In honor of my latest winter photography trip (see my previous blog here and stay tuned for part 2 next Monday!) I wanted to write up 15 tips I have learned while out in the cold photographing winters over the past few years. I’ll go over essential gear tips, how to get your technique down to take the perfect shot, and how to compose and edit those shots to capture a scene that is downright winter wonderland magical. Don’t let the cold keep you from taking beautiful photographs!
1. Keep batteries warm
Your camera batteries are make or break any time during the year, but during wintertime, the cold is going to sap your batteries faster than you can say Jack Frost. You can invest in a battery grip, but I just have multiple extra batteries on hand at all times. Make sure you are charging your batteries each night or in the car in between shoots (even if they were only partially drained), and keep your batteries warm and close to your body. I have an inside pocket in my jacket I like to use if it’s cold and snowy, but if it’s just more of a brisk cold, keeping them in the center of my camera bag is usually good enough. Remember that this also means your phone battery will die quickly, as will your headlamp – both essential items! You will likely need your phone GPS and other apps, and a headlamp is essential for sunrise and sunset photography if you intend to hike/arrive/depart in the dark.
2. Avoid camera body condensation
One of the biggest dangers to your camera gear during the wintertime is taking your gear through cold temperatures and then immediately into warm temperatures, such as your car or a hotel room (and vice versa). On the way to your shoot, put your camera in the back of your car where it is the coolest, and when you arrive, take some time to walk around so your camera can begin to match the temperature outside so the lens does not fog up. On the way back from your shoot, warm your camera up as slowly as possible. Keep your gear inside your bag where it is better insulated against temperature changes, and as tempting as it is, don’t blast the heat in your car right away. Place your camera in the back of your car, and don’t take it out when you get back to your hotel until it has slowly warmed for a few hours. The big danger of your camera heating up too quickly is that condensation will build up on the INSIDE of your camera – talk about the fastest way to damage your sensor and possibly break your camera!
3. Check camera and lens weather proofing or use protective layers
Now on to your outer camera body and lens – wintertime often means extra moisture in the air, which can be damaging to your camera. Many cameras these days are weather proofed, but double check that your particular model is. Even if your camera body is weather proofed, your individual lenses may not be. You need both parts to be weather proofed for the best protection against moisture from entering your camera. If your gear isn’t weatherproofed, it isn’t the end of the world. It just means you need to invest in some protective coverings and be extra cautious when it is raining or snowing. Weather proofed or not, if you are timelapsing or otherwise leaving your camera out in the cold for extended periods of time, you might also want to wrap a jacket, blanket, or other warm layer around your camera and lens to protect it from the cold and keep the batteries going for longer.
4. Wear photo friendly gloves, or just any warm gloves
As a human with extremely cold fingers always, I cannot recommend enough that you take care of yourself in the cold. Gloves can be as important as the rest of your gear, and you can even get special gloves that unfold on the pointer finger and thumb so you never need to take them off to operate your camera. Hand warmers are a must in the snow, especially when waiting for sunrise or sunset while the temperature drops exponentially. Invest in quality winter gear for the rest of your body too – jacket, pants, boots, socks, maybe even a scarf, etc. You won’t enjoy your time photographing those magical winter scenes if you are miserable the entire time.
5. Hook up your intervalometer
This is not really a necessary item for photographing in the winter, but it is a clever way to keep your fingers warm. I often hook up an intervalometer (a camera remote will work as well and you can buy cheap versions) and keep it in my pocket. That way, once I’m all set up with my composition and settings, I can just have my hands warming in my pockets and hit the start/shutter button on the intervalometer without exposing my fingers to the cold. Just remember that this is one more battery that may die on you, so keep it in a warm place.
6. Avoid making footprints
When you arrive at your winter scene, you’ll likely excitedly hike right over to where you want to start taking photographs. Stop and wait! Take a moment to pause when you exit your car or hike up to your photography spot to look over where you might want to shoot, and then think about how few footprints you can make in the snow to get to your ideal composition. You should definitely shoot as many different compositions as you can, but think about it strategically – you would hate to get your photographs back to your computer or phone later to edit and realize you have to Photoshop out all the footprints you made. This also applies to footprints others may make – consider walking in the exact same spot as someone else did so there is still only one set of prints, or if the area is already full of prints, try to find a composition that limits these.
7. Be aware that snow will trick your camera meter
When you photograph snow in winter, the excessive amount of white can trick your camera sensor. Your camera spot meters for neutral tones, especially neutral gray. When it meters for all the white snow, it will underexpose your shot, thinking that the scene is overexposed. This will result in photographs that are dull and gray instead of crisp, sparkling white. Add positive exposure compensation or err on the side of overexposing the shot to correct this. Conversely, make sure you are checking your histogram on the back of your camera to ensure that you don’t inadvertently overexpose and lose detail in the snow. You will start to get the hang of the proper exposure after practicing this.
8. Capture crisp snowflakes OR avoid capturing snowflakes at all
Snowflakes can add a beautiful sense of mood to your shot, or they can drown out your subject in wet blurry streaks and ruin the shot. If you want to have snowflakes in your photograph, make sure you use a fast shutter speed, at least around 1/125 of a second or faster depending on how quickly the snow is falling. This will result in individual snowflakes, but if you want the snowflakes to be streakier, slow down the shutter speed more. Experiment with a few different speeds and find what you like best! If it’s snowing and you don’t want the flakes in your shot at all, use an extremely long shutter speed. Set your camera on a tripod or somewhere it won’t move, drop your ISO to 100, and make your aperture smaller (larger F-stop number!) so that you can use as long as a shutter speed as you can. The snow will fall too quickly for the camera to register them on the sensor and the finished shot won’t have any flakes in it. This may not work if snow is falling really hard, and make sure you have a lens hood or are otherwise protecting your lens from getting flakes on the glass front.
9. Enhance contrast and reduce glare with filters
Filters are also not always necessary for winter photography, but a nice circular polarizer is going to make blue skies pop so beautifully against the white snow. It will also help cut down on reflections and glare, so if you are photographing a snowy river / waterfall / lake scene, you can make the color of the water richer and help contrast the snow even better. If you are a fan of graduated neutral density filters, they can definitely be helpful for sunrise/sunset scenes with a big dynamic range, or you can just bracket your shots and combine them in Photoshop. If I lost you on this last part, let me elaborate: when you have a scene where the sky is super bright while the foreground is very dark, you can use a graduated filter, which is dark on top and fades to clear, to help balance out the exposure, or you can take one shot overexposed and one shot underexposed and combine them in Photoshop.
10. Nail the focus
With snow falling right and left, it may be difficult for your camera to focus on the correct subject that you want it to. Depending on the level of snowfall, you may want to switch into manual focus. You can use your live view and zoom into the spot you want to focus on for a better idea of if the image is sharp, although if it is bright out from the snow you may be better off using the eyepiece. You may also just want to keep checking your shots after taking them to make sure they are in focus. It can be hard to tell from the camera screen alone if the images are sharp until you get them back to a larger screen, so try using multiple focus points just in case. You should also make sure you have a small enough aperture or fast enough shutter speed to make sure your image is sharp.
Composition & Edits
11. Look for natural contrast
Snow transforms a landscape into a wondrous scene, but sometimes too much snow isn’t always a good thing. Look for natural contrasts that will play off the whiteness of the snow, such as blue water, green trees, bright sunrise/sunset colors, etc. Often times, fog will be present during winter mornings, and even just the dark trees against white fog is enough of a color contrast to give you a beautiful image. Similar to color contrast, texture contrasts can be quite nice, such as rough tree bark against smooth snow.
12. Don’t get stuck on only using wide-angle lenses
When you first start photographing winter landscapes, you will likely start out with a wide-angle lens to capture the entire scene in front of you. But after you’ve taken these shots, don’t forget to experiment with your other lenses too. A grand snowy scene is lovely, but can be compositionally challenging. Using a zoom lens will help you simplify the scene as discussed in the previous tip. Focus on far off trees, or photograph subjects close to you, using the zoom lens to instead compress the scene and help simplify it.
13. Keep it simple
It can be tempting to just start snapping away when you see your favorite scene transformed by snow, but try to focus on reducing the amount of clutter and distractions in your photograph. A stark tree against a white background, a single red berry frozen over – focusing on a single subject or simplifying the scene will make the subject more powerful and give it more weight and importance in your scene. A lot of winter photography is all about mood, so creating a strong focus will enhance that moody feel.
14. Bring your winter scene all together with edits
You’ve taken your winter photographs and now you are ready to edit them to perfection. Remember the tip about natural contrast? You’ll want to take that into consideration when you edit as well. Pull back some of the highlights so the white is less overpowering and you can reclaim details in the snow, but don’t bring them down to the point where they begin to gray. Focus on pulling out colors from the scene and adding in more contrast. Make sure you don’t use contrast heavy handed though, a shot with too much contrast looks “crunchy” and overworked. Make sure you also play around with your white balance to make sure the snow is not too yellow or blue – you can take a piece of printer paper and hold it next to your screen for a good reference. If you want a soft, fairytale feel, gently reduce clarity or sharpness, and bring up the brightness of the scene. If the snow or clouds made the background of your photograph hazy, a slight bump of the dehaze slider in Lightroom will work wonders.
15. Simplify again!
Using Lightroom’s spot removal tool, or using the spot healing brush / patch tool / clone stamp in Photoshop (I like to use a combination of these tools, always with 0% hardness), or any other spot healing tool in your preferred editing app, remove any distractions, lens water spots, and footprints in the snow. It may seem tedious, but these subtle edits will really bring your scene together. Reducing these distracting elements makes a huge difference in subject strength and helping the viewer focus on what you’d like them to look at. The degree to which you simplify is up to you, there is no right answer here! Here’s a little before and after from one of my shots (I tend to simplify more than most):
Comment below if this guide inspired you to get out and shoot winter photographs, and let me know what tips you would like to learn next. And definitely don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter to be notified of future blog posts, upcoming workshops, shop sales, and more! Plus, get 5 free Lightroom presets and my free travel packing checklist when you sign up!