Winter can be the most gorgeous time of the year. If you’re lucky enough to live in the north, then you know how beautiful a new snowfall can be. A fresh blanket of snow that’s untouched by humans always causes me to pause and reflect and how pristine and peaceful Mother Nature can be. Some of my favorite hikes have been after a big snowstorm when all is quiet and the world seems to be insulated in a cozy, wintery-white covering. Despite the below-freezing temps and bone-chilling winds that can be relentless this time of year, I can stay outside for hours looking and listening for signs of wildlife and reconnecting with nature.
One of my favorite things to do when I head outside in the winter is to try to capture the beauty around me in photos. I bundle up and head out with my trusty Canon in hand in hopes of snapping some frame-worthy photos. But more often than not I return home and am disappointed with the quality of my photos for a variety of reasons. Either they’re too dark, too bright, blurry, or falling snow is distorting the image. So I’ve done some research and fiddled with my technique and am now happy with the quality of my winter photos. If you love taking outdoor winter photos and want to improve the quality of your shots, hopefully these 10 photography tips for perfect snowy photos will be of some help!
1. White-out Conditions
Fallen snow can be blinding, especially when the sun is shining on it! This can make winter photography difficult, as a camera can interpret this ever-present brightness as too much white! When a camera detects too much white, it thinks the shot is overexposed. Therefore it compensates by using a faster shutter speed so that less light reaches the film or sensor. You can counteract this in a few ways. One way is by adjusting your camera’s LCD to whiten up the snow. Set the exposure compensation to +1/3 or +2/3, check the photo, and make adjustments as needed. Another way is by shooting your photos in the MANUAL mode, not the AUTO or APERTURE/SHUTTER PRIORITY mode. These modes will result in darker photos since the camera is adjusting to the overpowering brightness and compensating accordingly. Set your camera to MANUAL so you can adjust the brightness according to your own preferences. After all, you’re out there to capture the beauty of winter, not shroud it in darkness. However, if you must use your AUTO or APERTURE/SHUTTER PRIORITY settings, you’re not doomed to only take dark, depressing pics. You can compensate by adjusting the EV COMPENSATION or by aiming your lens at a dark object, pressing the shutter down halfway so that it gets a reading, and then move the camera to the shot you want (with shutter still held halfway down), and snap the pic.
2. Get RAW Out There
If your camera allows, shoot in the RAW format. Shooting in the RAW produces higher-quality images and it allows you to correct problems during editing. Conversely, if you take photos in the JPEG format, the image and data is compressed and lost and cannot be recovered for editing. This gives you more flexibility once you return home and start reviewing your winter photos. I can think of so many photos I’ve taken in JPEG format that would have been perfect if not for a rogue piece of trash tainting the photo or lighting that was just a little off. I always shoot in RAW now so that I can tweak my photos. Since doing this I’ve ended up with hundreds more that I’ve kept instead of trashing.
3. Mind Your Meter
If you have a handheld light meter, bring it along and use it! While most cameras have built-in light meters, they can often be fooled by complex lighting situations, like bright white snow. A handheld light meter is a tool with one job—to read the intensity of light and calculate exposure. You then use this information to set your aperture and shutter value so that you can take well-exposed photos. So, set your camera to MANUAL, use your meter, and adjust your settings accordingly.
4. Let There Be Light
While the last few points have been about taming the abundance of winter brightness, this point actually suggests adding more light to your photos! You might notice that sometimes the winter white can be interpreted by your camera as a blue or gray hue, which is not the look you’re going for. To counteract this, allow a little more light into your photos. You can always fix the lighting when you’re editing the photo in post-production.
5. Add Some Interest
Snow can be mesmerizing, especially fields of freshly fallen snow that seem to go on forever. Scenes like that are amazingly serene and peaceful. But scenes of snow, and only snow, can also lack the depth and interest that great pics need. Make sure you include an object in the photo as well. This could be a snow-covered barn, an alerted deer, a lone tree, or anything else that helps to break up the picture of just pure whiteness. The eye naturally looks for something to focus on, so give a viewer something of interest in the snow.
6. Don’t Flake Out!
Are falling snowflakes messing up your shots? While photographing a snowfall is great fun, sometimes the actual flakes that you’re hoping to get a shot of can really get in the way! The ones falling closest to your lens can distort the image. To eliminate this problem, simply set your camera on a tripod, decrease the ISO setting so it’s less sensitive, increase the aperture for a sharper background, and shoot with a delayed shutter speed (longer is better). This should allow you to capture the winter beauty around you without those pesky snowflakes ruining all your fun.
7. Dress For the Weather
In order to take amazing winter photos, you need to be able to withstand chilly temps and blowing winds for an extended period of time. You won’t get the photos you want by running out into the woods, snapping some quick photos, and running back to your warm car that’s still running. You have to be in it for the long haul, and this means that you’re covered head to toe in cold-weather gear so that you stay toasty warm and are not susceptible to frost bite. Use common sense when getting ready at home to head out for a fun day of winter photography. Pack all the things you’d take if you were going out for a day of sledding or skiing, as you may end up hunkering down in the snow for a while to get the shot you’re hoping for. High-quality boots and gloves are a must because frozen toes and fingers will send you packing quicker than anything else! One tip I recommend for gloves is to bring along a thin pair of gloves to wear underneath bulkier mittens/gloves that you can take off when you’re ready to start shooting. This way your hands are still protected from the elements when taking pictures, and you are able to move your fingers how you need to. Thick, bulky gloves make it hard to get your finger on the shutter without touching everything else around it.
8. Do Not Warm Your Camera
You don’t need to keep your camera protected and warm in the winter weather like it’s a little puppy. In fact you could actually cause it harm if you warm it up under your coat or in a bag. The warmth from your body could cause moisture to build up on the lens and could even lead to electronic components shorting out. Similar to how glasses fog up when someone walks inside from being out in the cold, a camera can fog up as well if brought out from underneath your coat into the chilly air. And when that elusive barn owl suddenly flies out from the trees, you won’t get a very good shot with a lens that’s fogged over.
9. Watch Where You Step
So your goal is to get photos of winter landscapes untouched by the human hand (or foot). If this is you, then watch where you step! Walk through your setting lightly and slowly, surveying the area and deciding where you will be aiming your camera before you trek back and forth, leaving deep footprints all over. As you near a clearing, stop and evaluate the best spot to shoot from, and get there without tainting the setting with footprints. If you’ve ever tried to cover up your tracks in the snow before, you know how impossible it is!
10. Don’t Delete
If you tend to look at your pics right after you’ve taken them to see how they turned out, resist the temptation to delete ones that don’t initially look good. It’s almost impossible when surrounded by bright-white snow to get an accurate reading of your photos on the small LCD, so wait until you get home and can view them on a larger monitor before making the decision to keep or trash your photos. You don’t want to accidentally delete a gem! Also, bring along extra memory cards so you don’t have to worry about running out of storage space.
Do you head out into the great outdoors to take beautiful winter photos? If so, we’d love to hear your tips on how to take great snowy pics! Leave us your tips in the comments, and don't forget to share those wonderful winter snapshot with us on Facebook or Instagram!