Winter Photography: What to Know Before Shooting Snow
It’s December and for many of us living in the northern climates, snow is on the way! If you enjoy getting outdoors in the winter, the cold weather presents a few more photography challenges.
Fresh snowfall can make beautiful images unique from any other season, but you will need to prepare more than usual if you decide to leave your warm and comfy home.
Here are 15 tips to know before you go out in the cold for snow photography.
1. Bring extra batteries and keep them warm
When you’re photographing in cold climates, it is important to bring extra batteries. They drain much faster in the winter, especially if you use Live View to help compose your shots. It’s a good idea to keep a spare battery readily accessible, like in your warm jacket pocket.
2. Expose properly
Your camera’s metering system is standardized for middle gray. Normally, this works great for moderately sunny landscapes where there is a lot of balanced colors (not too bright or dark).
However, the bright white snow throws the system off because your camera is looking for a balance. Instead of the bright snow that has fallen before you, your photos are gray.
What can you do?
You need to tell your camera about the freshly fallen snow by increasing the exposure. This can be done several ways:
a. Increase the exposure compensation. Start by going up 1/3 full stop and adjusting from there. This lets more light into the scene so that your freshly fallen snow looks white, not dull.
b. Meter your exposure. Set the exposure so that it takes several photos of the same image at lighter and darker exposures.
c. Shoot in RAW so that you can adjust the settings in post processing.
d. When in doubt, lean towards a slightly overexposed photo, which will help convey the whiteout conditions, the cold, and also a sense of calmness.
Personally, I always do #a and #c – I ALWAYS shoot in RAW and for bright scenes like snow, increase your exposure.
3. Use the correct white balance
This can be tricky, because you don’t want a warm “yellow” look. That just wouldn’t be right, especially if there is snow in the scene. If you cannot find the perfect balance, choose a cool color. Besides, it’s cold outside and the shadows produce a blue hue, which will make the scene more realistic in keeping with a cold winter mood.
Amazing cool tones of winter reflect off the icy Delaware River, with Milford Bridge in the background.
4. Know what lens you plan on using
When the weather is volatile, it is not the ideal time to be changing lenses. Condensation can become trapped inside your camera body. Or, the cold snow might freeze your fingers and the lens will fall into the snow. Highly consider a zoom lens, which may be appropriate in many situations. Less is more in tricky weather. Pick a lens and work with it.
5. Acclimate your gear
Extreme temperature shifts will wreak havoc on your gear and lenses. If your pack is in a warm car and you run out into the blizzard, there’s a great chance of lens fog or freeze. Same thing happens on the opposite side of the spectrum; you’re outside in the cold taking landscape photos and move indoors to photograph flowers and exhibits – the lens definitely fogs up.
This happened to me on a visit to Longwood Gardens, which is famous for spectular gardens, waterscapes, winter lights and a HUGE 6-acre aboretum. It took a good 20 minutes for the camera to adjust. Highly suggested trip, BTW!
6. Keep your lenses clean
Especially if you are out when the snow is falling, your lens will meet the elements, and not in a good way. When the snow lands on the front element, it will create a large blur. Use a lense hood and microfiber cloth and try shooting in the opposite direction of the snowfall.
If your lens gets fogged, do not blow warm air onto it – this can potentially form a thin ice coating and even damage the lens. If it’s not that cold, you may want to protect your gear as is you were shooting in the rain. Plastic bags and rubber bands can be lifesavers in this situation.
Freshly fallen snow just as the sun rises
7. Get out early
Freshly fallen snow is precious for so many reasons. However, footprints in the snow are not so great. Especially if there was a crowd of people trampling through the snow – A diesel powered vehicle might as well rip through the scene! Perhaps the only place to get out early is your backyard or the little park down the street. If that is the case, plan on it and get out early.
8. Bundle up in layers
Protect your hands and feet. There a great chance you will be standing still, in the cold rain and snow. Invest in warm, weather-proof boots and bring an extra set of gloves. Hand warmers will also help a lot, not only for your digits, but can help keep your batteries warm. Once your fingers freeze, the likelyhood of sticking around diminishes quickly.
Snow Barn by Jill Wellington from Pixabay
9. Find Color
If you have a location in mind with a bright color, you have earned your extra credit! A red barn immediately comes to mind, but will only be found in certain locations. It’s an easy fix; have your model wear a bright color, add an ornament or other brightly colored object, or arm yourself with a bright jacket and take a selfie.
An Eastern Bluebird brought just the right amount of color to dress up a snowy scene.
10. Shoot black and white
The sun is low and light is limited in winter. This creates dramatic shadows in your landscape. It is especially effective in the winter, when landscapes are typically bleak or when freshly fallen snow adorns the land.
Black and White photography can add interest, especially in winter landscapes.
11. Shoot during golden hour
Before the sun rises and if there are enough clouds, there is a good chance the sky will illuminate with pink and purple hues. This will, in turn, cast upon the sparkling snow creating a magical effect. Same goes for blue hour, just after the sun sets. If you can also capture some lights, it will add an extra element of beauty in your winter photography.
First day of Winter atop High Point State Park, NJ. Sunset reflects beautiful light off frozen branches and snow.
12. Shoot frozen water
Icicles, and especially frozen water, can create unique, abstract and intricate details only available in cold weather. If you have a macro lens, use it to get super closeups of the awesome details in nature.
Frozen foliage at sunrise
Frozen water textures
Ice on Pine needles at sunrise
13. Look for subtle details
Take some photos of evergreens adorned with freshly fallen snow. Enhance the peaceful look and feel of the delicate snow by shooting at sunrise.
14. Take photos when it is snowing
With some of the above-mentioned tips in mind, especially for keeping your lens clean, capturing falling slow provides the ultimate detail to your winter landscape scene. It can be a little tricky; your shutter speed will need to be higher in order to freeze the motion of the snow. If the shutter is too slow, it will create streaks of snow, which can be interesting too.
15. Bring extra water and snacks
Just like your batteries, your energy level can drain a little faster in the cold, especially if you are trekking through snow to find your ideal location. Road conditions can also become tricky in cold weather. For these reasons, it is a good idea to have extra food and water on hand in case of unexpected delays.
There are many ways to capture the unique beauty that winter landscapes provides. From grand scenes in golden hour to finding a pop of color, winter snow photography can be very rewarding. Just remember to do a little preparation to make the most of your experience, enjoy your time in the cold, and be safe.
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