How to Capture Winter Scenes in Photography

In the winter months, photographers have fewer daylight hours in which to shoot. Sometimes getting just the right shot can be downright nerve-wracking.
In the winter months, photographers have fewer daylight hours in which to shoot. Sometimes getting just the right shot can be downright nerve-wracking.

Ah, winter: The brief days and endless nights, the fog of breath hanging in chill air, the silent serenity of a gentle snowfall -- it's like trekking to a strange and far-off land without ever leaving your own back yard. Familiar places assume a magical quality; the world feels renewed. What better image to capture on camera than a trackless expanse of brilliant hillocks, or the tableau of brightly clad children at play in scenery of purest white?

If only capturing a winter scene were as simple as grabbing your camera and clicking away, every day would be Christmas for the amateur photographer. Alas, even setting aside winter's unique demands, landscape photography, which Ansel Adams once called "the supreme test of the photographer -- and often the supreme disappointment," comes with a sleigh-load of challenges. Landscape photographers must capture the grandeur of nature in a square frame, retaining depth and directing the viewer's eye despite flattening the world to two dimensions, all while contending with ever-changing lighting conditions and the elements.

Taking pictures in wintertime adds an additional layer of troubles, which can weigh on the photographer's mind like a heavy snowfall on a creaky roof. Automatic exposure settings reduce bright snowscapes to a drab gray muddle; amid so much smooth whiteness and darkness, color and texture grow elusive -- robbing the shutterbug of important compositional elements. With fewer daylight hours in which to shoot (since the sun spends less time in the sky and the air remains overcast much of the time) getting just the right shot can be downright nerve-wracking.

Add to the list the hurdles of dealing with alternating extremes of warmth, cold and wetness, and their effects on your equipment, and you might well decide you're ready to toss your camera into the nearest snow bank.

But don't give up just yet. The rewards are more than worth the trouble. Once you understand the origins of some of these problems, you can overcome them with relative ease. In the process, you'll have a chance to learn some of your camera's more advanced settings (don't worry--we'll walk you through them) and you might even find that some aspects of winter that you once thought of as obstacles will turn out to be advantages.

Keep reading and let's see what develops.

Winter Nature Photography Tips

Good winter nature photography begins with a grasp of the basics of good landscape photography. With this in mind, let's go over a few essential techniques for successful outdoor shooting, and then turn to the tricks and traps of winter snaps. We'll begin with another Ansel Adams quote: "A good photograph is knowing where to stand."

  • Once you've found your scenic subject, try approaching closer to it or retreating a bit from it. Cars, motorcycles and snowmobiles make this much more practical at the large scales that landscape photography encompasses. Another useful technique involves using a zoom lens to change the spatial relationships and relative sizes of your foreground and background elements. Simply zoom in on the subjects while stepping away from them.
  • Try moving from side to side as well. Modify your viewing angle while also looking for unusual ways to frame your subject. Stand up, sit down, crouch or even lie down.
  • See with your eyes instead of your mind. Find your focal point and look for distracting elements to exclude from the photo. Remember, once you flatten three dimensions to two, the viewer's eye will be easily distracted and will tend to wander around all but the most well composed photos.
  • Finally, when you have trouble conveying scale and distance, such as when you're photographing a mountain, place people or objects in the photo to provide a sense of scale. Also, compose your scene with objects at different distances to create depth.

In winter shooting, especially in snow and ice conditions, light presents your principal challenge. Good lighting is hard to come by and bright snow creates a high dynamic range that can play havoc with your exposure levels.

Most cameras come equipped with a built-in gizmo called a through-the-lens (TTL) exposure meter that detects light levels and calculates the appropriate shutter speed and aperture based on the mid-tones of the scene in frame. The problem is, the brightness of snow can overwhelm or confuse automatic exposure modes: The meter will average the light levels from the entire scene and therefore underexpose your shot, resulting in a gray and dingy photo. Shafts of light penetrating clouds may confuse even external meters.

To get truly brilliant snow, you'll need to use your camera's exposure compensation to manually "overexpose" the photo (you're not really overexposing -- you're simply making a correction). Remember, the proper exposure level is the one that gets you the result you're looking for. Most cameras have a control that allows you to offset the automatic exposure level by a series of stops called EV units. Each step of EV adjustment changes exposure by a power of two: +1 exposure compensation means twice as much exposure, whereas -1 means half as much exposure. As a rule of thumb, a setting between +0.3 and +1.0 EV should work well for snow.

The advantage of the offset is that the camera still does most of the work, with you merely providing a nudge in the right direction. If you prefer, you can also manually expose the photo. When in doubt, expose for the highlights, since you can never recover blown out details.

Alternatively, you can take multiple exposures in quick succession and combine them using a computer program or your camera's built-in function, if it has one. Similarly, you can take a number of exposures at stops above, at and below the camera's calculated exposure and then combine them. This is known as bracketing.

Note that you cannot rely on a digital camera's screen to accurately show you what you've shot (they usually aren't calibrated) so use a histogram (which is really just a bar graph that indicates how the luminance values in your photographs are distributed) to get at the truth and don't delete any photos until you get home and can see them on a full-sized monitor.

Now that you understand a bit more about exposure levels, let's take a look at some general tips for shooting in snow.

Tips for Taking Snow Photos

Take advantage of the subtle colors you'll find during sunrise or sunset when you're composing your winter photographs.
Take advantage of the subtle colors you'll find during sunrise or sunset when you're composing your winter photographs.
John Foxx/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

The same qualities of light and texture that make snow so appealing to the eye also render it a daunting subject for shutterbugs. Here are some tips to help you overcome snow's challenges and even turn them to your advantage.

  • Make the most of winter's longer dusks and dawns. The midday sun's bright, direct sunlight casts everything into blinding highlights and black shadows, making overexposure likely. Conversely, the scattered light just preceding and following sunrise and sunset -- what nature photographers refer to as the "golden hour"-- suffuses everything in warm, reddish tones, reduces contrast and provides more fill light.
  • Find colors in surprising places. In winter, especially at sunrise or sunset, shadows tend to appear blue, while reflected light on rocks registers as yellowish. Take advantage of these subtleties when composing your photo.
  • Be patient. Sometimes gloomy, overcast skies are merely a prelude to a sudden azure breakthrough. Any moment now, winds may roll in to whip the sky into arresting shapes, like the roiling clouds of a gathering storm. If for no other reason, photographers must cultivate patience because it's the only chance they have of obtaining perfect lighting conditions, even if only for a few brief moments.
  • Don't fight the weather -- photograph it! Some of your best photos may include flurries, sleet or rain. Bundle up, grab some tarps or plastic sheeting to protect your equipment and go have an adventure.
  • Take precautions. Use rain covers on your camera and lenses. Don't change lenses outdoors, especially in snow or sleet conditions. Under no circumstances should you risk getting water inside your lenses: Moisture will build up, causing internal fogging or, worse, fungus. Carry a good chamois lens cleaner at all times for cleaning off exterior moisture.
  • Use caution when moving from the outdoor chill to a heated setting, such as a house or cabin. Rapid temperature changes tend to fog up lenses, so put yours in zippered plastic bags when you bring them inside and then store them in the coolest area of the house to warm slowly. Some photographers keep their lenses in a backpack or camera bag, which insulates them somewhat and slows temperature changes.
  • Bring along plenty of batteries. Remember, cold batteries drain faster -- especially rechargeables. Store unused batteries in your inner pockets to keep them warm.
  • Have a system for storing your recording media and keeping them safe. A waterproof container will allow you to stay out longer and keep your film or cards safer while you continue shooting.
  • Find a way to keep your hands warm while still being able to use your fingers. Thinner gloves or mittens that fold back to reveal fingers are both good solutions, especially if you wear liners. The important thing is to maintain access to all of your camera's buttons, dials and controls.

Much of photography is a matter of problem solving; and now you have the tools you'll need to handle most of what the great outdoors throws in your path. Winter photography may seem daunting, but try these tips for a while and you'll be surprised at how quickly they become second nature. Now, get outdoors and have some fun!

For more winter-scene photography tips and information about other related topics, follow the links on the next page.

Related Articles


  • Andre Gunther Photography. "Winter Photography -- 11 Tips for better Photos." (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • Berardi, Steve. "7 great resources for winter photography." (Dec. 9, 2010)
  • Busch, David D. "Mastering Digital Photography: The Photographer's Guide to Professional-Quality Digital Photography." Thomson Course Technology. 2003.
  • Child, John and Galer, Mark. "Photographic Lighting: Essential Skills." Focal Press. 2005.
  • Dow, Stephen. "Digital Camera How-To: Shooting Snowy Scenes." Jan. 16, 2003. (Dec. 8, 2010)
  • Egbert, James. "Six Steps to Better Winter Photography." April 2009. (Dec. 10, 2010)
  • George, Chris. "Total Digital Photography." Running Press. 2006.
  • National Geographic. "Photo Gallery: How to Take Landscape Photos." (Dec. 9, 2010)
  • National Geographic. "Tips for Shooting in Cold Weather." (Dec. 9, 2010)