Winter is my favorite time to be outside. I love the crisp air, the way that the snow blankets everything, the otherworldly ice formations along the lakeshore and the delicate beauty of individual snowflakes. Walking along the lake, hiking a trail, climbing a snow-covered dune, or driving along a quiet country road I delight in discovering places to photograph the beauty of winter in Southwest Michigan.
The most important thing when planning a winter photography excursion is choosing the appropriate clothing and equipment. I generally dress in layers and pack additional clothing in case conditions change. On windy days, I carry ski goggles to protect my eyes from blowing snow and sand. Ice cleats for shoes or boots are a must for many locations, especially along the lakeshore. The most difficult piece of clothing to select is gloves; finding something warm but not so thick as to impede the ability to use a camera can be tricky.
Taking care of your camera equipment in the winter weather is equally important. I advise changing lenses minimally especially if it is snowing as to avoid the possibility of getting moisture into the camera. As a result, I will often bring two cameras, one with a wide lens and the other telephoto. Remember to bring a microfiber cloth to clean off any moisture on your lens. At times, snow and water can freeze to lenses so I often use and carry extra UV filters to switch them when necessary. I carry extra camera batteries in my jacket pocket close to my body to keep them warm. While walking in icy areas I keep my camera in a padded bag so that in the event of slipping I am less likely to damage the camera. Finally, be aware that there will likely be condensation on your camera and lens when returning to a warm place.
It is important to think critically about where you are going and bring any necessary safety equipment. Depending on the location and conditions I at times wear a winter wetsuit and carry ice axes. Lake Michigan and its lighthouses are meccas for people in the winter but they can be very hazardous locations. Piers are often icy and uneven and the ice shelf on the lake is unpredictable, unstable and unsafe. These locations are also very difficult for rescuers to reach. The shoreline is the best and safest place to take photos from.
My favorite subjects for Lake Michigan and its shoreline are:
- Piers and lighthouses layered in ice with gigantic icicles hanging down from the railings and catwalk.
- “Ice pancakes” or “ice pans” - These occur when the surface of lakes and rivers starts to freeze into sheets which are broken up by moving water (waves or river current). As they continue to move, they repeatedly bump and rub against each other and end up rounded with raised slushy edges.
- “Ice balls” or “ice eggs” - This interesting phenomenon occasionally occurs along beaches. Chunks of ice in shallow water slosh back and forth rolling around and adding layer upon layer of ice. The constant moving and rolling around is what gives them their spherical shape.
- Patterns into the snow and sand. After a windy and snowy day you may find areas of beaches where a mix of sand and snow looks like a swirl of caramel in vanilla ice cream.
- The spray from crashing waves can cause plants near the lakeshore to become encased in clear ice making for a surreal landscape.
- “Ice mountains” and “ice volcanoes” occur when crashing waves build up piles of ice along the lakeshore. At times the crashing waves create tunnels up through the ice, as waves crash they look like small volcanoes erupting with icy water.
- If you are lucky you might even see a surfer out on the lake. Winter is a great time for surfing the Great Lakes and surfers take advantage of the prevalent north winds until the lake starts to ice up.
The lakeshore is amazing but you can find fascinating subjects almost everywhere. Here are some of my inland favorites:
- Trees covered with newly fallen snow are wonderful especially with a road or path leading through them. As are snow-laden trees along the banks of a river or inland lake. A single tree in a field can also make for a beautiful image.
- Snow-covered rolling hills, especially if there is a colorful sky, are charming.
- Small towns after fresh snowfalls are adorable and romantic especially if they are lined with light poles.
- Many birds and animals like deer and foxes contrast wonderfully with the white snow.
- The twinkle of lights reflecting on the snow from decorations can be dazzling such as from the Light Up The Bluff in St. Joseph.
- Snow covered barns make for timeless looking images.
- If you have a macro lens or filter you can enjoy the intricacies of snowflakes and frost.
Winter is beautiful any time of day, but I highly recommend heading out at blue hour (the hour before sunrise or after sunset). The balance of light and the dark and the vibrant blue of the sky can improve many landscape photos. Also, take photos on a night with a full moon. The reflection of the moonlight on the snow lights up the scene. That makes for much brighter photos than you would get during other times of the year.
There are so many great photo opportunities in the winter. Dress warm, bring extra batteries, be safe, enjoy and be sure to hashtag your photos with #swmichigan.