How to photograph wildlife in winter light

Wildlife photographer Mark Hamblin shares his top tips on how to take pictures in winter light. 

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Greylag geese
All images by Mark Hamblin

 

Winter is without doubt my favourite season for wildlife photography. This is largely down to the light, which has a special clarity and warmth at this time of the year. Winter also brings snow, frost and mist, elements that add atmosphere and elevate images above the norm. On top of this birds are sporting their brightest plumage and mammals have thick winter coats, so all the ingredients are there to create some fantastic images.

To take full advantage, keep an eye on the weather forecast – clear nights will often bring frosts and stunning light early in the day. I aim to be out before sunrise and visit locations where wildlife can be accessed or approached easily.

Remember that food is a key driver in cold weather. Putting up feeders in the garden will attract birds, but you can also put out food for foxes, squirrels or even badgers. Stake out natural food supplies, too, such as berries, acorns and beechmast – all favoured by a host of species.

A telephoto lens will help you to take a fantastic close-up portrait. But don’t worry if you don’t have one – just concentrate on photographing a species in its beautiful wintry habitat. 

1. BACKLIGHT

I lay in wait before sunrise to photograph these greylag geese (above) in Inverness-shire, shooting towards the brightest part of the sky to create a silhouette. I used the camera’s motor drive to get a sequence of images as they came in to land. 

Arrive early Sunrise and sunset always give a chance of a colourful sky, which
is most intense when the sun is just below the horizon. Get into a likely spot in good time to capture striking silhouettes.

Take a reading To get the right exposure I took a meter reading from the sky using my camera’s Aperture Priority (Av) mode and Spot Metering. This intensified the pink colour and silhouetted the geese.

Use the sun For dramatic backlit shots, shoot towards the sun when it’s closest to the horizon. This will produce beautiful rim lighting around your subject and give the photograph a warm, orange glow.

Plan your shot I deliberately composed this shot to include the landscape below the birds because it helps to tell more of a story. Pre-visualising your compositions can help you to capture the most interesting images. 

2. LOW-ANGLE LIGHT

In winter the sun arcs low in the sky bathing everything in warm light, especially early and late in the day. These are also the best times to photograph wildlife foraging for food. In gardens and parks robins, mallards and foxes (above) make great subjects, their colourful plumage and fur standing out clearly.

3. FLAT LIGHT/SNOW

Digital cameras handle flat lighting very well, so I shoot in all weathers. I took this photograph of a male chaffinch (above) in my garden – as soon as it started snowing I set up a portable hide with a view of my seedfeeders. I lined up a perch with a clean background so that the snow would show up well to convey the wintry conditions. 

MARK HAMBLIN’S EXPERT TIP

“Shooting in the snow and rain can produce exciting images, but remember to protect your camera from the elements — a plastic bag and elastic bands will keep it dry.”

See more brilliant nature photography by Mark Hamblin. 

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