How to take good photos in the snow: Colorado photography tour

"Photography is like writing; it tells the story of your vacation," says Steamboat Springs photographer Carla Jones.

Our narrative, in this case, comes from our wintry surroundings deep inside the snowy Fish Creek Canyon in northwest Colorado.

"Look at the way the snow has settled on these tree branches," she continues. "When you think of telling the story, you want to take wide shots, medium shots and close-up shots. We all tend to get the wide and medium shots, but we forget about the close-up shots of the pine cones or the icicles."

I'd met up with Jones 30 minutes earlier, inside the Steamboat Ski Touring Centre overlooking the Rollingstone Ranch Golf Course. Skiers go there to tackle the cross-country trails criss-crossing the summer fairways and greens, but the reason we'd rendezvoused there was so I could be fitted for snowshoes ahead of our morning winter photography tour.

Skiers come from afar to zip down the slopes of Steamboat's Mount Werner. As an aside they might want to brush up on their photography skills, often in the hope they can capture that one shot they can hang on their wall back home. That's where Jones steps in, providing photography tutoring on foot and by car.

"The snowshoe tours are more about being outdoors and enjoying nature," she explains. "On the other hand, the driving gets you to places quicker and gives you more variety, taking shots of the ranches, barns and bridges around here."

The temperature was well below freezing when I woke, so despite the blazing sunshine and clear blues skies I'm rugged up in multiple layers of clothing. Photographing in cold conditions brings its own set of challenges, and Jones says it pays to remember a few tricks.

"Always carry a spare battery with you, since batteries lose energy quicker in the cold. For that reason as well, make sure you keep your spare battery close to your body so it will stay warm.

"And when you take your camera back into your heated room after you've been carrying it around outside in the cold, keep it inside your camera bag so it doesn't warm up too quickly and allow condensation to form on it. Wrapping it inside a plastic bag will also do the trick as the condensation will form outside the bag."

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Before departing the club in her old Subaru, Jones advises me to attach my biggest lens to my camera, "in case we see some elk along the way". Holiday homes worth millions of dollars line the road out to the canyon, inside the 1.17 million hectare Routt National Forest. All are built in a similar style that mixes timber with stone, and our first stop is to photograph some along a ridgetop above the Yampa Valley.

Further along, a walking trail leads from the Fish Creek car park through stands of aspen and conifer trees. It then passes over a footbridge until it reaches the foot of a frozen waterfall, where ice climbers are often seen scaling its splintered face. All up, it's a distance of just 500 metres, yet Jones has allowed us two hours to hike it.

It sounds like a long time to cover such a short distance but we use it to scout for photo opportunities we might otherwise pass by. Jones says her clients often want to learn about the technical side of photography, such as how to use apertures and shutter speeds correctly, but she prefers them to focus on what's in front them.

"Seeing is most important. When you find something you like, try different angles. Go back and forth until you're satisfied it will make a good picture, checking foregrounds and backgrounds for 'business'," she says, referring to intrusions that might distract the viewer's eye. She cites as examples unsightly rubbish bins or signposts that look as if they're sticking out of people's heads. 

A rudimentary hikers' cabin rests among an aspen grove to the left of the trail, with shadows from the trees angling nicely towards it. Leading lines are something a photographer uses to draw the viewer's eye into the picture, and Jones suggests I use the shadows to that effect while simultaneously adhering to the Rule of Thirds that places the main subject – in this case, the cabin – at the point where the intersecting lines meet if the image is split into thirds. Compared with my initial frame, it works a treat.

Cameras don't always see things the way our eyes do, and snow can trick a camera's light meter into under-exposing images, particularly in dull lighting. It's wise, therefore, to compensate by over-exposing by as many as two stops. But on bright sunny days such as ours, Jones insists on using a "fool-proof" rule of thumb designed to override the camera's recommendation. Called the Sunny 16, it involves using an aperture of f16 with a shutter speed that matches the camera's ISO setting. If, for example, your ISO is set at 200 with an f16 aperture, then your shutter speed should be locked on 1/200th of a second. At ISO100, the corresponding shutter speed would be 1/100th of a second. Amazingly, it seems to work.

Creating a starburst effect is next in our bag of tricks. With a camera's aperture wide open at f5.6 or lower, the sun would look like a shapeless blob in the sky. By closing the aperture down to f22, the sun appears to burst like a star on top of a Christmas tree. Even better is when that sun is partially obscured behind something, such as a tree branch or post, or even the edge of a wall. I try both, positioning myself so the sun hovers above some snow-covered pines behind a white foreground, and then partially obscuring it behind a branch. How much it bursts depends on how much the sun is hidden, and experimenting with several frames delivers different results. Placing the sun closer to the edge of the frame, for example, causes a more pronounced flare. 

As we hike deeper into the canyon, its walls creep ever higher, shading us from the sun. Remembering Jones' advice about photos telling a story, I fire off shots of signposts and tree trunks, and zoom in on shards of splintered ice covering the surface of the creek while forever mindful of trying to capture the broader landscape.

A meandering track leads from the bridge to the foot of the falls, where pillowy snow blankets the boulders along the banks of the creek. The rocks and the water flowing through gaps in the snow make nice tight frames with my telephoto lens, while a wide-angled lens allows me to capture the bigger picture with the waterfall. A couple walking their dog create a point of interest in the foreground while also adding a sense of scale against the 85-metre-high waterfall.

As the sun creeps higher, the light changes. The glow reflecting off snow settled on the opposite slope warms Jones'  cheeks in much the same way as a studio reflector would. It's perfect for portraiture work so I ask  her to pose for me, positioning her shoulders so she isn't facing me front-on. By including a portrait of my guide, I'm adding to my story.

After two hours, my final portrait makes a fitting bookend. The pages have been filled with images of landscapes and people, and with close-ups illustrating finer details. All that's needed now is a good edit.

Mark Daffey travelled as a guest of Travelplan.

FIVE TIPS FOR WINTER PHOTOGRAPHY

1. TIME YOUR VISIT

Fresh morning snow is far more appealing than the slushy stuff left at the end of the day. Make the effort to get out of bed early.

2. DRESS APPROPRIATELY

Being miserably cold is likely to reduce the amount of time you'll want to spend outdoors with your camera, so rug up. Wear rubber-tipped gloves over which, when you're not shooting, you can slip mittens. 

3.SHOOT IN RAW

Winter photography can be a tricky mistress when there's lots of snow around. Switch off the JPEG setting and use RAW to increase flexibility and improve your chances of getting a shot you can keep.

4. SHOOT THEN ADJUST

Take the first shot using the camera's light reading then make any necessary adjustments manually. Bracket your shots then choose the best exposure when editing. 

5. ADD A POINT OF INTEREST

Photos of snow on its own tend to be boring. Look for shapes, lines and subjects that will hold the viewer's attention.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/usa

Steamboat.com

Coloradoski.com

TOUR

Travelplan has a variety of Steamboat Springs ski packages that include discounted accommodation, lifts and air fares. See travelplanski.com

SHOOT

Carla Jones' winter photography tours cost $170 for one person, with discounts for additional guests and group sizes, up to a maximum of three people. Camera hire costs $35 per day. Snowshoe tours start at 10am, five days a week. See steamboat.com

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