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Action Photography Series: PART 2 — Snow and Flurries…How the Right Equipment is Not the Only Factor

That's right, the best plans and the right equipment are not the only factors for great action photography shots. Even some of the best-laid plans and excitement around hitting the field with the dog in sub-20-degree weather during a snowfall can be derailed for focused action photography shots. This is why we can’t have nice things.

All kidding aside, today we anticipated the snow arrival, were up early for a group fitness workout, then back home to grab the dog to hit the field. All timing it for when the snow started to fall. What more could you ask for? Despite it being a little colder than usual, my fingers are still frozen, we had a great time shooting today. The Nikon Z9 was on a tear with 2,219 pictures taken, 68.1 GB of photographs. Yes, probably too many pictures were had. In my defense, the dog was extra excited today and beside herself. She loves snow.

Learnings from a Snowstorm

We were in a Wildlife Management Area and the only vehicle to be found as we drove into the storm. Not being my first-time taking pictures in the elements, we’re no stranger to the things that will happen, but add flurries in 18-degree temperatures with a wind chill and it’s a whole new ball of wax. I felt like Morton Hilmer today minus the remote North Pole location and constant fear of polar bears.

So, what did I learn from today?

  • Shooting: Tinker with exposure compensation a little more, shift to single-point focus area to remove the noise of snow flurries, and shift to broader frames taking a page from the landscape photography playbook to minimize the snow flurries issue

  • Ice: Bring something to wipe off the screen they say, but what they don’t say is ice forms quickly on external VF screens and EVFs fog when you put your face to the viewfinder with your jacket zipped all the way up — bring more microfiber clothes

  • Light Backgrounds: Snow falling creates white everywhere and the auto-focus system on the Nikon mirrorless system tends to focus on lighter aspects of the frame. Enter stage left snow falling in front of the dog And unrelated to photography,

  • Wet Knees: When you put your knee on the ground enough times, even the best DWR pants are going to get a little wet. But that is expected and nothing that was surprising. If I was smart, I would get knee protectors, but I am not going to be that guy in the field

That said, today was a blast and we loved it — it was beautiful and as I said, the dog was beside herself with the snow (and there was not a soul to be found). And please don’t let the sarcastic and salty comments allude to any other opinion than joy.

So come along with me as I talk a little about today’s learnings and discuss what I would have done next time. And really there are only a few things high-level I would have shifted. There is not much that you can do to change the variables of snow. I still have too many photos to choose from and loads of great shots. But let’s go…

1 | Impact of Auto-Focus Systems

Technology is amazing. The fact that I can take a camera out into the field and capture (in focus) a dog that’s tearing at me at upwards of 35 mph is beyond me. It’s why I love photography so much. And technology is amazing when it comes to how it takes pictures with all the variables that are at play. Today I was shooting upwards of 1/5000-1/8000 shutter speeds because the lighting was conducive, and I wanted to make sure those flurries froze in the frame.

However, the game plan was a degree or two off from the outcome — and that’s ok. You can feel like you know your camera and its settings and low and behold, a curveball comes across the plate. Let’s take a look at one of the images that in any other scenario would have been spot-on, laser-sharp, no issues.

This one is a great example. She’s probably 20 feet away from me and moving at a slower clip. All other things equal, it’s an easy shot that I would take to the bank.

When you look at this image, what do you see? Beautiful bokeh with the blurred background, a dog moving relatively quickly but not her fastest, and varied focal point. If you look really closely, you can see where the camera was focused. That’s right, the snow flurries that were directly in front of her face.

Lightroom View. Focal points are the flurries in front of her face.

You might say, why are you shooting at F/2.8 in a snowstorm. You should know better than that. But realistically, some photography is about trial and error. You learn what works and you plan for the next time that you might be outside during snowfall with fido.

  • Since Depth of Field is impacted by f-stop. And if I could have seen through the water and ice on my external viewfinder, I might have seen that I needed to dial-up to F/6.3 or higher to get a greater DOF. Check, got it for next time

  • As we talked about in the prior blog post in Part 1, if I would have bumped up to F/6.3, my shutter speed would have had to drop significantly. Today I would have been shooting at 1/2000 or lower with the higher f-stop to maintain the sub-2000 ISO I really wanted to stay within

Now don’t get me wrong here, there are PLENTY of images taken today that are focused on point — but there are plenty that should be focused on that are just slightly off. Are we managing on the margin here, absolutely. Does the image still look fantastic, absolutely.

Lightroom View. Same shutter speed, same f-stop, slightly higher ISO.

And while this image is slightly more in focus — it appears that it grabbed her nose and the light spots around the nose. It’s worth thinking about how I would change the way that I shoot Addison or wildlife in the snow.

  • Changing the focus point to single-point and really targeting her eye would have had a better opportunity for outcome with focus

  • You could argue the Depth of Field all day long. I am sure that many of you would have shot at F/4 or higher and the only way to tell is to test it again when it snows. You can bet I will be out there with a higher f-stop

So where does that leave us, I think taking a step back to say: control what you can. In some cases, I had some errors that were rooking mistakes with photos that would have been excellent with just a minor tweak. We all have them and it’s nothing I’ll lose sleepover. It’s water over a rock, think about it, process it, and hope to remember it for next time.

Composition of the Dog

When shooting dogs that are on a tear, you’re sometimes lucky to just catch a great picture of them. Thinking about the composition of the dog is the least of your concerns when they are blazing across the landscape. Or is it. If I step back and think about what I would have done differently, there are a few scattered through the images that I could have controlled.

I think there is an important lesson here. Any other day, the snow flurries would have been absent, and I would have had a higher keep rate. In turn, I would not have looked at the toss-away photos to say which ones of those were user errors. Since it snowed today, it gave me a chance to say - what variables were in my control.

This one is a great example of where I could have shifted just one foot to the right and have captured the entire sequence of shots.

Remember above where I talked about Nikon mirrorless grabbing lighter aspects of the photo to focus on. It’s a hard lesson to sometimes learn that within the image and in that split second that you’re taking the photo that there is something in the way or that will grab the focus from the camera.

  • The corn stalk is perfectly in focus, the dog just an inch or two behind it - is not

  • When shooting, look at the aspects in the frame and anticipate what is going to be picked up

In this case, the corn stalk was my arch-nemesis. Let’s be honest, I had time to move the camera to the side before I hammered off 40 photos with her running at me (see evidence below, yes, I am calling myself out). I will give myself a break given the water and ice forming on the outside of the viewfinder (in this shot, I was holding it at the ground level looking through the external screen).

But clearly, I had time to look at it and adjust. Noted for next time.

Lightroom View. You had time to shift to the right and move that stalk slightly out of frame.

Of the 40 images that we shot — about 10-15 of them are actually acceptable. But I call this out to say that on a normal day I would wager that 35 of them would be in focus. However, a big ‘however,’ that doesn’t rule out that one of the factors I had in my control. Nudging myself to the right that one foot would have solved for the corn stalk.

But rule everything out, I had some amazing grabs today. I encourage you to grab that camera during the next snowstorm and take your dog out for a photo shoot, it’s amazing. Some favorites action shots today:

Beyond that, there is one other call out that I think is important related to Composition as a whole. And taking a moment to notice the environment and really decide if it’s time to change the plan altogether. Or lean more one way than where you are most comfortable.

2 | Shifting Composition Due to Environmental

Above, I talk a lot about the composition of the dog and factors that play into the implications of what is in and not in focus based on taking action photography. When we’re in the field, it’s sometimes hard to shift from the images that you enjoy and try out new techniques. I love nothing more than hitting Addison mid-air from 30 ft away and seeing the eyelashes on her face. That’s pure joy for me. And that’s my preference: shot vertical, grab her in action, and take that picture till the cows come home.

With the snow — a notation to myself for next time is to … rather than my typical shots of the dog tearing through the field, step back to look at the bigger scene and adjust composition. And in fact, there are many taken from today that take into consideration the broader composition — so it wasn’t a complete about-face. I just underestimated how much the camera could do given the variables.

Things like looking for the lines, dark colors on light, and capturing the mood. My wife was loving being outside with us (truly) and she had some great looks on her face when she looked up at me. So next time, it’s 50/50 to look at other aspects that just Addison blazing around with the occasional other shot.

Some of my favorites from today were larger composition shots:

So, All and All, Thoughts?

For me, there are a few things that I would take from the journey today.

  1. Shooting in the snow is exceptional — what exposure compensation and focus mode. Shoot more with a single point to eliminate the noise of the snowflakes grabbing the focus.

  2. Control what you can — consider composition and what factors you can rule out that are in the frame

  3. Step back and look at broader composition — spend some time on the bigger picture and lining up the composition with more in the frame, taking a page out of the landscaping playbook

All and all, we had a great day in the field. She was happy to be outside running. I captured some amazing images of the dog running around and playing. And it made me think about two factors: (1) depth of field when shooting with snow flurries and (2) in-frame composition when environmental factors are impacted (e.g., it’s snowing, Nikon mirrorless loves lightness, and what’s in frame).

I hope that some of this is insightful for you and that you get a chance to shoot in the snow. Until then, happy shooting and hiking!


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