Bracketing is a mode found in most interchangeable-lens cameras that will take multiple photos at once with varying exposures. You can then take these images and use computer-software (such as Adobe Lightroom) to combine the images and create a singular, properly balanced photo. This end result is known as a “high-dynamic range” photo, or “HDR”. A lot of cameras are starting to come out with an HDR feature built-in, including iPhones, where it’s been available for some time now!
If you’re taking portraits or scenic shots with people, you can use flash to help tackle the challenges of overexposed highlights. Yes, you read correctly, flash during the daytime! By putting additional lighting on your subjects, you can fill in unflattering shadows making your subjects stand out from the background. Keep in mind though, that if you have a camera with a built-in flash, it’s usually not powerful enough to challenge the bright light from the sun. You’ll need to use a more powerful external flash such as a speed-light or a strobe.
Hopefully these photography tips will help you create some stunning images on your next winter adventure. While you’re out, please don’t forget to respect our beautiful landscape by “leaving no trace”, keep a safe distance from wildlife and be considerate of other photographers and tourists.
About the Author: Sean Lara is a local Estes Park Wedding Photographer who loves incorporating mountain scenery into his images. When he’s not photographing clients, you can find him hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, fly fishing on Big Thompson or drinking a cold-one at a local brewery. IG: @seanlaraphotography