Snow Photography Tips: Improve Winter Photography

Get great pictures even in the blinding white vistas of snow

Snow photography offers challenges and rewards.
Ryan McVay/Getty Images

Depending on where you live, the opportunity for photography involving snow could be an everyday occurrence or, perhaps, a once-in-a-lifetime chance. When you find snow, just remember you can shoot great winter photographs with your DSLR camera by following a few simple tips.  

Snow Photography Preparation Tips

Photographing objects in snow has a lot of challenges, some of which you cannot prepare for ahead of time. After all, winter weather rarely proves predictable.

  • Prepare for changes in lighting with the right accessories. The warm golden light at dawn, combined with the cold blue tones of snow, glows with pearlescent luster. (Alternatively, you could shoot at sunset for similarly dramatic images.) Plus, the snow will be relatively untouched by footprints if you get up early! 
  • Dress warmly and wear waterproof clothes. Buy "shooting gloves" (which double up as mittens and fingerless gloves) and don't forget a hat.  
  • Keep your camera prepared, too. Keep your camera's batteries fully charged and place your camera in a camera bag while moving around so that it doesn't get too cold. When you get home, try to put your camera in the coolest part of the house and let it warm back up gradually to avoid condensation. You could invest in some silica bags if the temperature difference is a real problem. And check your camera's operating manual for its operating range. Shooting too cold might actually damage the camera's moving interior parts because the lubricants within motors has frozen.

Use the Correct Exposures

Brilliant white snow confuses your camera, leading to underexposed shots and snow that looks gray in the final image. Help your camera in one of these three ways.

  1. Frame your shot, then focus. Then zoom into a bright area of snow in the scene. Using your exposure compensation button, dial in a value between +2/3 to +1 2/3 EV, depending on the brightness of the snow. Take a meter reading, remember the settings, switch to manual, and dial in the new shutter speed and aperture. This overexposure will ensure that the snow looks white, but it won't blow out other objects in the photo.
  2. Check your settings. If any mid-tone objects (such as a gray rock or building) are visible in the scene, take a meter reading off these. Changing your camera to these settings will then help it to render the snow correctly. You may have to dial in a little negative compensation (such as -1/3 EV) to stop the highlights in the snow from being blown out.
  3. Correct exposure with a histogram. Take a test shot and check the histogram. If it is slightly "humped" in the middle, then just dial in a little positive compensation to add brightness. If the graph appears to fall off on the right-hand edge, then just dial in a little negative compensation to stop blown out highlights.

Dealing With Reflections

Using a lens hood when shooting photographs in snow is vital. The flare caused by snow can make photos look very hazy. For much the same reason, you should avoid using flash, as it can bounce off the snow and cause overexposure. If it's actually snowing while you're shooting, the flash likely will turn snowflakes into distracting balls of overexposed light.

Think Creatively

White skies and snow-covered objects look eerie, particularly if you shoot them in black and white, so be creative with your snow photography. For example, look for interesting contrasts in colors. Red objects photographed against white snow always look strong but frame your photos carefully in this situation.

Less is often more, so don't try to cram everything into one shot. Look for interesting trees, buildings, and other objects—then zoom in. Clean objects framed against a white background make for strong images. Use RAW format, so that you can easily make any tweaks needed in post-production.

The low light of the winter months casts long shadows on the ground, which are particularly stark in the snow. Use the shadows to lead the viewer into the image (Just make sure that your own shadow isn't visible in the final shot!).

Experiment with Shutter Speeds

Use a tripod and a slow shutter speed when it's snowing to cause a "streaking" effect in the image.

If the snow is blowing around in strong winds, though, you'll need to use a much faster shutter speed. If there's no wind at all, you'll probably need a slow shutter speed of around 1/15th of a second. Use a slower shutter speed to capture variants in the light, particularly at sunrise or sunset.