Winter can be a very beautiful time of the year, especially if you live in a region that gets plenty of snow. We all know how children love the snow – there are endless possibilities for having fun and cold weather is usually not enough to stop them from enjoying it. On one hand, winter poses a beautiful time of the year for photography, particularly landscapes and portraits, and can be equally refreshing for wildlife photographers. On the other hand, it creates certain problems that are hard to figure out for beginner photographers, let alone their cameras. In this article, I will give you tips on how to photograph in winter and end up with well exposed, beautiful color images. I will also provide you with suggestions on when to go out to photograph and how to use snow to your advantage.
1) Plan Your Day
First and foremost, remember – days are much shorter during the winter. Sunrise is late, and sunset is early, so you only have a few hours of potentially beautiful light to capture those photographs, be it landscapes or portraits. I know from experience how engaging landscape photography can be during winter and those hours just fly by. Plan your day carefully – remember that you will need to revise your location no matter what you choose to photograph, so you’d better get there before the time of the day that you find most suitable. No less important is your safety. I’ve suffered from cold weather myself having stayed still in one place for too long. Bring some hot tea along with you, and some food, even if it’s just a sandwich. Dress warmly – it is better to be hot than cold. Make sure your mobile phone is fully charged – cold eats up those batteries very quickly. The same goes for your camera, bring at least one spare battery and keep it somewhere warm and close to your body.
If you are off to somewhere more remote, make sure at least a few people know where exactly you are headed, so that you are not difficult to find in case of emergency. Unless you plan to do wildlife photography and not landscapes, I would suggest to dress in bright-colored clothes that will make you much easier to notice should anything happen.
2) Wait for Beautiful Weather
Often, winter days can be very dull. Even such weather can be used for amazing moody portraits and landscapes, but you are likely to grow tired of the dullness after a short while. If a nice weather comes up, jump to that chance and don’t let it slip through your fingers. The sun can be especially flattering during winter, most of all in parks and forests where there are trees, but also in city streets. See it cut through trees? Place your subject there, select a slightly warm-ish white balance and you have yourself a gorgeous portrait in gorgeous light. Notice how it bounces off the white surroundings into the face of your subject bathing it in warm and soft sunlight. Light in the background will create smooth and spectacular bokeh if you prefer shallow depth of field, but experiment with well-focused backgrounds as well, you may be surprised at what you end up with.
Sun and snow make for a breathtaking duet, but do experiment with other kinds of weather and mood. You may find snowstorms or misty mornings just as rewarding. As a matter of fact, any kind of winter weather can be used for both landscapes and portraits, just make sure the mood of your subject doesn’t clash with the mood of those surroundings.
3) Add Color
Winter is the least colorful time of the year. Snow usually hides most of the green to such an extent, you may find yourself with B&W photographs even though you shot in color. On one hand, it can help you get some spectacular minimalist images, yet on the other hand, it can result in utterly dull shots. Luckily, general lack of color during winter is what makes any color present appear so admirable, much more than during any other season. Look for it, however subtle. Use the gentle pink of the sky seconds after sunrise or bathe your subjects in evening light to see their faces light with warmth amidst cool, blue-ish shadows of snow. Let the evening sun shine them in their faces and they will smile in such a way you could never force them to yourself.
You may go for a different look, too. Even during the dullest of days, place your subject in front of your lens with a colorful accessory or even a piece of clothing – a hat or a scarf – and see them pop from their surroundings, instantly livening your photograph. Try subtle or bright colors for a different mood. Don’t bring in too much color, though – you need to guide the viewers’ gaze, not force it to jump chaotically from one portion of your image to another never quite settling down. As always, I urge you to experiment – you will find yourself having lots of fun while at it.
4) Don’t Intervene
Children know how to play on their own. They are a lot more creative than us, grown-ups, and know how to enjoy the simplest of things. Simple things make for spectacular photographs. Let them play. You may want to stop them every now and then and grab a stationary shot, but don’t intervene all the time. Let them enjoy themselves and be at the ready to capture that moment.
It is a similar situation with more specialized shoots. If you have more than one model – a couple in love, for example – give them some time for themselves in between those more instructed photographs and poses. Even if you’re sure you know how to pose people well, give yourself and them some alone time. You can’t make them look more themselves, more natural, than they can on their own. Use that time to study them, the way they communicate, and always keep your camera up so as to not miss a crucial moment.
5) Composition is Key
Place yourself among 20 other photographers in the same location, and the only chance you have of standing out is going for bold composition. We’ve already talked light and approach to subject, but in every kind of photography, composition is key. Even when faced with the most beautiful landscape or model in front of you, there’s always the risk of doing what has been done, even by you, a dozen of times before. Be daring, search for new, less obvious ways of placing your subject within the frame. Don’t be afraid to experiment – making wrong choices can sometimes be better than making obvious ones, because wrong choices push you into making right ones. Everyone makes badly composed images from time to time – Lola, Nasim and me very much included. We don’t show those images – instead, we learn from them.
Consider placing your subject at the extreme edges of the frame. Zoom out and include lots of surroundings while doing portraits to combine the genre with landscape photography. If you’ve heard people say shooting into the sun is a bad idea, rubbish, it is a great idea. If you heard them say shooting into the sun requires fill-in from your pop-up flash, rubbish, more often than not it doesn’t. For the tenth time, experiment and have fun. Do crazy, unpredictable things. You’ll see – when they work, they work brilliantly.
Remember the Brenizer panorama method? Being quite a complex technique, it is often hard to stitch together without mistakes. There’s much less texture in winter due to snow, however, you may be able to pull off some spectacular shallow depth of field panoramas.
6) Technical Aspects of Winter Photography
While a much less interesting topic, technicalities are still unavoidable, especially when talking about winter photography. The reason is very simple. Snowy winter landscape and portrait images are likely to contain lots of white (the snow itself). Snow is very reflective – it will reflect most of the light falling on it from the sky, making exposure settings more consistent throughout the frame. On the negative side, so much of white confuses the camera metering system, which is then likely to underexpose (it will try to see the white of snow as %18 grey and may deliver darker images in the process). Not to worry – such an issue is easily resolvable through exposure compensation. Dial in +0.3 or +0.7 with your camera to see if any possible exposure inaccuracies are solved. In some cases, no exposure compensation will be needed. Other situations may require much more adjustment – all depends on the subject, framing, metering mode and light.
As you change your framing, the amount of light that falls on your subject doesn’t change, but the camera starts to see more or less light in what areas within the frame it thinks matter. So, light doesn’t change, but exposure settings do. Consider choosing manual exposure control and keeping your settings more or less constant. Make a few test shots until you are satisfied with what you get. Using the camera LCD for similar evaluations is not always a good idea, but will at least give you consistent results. Even in case you got your exposure a bit off, consistent inaccuracy is much quicker and easier to fix throughout the shoot when using RAW file format, which I advice for any kind of important work. See our article comparing RAW and JPEG to understand why you should be shooting in RAW.
If you find yourself in extremely dynamic situations, where manual exposure mode would slow you down, consider using the exposure lock function (AE-L button). It is best used with spot or center-weighted metering modes most cameras support – point your camera on your subject’s face, for example, to get a reading off it, then lock your exposure, recompose and refocus. You should get a pretty accurate exposure with this technique.
Some lighting conditions are not as easy to solve. If you have a dark subject surrounded by light-reflecting snow, which will be very bright, you risk overexposing the snow in your attempt to expose your subject properly. Unless it is your intention, such an exposure will result in blown-out highlights. Expose for the snow and your subject will be too dark. Often, there’s just no direct way out of this situation, when light levels are so different across the frame. What you need to do is average your exposure – retain as many highlights as you can without burying your subject in complete shadows. Then, recover those whites and restore shadow parts during post-processing (see some of our articles on post-processing if you are challenged). Remember, snow should not be completely white or overblown, but it cannot be grey, either. Make sure it’s as bright as possible, but not a solid white mass. This is where newer cameras with better metering sensors come in handy from a practical stand point, because they have many more such scenarios built into their firmware to be able to deal with such issues. Many of the latest generation Nikon DSLRs, for example, are intelligent enough to recognize faces and expose for them, rather than other objects or foreground/background elements.
7) Additional Links and Sample Images
In this article, I tried to explain as many things about winter photography as I could. Hopefully, you will find my advice of some use. In case you are a beginner photographer, certain terms and techniques may be unfamiliar to you – yet. We have many articles here at Photography Life for beginners to make it easier to understand these terms and technologies.
Start by reading our comprehensive “Landscape Photography Guide” – you will find a lot of useful advice there. The landscape photography post-processing tutorial could greatly help in quickly enhancing your photographs (here is another similar article).
Confused by white balance and exposure adjustments? Read our “What is White Balance?” article, and then our Mastering Lightroom series article “How to Use the Basic Panel” to learn how to adjust exposure and white balance during post-processing. We have articles on metering modes, filters for landscape photography and dynamic range, too. Our HDR tutorial should help you learn the technique if you’re curious, but at the same time not “overcook” it.