Photographing Winter & Wildlife Around Calgary  - Part I

by Dr. Robert Berdan
December 4, 2016

Home in the Bears Paw Area North of Calgary early morning with full moom and Hoar frost  by Robert Berdan ©

Home in Bears Paw area North of Calgary - early morning with full moon, Hoar frost and Christmas lights.

In this article I would like to share with you some of my favourite winter photography locations around Calgary. Because I have many photos of winter scenes and wildlife I have broken this article into two parts. You don’t have to go far outside of Calgary to get some interesting winter photos. I often wait until it’s snowing to head out in my jeep. I like bad weather it makes more interesting photos then blue skies most of the time. I like how things disappear with distance in winter and I like the white skies (see below).  

Jeep on winter road by Robert Berdan ©

My jeep on a winter road - these are the type of days I like to explore and take winter photographs.

Winter around Calgary starts about the end of October and persists until about mid March though it can snow well into May. Winter lasts longer in the mountain parks. Winter landscapes are austere, but the bare trees and snow can make spotting birds and wildlife easier. In the past when I photographed scenes with snow using slide film I would increase my exposure by 1-2 F stops over the suggested meter reading so the snow was white not gray. If you shoot .jpg files it’s still recommended to over expose the scene about 1 to 1.5 F stops to expose snow properly. If  shooting RAW files I often just adjust exposure afterwards in processing - so getting the right exposure is not as critical. If you look at the back of your LCD (liquid crystal display) you will see if the picture looks dark and grey and if so use your exposure compensation and dial in + 1 or more exposure and test again. See figure below to see how exposure compensation and can change the appearance of a winter scene.

Lochend Road north of Calgary on cold winter morning by  Robert Berdan ©

Early morning light next to Lochend Road north of Calgary on cold winter morning.

Sunrise at Vermilion Lake outside of Banff in Banff National Park in January by Robert Berdan ©

Sunrise at Vermilion Lake outside of Banff in Banff National Park in January. It was an amazing sunrise and I had a group of 12 photographers with me on a winter workshop so they all got great shots/ Look for open pools if you head to the Vermilion lakes this winter around sunrise. Not every sunrise will have this type of light so you might have visit a few times and share the open pools with other photographers.

Winter scene showing Hyperfocal point by Robert Berdan ©

To get the maximum depth of field in winter landscapes use F11-F22 and focus on the Hyperfocal distance - the lower third of the frame as shown above. A tripod will also make for sharper pictures.

Most modern digital cameras will photograph in temperatures down to about – 30 or 40ºC, at least for a few hours. If it’s really cold your LCD screen will become sluggish and/or turn black, but I found my camera continues to shoot. If it’s much colder than -30ºC chances are you are not going to stay outside for more than about 20-30 minutes anyway. It’s also a good idea to keep a spare camera battery or two in your pocket close to your body if walking, or you can put a hand warmer in your camera bag next to the battery to keep them warm. In winter the one thing you still need to be careful about is if you have been photographing in the cold for several hours then bring your camera inside where it is warm and humid you can get condensation on and inside your camera on the sensitive electronics and this could ruin your camera – so don’t do it. If you are stopping for lunch leave your gear in the car. Alternatively, put your gear in a plastic bag and seal it before bringing it inside and let the camera warm gradually. A plastic garbage bag and tie work well, put you whole camera bag inside and seal it, allow a few hours for the gear to reach room temperature.

Red Squirrel in a hollow tree - Big Hill Springs Provincial Park by Robert Berdan ©

Red Squirrel in a hollow tree - Big Hill Springs Provincial Park, AB north of Calgary

If you take a camera with condensation back into the cold the condensation will freeze and may damage your camera's sensitive electronics.  Taking the camera in an out of car usually is not a problem because the air inside a car tends to be dry. I usually bring my gear inside and leave my camera bag closed at the end of the day and so far have had no problems.

Winter cabin by Robert Berdan ©

When it's snowing everything can look interesting - small cabin north of Calgary 70-200 mm lens. A fast shutter speed e.g. 1\500 of sec will freeze the falling snow.

Raodside fence in winter by Robert Berdan ©

Sometimes even simple subjects like this fence beside the road can look interesting in winter.

In Calgary you can visit Inglewood bird sanctuary, Calgary zoo, Fish Creek Park and other parks next to the Bow river to photograph a wide variety of birds including eagles and owls. White-tailed and mule deer are common in the parks and will often let you get close as they are used to people. Coyotes are common in Nose Hill park. If you have a bird feeder you can attract a wide variety of winter birds like Blue jays to your backyard.

Blue Jay on tree by Robert Berdan ©

Blue Jay photographed near a winter feeder - 300 mm F2.8 lens

Because I live in the northwest of Calgary I often drive out to Bearspaw then into the foothills, or drive through Airdrie to Bieseker and then south to Mossleigh in search of deer, moose, great horned owls, snowy owls, foxes, coyotes, Hungarian partridges, and pheasants. Travelling further east toward Brooks Alberta and Dinosaur Provincial Park it’s possible to photograph Pronghorn Antelope beside the TransCanada highway.

Spruce Grouse in willow tree in winter by Robert Berdan ©

Spruce Grouse in willow tree near Millarville, AB - 300 mm F2.8 lens.

Hungarian Partridges in winter by Robert Berdan ©

Hungarian Partridges photographed next to the highway near Biesker, AB taken with a Tamron 150-600 mm lens.

Tamron 150-600 mm lens by Robert Berdan ©

Tamron's 150-500 mm lens for about $1200 is an excellent and affordable wildlife lens. Tarmon now makes a newer version of this lens for about $1800 which I hope to test soon. Read my review of this lens here.

Pronghorn Antelope in winter by Robert Berdan ©

Pronghorn Antelope next to the TransCanada highway near Suffield, AB - 500 mm F4 lens on a monopod.

South of Calgary around Millarville I have often spotted Great Horned Owls, Great Gray Owls, rough-legged hawks, moose, deer, horses and cattle. I even sold one picture of cow in winter field to a food magazine so you never know what might sell!

Great Gray Owl Grande Valley  Road in winter by Robert Berdan ©

Great Gray Owl next to Grande Valley Road north of Cochrane, AB - 300 mm F2.8 lens.

Rough-legged Hawk by Robert Berdan ©

Rough-legged Hawk near Millarville, AB - 300 mm F2.8 lens

In winter an animals fur often looks its best at least at the beginning of the season. Coyotes are common and often found in fields scavenging for dead deer. Crows and magpies are also winter scavengers. Heading into Kananaskis Country or Banff National Park it’s possible to photograph moose, deer, elk, coyotes and an occasional wolf. The Vermillion lakes outside Banff townsite is my favourite location for early morning photography, but it requires luck to get good light – often the sun pops up with almost no colour in the sky. You may have to stop here several times around sunrise to get good light.  Good news is sunrise is about 8:00 a.m. in winter, in summer it's closer to 5:00 a.m.

TIPS for things to bring with you for winter photography

1. Binoculars to help find birds and wildlife
2. Handwarmers for feet and hands and to keep camera batteries fully charged
3. Hot drink - coffee, tea, hot chochlate and a few candy bars
4. Tripod or monopod- be sue to have gloves on
5. Warm boots - warm feet will keep you shooting for longer and dress in layers
6. Telephoto lens if you want to capture wildlife 200 mm or longer is recommended
7. A friend - its more fun and a second pair of eyes increases your chance for spotting wildlife

Wild Wolf Bow Valley Parkway, Banff National Park, AB by Robert Berdan ©

Wild wolf along Bow Valley Parkway in January. He has a radio collar on and he appeared with two other wolves but only for a few minutes. Keep you camera and telephoto lens ready to shoot if you think you might encounter wildlife.

Coyote laying in snow Vermilion Lakes Banff National Park by Robert Berdan

Coyote on Vermilion Lake, Banff - 300 mm F2.8 lens. Coyotes are common in fields around the city of Calgary.

Mule deer gather north of Calgary by Robert Berdan ©

Mule Deer north of Calgary on a side road attached to Lochend Road, Calgary north west.

White-tailed deer Fish Creek Park, Calgary by Robert Berdan ©

White-tailed Deer in Fish Creek Park - this park is a great place in the Calgary to photograph Winter wildlife.

North of Calgary is a small park called Big Hill Springs Provincial Park and it has a small waterfall and running water throughout the winter. The creek and waterfalls is a great place to photograph ice crystals along its banks. I have seen grouse, coyotes and owls in the park. It’s definitely worth a short stop anytime of year especially after a fresh snowfall. Other roads heading out of town north of Calgary such as Lochend road often have wildlife in the adjacent fields including coyotes, deer and moose.

Big Hill Springs Provincial Park north of Calgary, AB  by Robert Berdan

Big Hill Springs Provincial Park north of Calgary, AB

Mule deer Lochend Road near Calgary by Robert Berdan ©

Mule deer off Lochend Road Calgary Northwest

Winter Field next to Beaspaw road Calgary by Robert Berdan ©

Field next to Bearspaw Road Calgary Northwest - there is a hawk in the tree on the left

Bull moose in snow next to Lochend Road north of Calgary by Robert Berdan ©

Bull moose next to Lochend Road in fresh snow - I photographed him from the road side; 300 mm F2.8 & monopod.

If driving through Cochrane toward the Rockies, I often drive north on Grande Valley Road and some years I have seen as many as 6 Great Gray Owls hunting in the adjacent fields. You can drive to Water Valley then back. This drive makes a nice loop and sometimes you can see bison and eagles.

Northern Hawk Owl hunting - photographed from my car window with a 70-200 mm F2.8 lens (DM).

Northern Hawk Owl in winter by Robert Berdan ©

Northern Hawk Owl - north of Calgary 300 mm F2.8 lens.

Northern Hawk owls are occasionally seen north of Cochrane on the backroads. Remember when searching for wildlife not every trip results in good opportunities sometimes you have to be satisfied with some rural landscapes, though I almost always see some deer. Also I suggest you turn off your cell phone, radio and other distractions and really look and enjoy winters silence. You will see more if you focus on what is around you. RB

See Part 2 of this article

Authors Biography & Contact Information

Portrait of Robert Berdan

Robert Berdan is a professional nature photographer living in Calgary, AB specializing in nature, wildlife and science photography. Robert offers photo guiding and private instruction in all aspects of nature photography and Adobe Photoshop training.






Previous Winter Photography Articles

The Joy of Winter Photography by Robert Berdan
Winter wildlife near Calgary by Robert Berdan
Get Ready for Winter Photography by Robert Berdan

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