While I love spring, summer and autumn, my true heart can’t wait for winter to come. I absolutely LOVE winter landscape photography in the Canadian Rockies.
Let me explain why with three simple points:
1 – Ice
2 – Snow
3 – Low Light
Obviously there’s a bit more to it than just these three things, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s no time of the year more spectacularly gorgeous than winter when it comes to the Canadian Rockies. Let me go into more detail.
Ice Formations Are Phenomenal
That’s right, when ice forms, it’s actually a ‘phenomenon’ and it’s one you can easily capture with your camera during Canadian winters. The entire winter offers many different kinds of frost and ice with varying shapes, patterns and thicknesses. With places like Bow Lake offering stunning ‘hoar frost’ and locations like Abraham Lake and Barrier Lake boasting methane bubbles trapped under ice, the potential for epic landscape photos is very promising.
Even towards the end of winter you’ll see amazing sheets of ice at Lake Minnewanka as they crack and jut up on the shore like giant slabs of blue glass with jagged edges and prismatic plays of light.
Visit Maligne Canyon in January and you’ll be greeted by colossal columns of frozen waterfalls that could crush a house if they collapsed.
Winter Light is The Best Light
In the winter you’ll find the sun is much lower in the sky. This means that ‘Golden Hour’ last way longer in both the morning and the afternoon. I’ve found 10am and 2PM to produce gorgeous side light and alpen glow, especially if you’re really lucky and you get low lying mist or cloud.
I find that winter light has it’s own unique quality that you just don’t see at any other time of year.
While it’s true that the Aurora can happen at any time of the year, I find that cold winter nights offer the clearest skies when clouds are absent. If you get lucky and manage to catch a major solar flare you’ve got an excellent chance of capturing epic shots of the mountains with the aurora dancing overhead.
The Magic of Mist and Fog
There’s nothing more magical in a landscape image than mist, fog or low lying cloud. I find that this happens far more regularly in the winter as the air temperature cools to the dew point or the dew point rises to match the air temperature and the magic begins. Early mornings are a great time to witness mist carpeting the landscape with a cinematic atmosphere.
Snowy Winter Wonderlands – Top Locations
Keep an eye on the weather forecast and you can time things perfectly to capture fresh snow while the lakes and rivers are still open. Capture those magical winter wonderland scenes with white puffy mounds and sparking tree tops.
There are so many locations in the Rockies that you’re spoiled for choice, but let me give you a few of my favourite ‘easy access’ spots. Athabasca Falls can be stunning with it’s layers of broken snow and columns of ice. Just a short drive back to the Highway will give you a lovely view of the mountains reflected in the Athabasca River before it drops over the falls.
Pyramid Mountain in Jasper is another one of my favourites, but I find that the further away you get from the mountain the more impressive it looks. My ideal spot is just by the bridge where it crosses the Athabasca river before hitting the town of Jasper. Walk down to the waters edge and you’ll have plenty of lovely foreground ideas with an impressive view of Pyramid Mountain.
Emerald Lake is also a must if you’re after the quintessential winter wonderland shot. After a fresh dump of snow you can capture the warm glow from the restaurant that reflects in the water during blue hour or at night.
Getting Prepared for Winter Photography
Now that I’ve lured you in with the charms of winter photography, it’s only fair that I point out the challenges you’re likely to face as you head into the mountains to capture some killer shots.
With temperatures that can drop as low as -35℃ with no wind chill, it’s a serious business keeping yourself warm. First and foremost you’re going to need appropriate clothing and attire to keep yourself alive and comfortable. Start with a thin thermal layer that sits close to your skin. A fleece and a warm jacket should give you the extra protection from the elements that you’ll need.
I highly recommend purchasing a thin pair of gloves that allow you to feel your camera controls and then a larger pair of super thick mitts into which your gloved hands will fit comfortably.
Hoods, hats and facemasks are essential. It’s very easy to get frost bite on your face without even realizing it. Wearing a thin layer that covers just half your face could save you from permanent damage to your skin.
Hand warmers in the pockets and foot warmers in the boots can also save your fingers and toes from the perils of frostbite. It doesn’t take long for your fingers to become pretty much useless even at just -10℃
Carry Many Spare Batteries
As a Sony camera user, I pretty much pop batteries like I’m eating tic tacs. Even DSLR cameras will quickly suffer battery failure during extremely cold temperatures. Do yourself a favour and keep a few spare batteries on hand and keep them warm in your coat pockets with a couple of hand warmers.
Prepare Your Gear Before Setting Off
Before you set out to a remote shooting location, be sure to attach your lens of choice and any filters you might need while in the comfort of your warm vehicle or even at home. I hate having to change lenses and expose my sensor to the extreme cold and humidity, especially in driving snow.
Get Spikes for Your Tripod Legs
Shooting on icy surfaces like Abraham Lake can be challenging for your tripod and if you’re standing on a frozen lake in high winds, your tripod will want to go for a skate. Save yourself some grief and buy those spikes that fit into the legs of your tripod. You can also ensure that your tripod has a hook on the main stem so that you can hang weights to add stability in windy conditions.
Wear Ice Cleats
You’d have to be ‘Cray Cray’ to attempt to walk on super slippery ice without ice cleats! I know – I’ve tried and wiped out more than once. Having a decent pair of Ice cleats will save you from potential disaster and you don’t have to invest in hardcore ice climbing spikes to get the job done. Avoid the cheap ‘CrappyTire’ $20 cleats as these will just fall apart on your first hike. Spend around $40 to $50 on a sturdy pair of rubber clip-ons that attach to your hiking boots and you should be set.
Come Shooting With Me
It’s always a good time to go shooting in the Rockies, but if you want those truly timeless images, winter is where it’s at. In February 2017 I’ll be co-leading a Jasper Photography Workshop – Winter Edition with instructor Rachel Jones Ross where we’ll take in some of the most spectacular shooting locations in Jasper National Park including many of the places I mentioned in this article. We’d love to see you there. Visit Astralisphotography.com to book your place today.
About the Photographer:
Gavin Hardcastle is a world renowned photographer and instructor who spends his days and nights shooting in the Canadian Rockies. Learn more about landscape photography and image post processing at his blog, where you’ll find instructional videos and his latest photography workshops and tours.