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Northern exposures: how to take a perfect winter wildlife photograph

Winter light offers photographers and nature-lovers fantastic opportunities to take memorable shots

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Twilight is a time of magic, as night is banished by the first faint glow in the east, or when the western sky gives a golden fanfare that heralds night. Although dawn and dusk in December can be short-lived and monochrome affairs when compared to the splendour of summer and autumn, there are still opportunities for photographers. An obvious advantage is that one can enjoy a normal sleep pattern and still be up and about before the sun rises.

Given a clear sky, the light in winter is good at any time of day. The low aspect of the sun means that the bleaching highlights and deep shadows that can ruin any shot taken either side of midday in high summer simply do not occur. Taking advantage of the "golden hours" may not be as crucial in winter, but the rich colours at the ends of the day are still worth taking advantage of.

Your position in relation to the sun is crucial. With the sun behind you, your subject will be bathed in a warm reddish glow; shooting against the backdrop of an orange sky can make for a truly atmospheric image.

Shutter speed will also be important, there may only be sufficient light to capture correctly exposed images of static subjects. On the other hand silhouettes, especially of instantly recognisable outlines such as trees, deer or a stalking heron can make for a top-class image. A slightly slower shutter speed could also lend a sense of movement to flocks of birds threading their way across the gloaming.

The lower temperatures during this month can lead to mist forming in low-lying areas, especially along rivers or over lakes. Providing it's not a pea-souper this can lead to ethereal effects at dawn, whether it's the spectral shadows cast by a tree or a flock of wildfowl partly shrouded by pastel-tinted vapours. Warm-blooded subjects may also give off a fog of breath as temperatures are close to freezing. Capturing this could transform a fairly ordinary picture of an Exmoor pony or a singing wren into a truly wonderful image.

The last autumnal leaves clinging to a tree or brightly coloured fruits can often be embellished by droplets of dew in the first hour of light. If nights are cold and the air moist enough, then hoar frost can give a delicately beautiful coating to vegetation. The skeletal remains of hogweed or a velvet shank fungus erupting from the base of a tree can be given a magical crystalline crust that elevates your image from the ordinary to the spectacular.

Owls are famous for being nocturnal but at least three species regularly hunt by day. The little owl preys mainly on insects and earthworms and can often be found perched on prominent places, such as telegraph poles and fenceposts as well as mature parkland trees. The short-eared owl is mainly a winter visitor, at least to southern and lowland Britain, and is often active during the morning or evening. Barn owls are a more traditional night owl but if feeding is made difficult by wind, rain or shortage of small mammal prey, these ghostly birds will extend their hunting hours, too. Any of these could be seen flying at midday in December but late-afternoon light will give a more suitably crepuscular feel to proceedings.

At the time of writing, Britain is in the grip of an unusually cold spell. One vitally important piece of advice to bear in mind is that if temperatures continue to stay below freezing by night and day our wildlife will be hard-pushed to survive. Some birds will need to feed almost constantly during daylight hours to make it through the long cold nights. If temperatures are low enough, they can lose a fair proportion of vital body fat each day. Getting that extra foot closer to capture the perfect shot may cause animals to flee, not only wasting valuable calories but also preventing them from refuelling. Water birds will flock to the last areas of deeper water that remain ice-free, so keep your distance so as not to cause disturbance. Remember that a true nature photographer always put the wildlife first.

• Peter Brash is an ecologist at the National Trust © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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