Make your frosty images sparkle and glow and capture the magic of the season with these six tips for winter photography. Whether it’s a themed winter photoshoot or you just want to know the best way to capture the details in your winter scenes, the snow’s sparkle, or even the essence of wintery nights, this article is a good place to start.
Those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere (or far enough south) experience several months of longer days with plenty of snow. So it’s the perfect time to get out and do some winter photography and maybe even night winter photography.
For those of you in the middle latitudes of the world, try applying these tips to a trip to the beach instead of snow! Just amend the tips as needed to fit your surroundings.
6 Winter Photography Tips for Better Snow Scenes
- Adjust the white balance
- Maintain detail in the highlights
- Lighting for maximum sparkle in the snow
- Try night photography and/or light painting
- Process for added detail and texture
- Add some animal subjects to your photos
#1 White Balance and Snow
When you’re photographing in the winter and there is a lot of snow, ice, and frost you can totally change the look and feel of the image just by adjusting the White Balance.
By choosing a camera White Balance preset that makes things warmer (go for Shade or Cloudy) the image will feel warmer as well, more sunlit. But that may not be the best choice for a winter photo.
Can you see how the snow above looks kind of brown and dirty? Does the second one below feel colder?
So by shifting the White Balance or color more toward the cooler end of the spectrum, the snow and ice will have a blue tint. That will give the image a cooler or cold feeling that may better match the scene and the image.
Which of the two images above feels like it is colder outside? Now use that knowledge and apply it to your winter photos.
Remember that if you shoot in RAW image format, you can make these same adjustments in the editing process as well. That’s what I’ve done here for demonstration purposes.
Read more: How to use Camera White Balance to Improve Your Photos.
#2 Maintain Detail in the Highlights
Snow can easily be overexposed, especially when it’s bright and sunny outside. The snow reflects light everywhere. So you need to watch your exposure carefully.
Use your camera’s histogram to check the exposure, and make sure the snow and bright highlights aren’t clipping (overexposed with no detail). Turn on the Highlight Warning on your camera as well so you can see it visually.
Read more here: Why is the snow gray in my winter photos?
Compare the image above, to the one below.
The image above is overexposed, as indicated by the histogram being bunched up on the right and the highlight clipping warning showing (marked in red). That means this image would print with no detail in those areas and the snow would appear textureless.
In the image below the exposure has been adjusted to maintain detail in the highlights. Notice the difference that makes to the amount of texture showing in the snow.
PRO TIP: You NEED to have both highlights and shadows to make a pure white object appear textured and three-dimensional.
#3 Lighting for Maximum Sparkle
To make the snow look like it’s sparkling and pretty, you also need to have the right quality and direction of light.
Hard light, such as direct sunlight (quality of light), will provide more texture and shadows (see pro tip above). Side or backlighting (direction of light) will make sure the shadows fall in the right place to enhance the texture even more.
See if you can determine where the light is coming from in the two images below (hint look for the shadows). Can you see how it affects the amount of texture visible in the snow?
#4 Try Night Photography or Light Painting
Night photography in the winter can be spectacular, especially in the city around the holidays.
Look for some holiday decorations and go back and shoot at the blue hour for the best color in the sky and to capture the lights.
Light painting is another fun technique to try your hand at in the winter. Find an interesting subject and give it a go.
NOTES: Always make sure you have permission to enter any property, and NEVER trespass! Remember to dress warmly (use layers) so that you don’t get cold. Get some good gloves that will allow you to work and stay warm too (like THESE).
#5 Process for Added Detail and Texture
Once you have taken your winter photos, there’s one more step you don’t want to miss – the editing process.
I don’t want to start the great debate on photo editing versus purity, and “getting it right in the camera” but this is one time you cannot get the same effect when you take the photo.
For example, in the after image (second image below) I darkened the background and made it bluer so that the frost on the leaves would stand out more. Your camera cannot do that.
NOTE: If you get hoar frost like this in your area – watch for it on cold mornings and get out there!! It’s one of the most beautiful things to see and photograph in the winter.
So I recommend you edit your winter photos to give them added pop, sparkle, and texture. No matter which software you use, Luminar Neo, Lightroom, or others, add contrast, play with the Curves and Clarity or Structure sliders, and make sure your subject is crisp and sharp.
Compare the before and after images below. The first one is unprocessed, and the second was edited using Lightroom.
See how much more the frost stands out in the image directly above?
I used a mask in Lightroom to select the areas where I wanted to affect to apply (in green below) and adjusted the settings accordingly.
- Whites +19
- Blacks -24
- Texture +63
- Clarity +16
I also used a white edge vignette to soften the image and further draw the eye into the frosty twigs.
I have a secret! All of the frost images above were taken with my Samsung Galaxy S9 cell phone!
#6 Add Some Animals to Your Winter Photos
Even if you aren’t a wildlife photographer you can add some fauna to your winter photos. If you are, then great – take your camera out and find the animals!
But you can also look for local birds that stick around for the season. Keep your eyes open for bunnies that venture out – they may be camouflaged! Or visit a local farm that offers hayrides or farm visits.
You can even visit your local dog park (works better if you actually have a dog yourself) or zoo if it’s open year-round.
Just add some furry and feathered friends to your images for another element – humans work too even, especially the small ones that love to play in the snow!
Winter Photoshoot Ideas
Obviously, a winter photoshoot would be done outdoors, in order to include the snow and conditions. There are a number of ideas on what you could do, and how you could prepare for a winter photoshoot (time of day, conditions, props, location, etc) but everyone wants more ideas.
You might want to consider the location, props, and contrast as the key components. When you think of winter, what comes to mind? Scarves, toques (beanies, wool hats), skies, shovels that sort of thing?
In terms of contrast, what pops into your head? Maybe brilliant colors against the snow or subjects with complementary colors. Or perhaps a winter photoshoot of a portrait where the couple wears opposite colors? That sort of thing.
Here are a few places for ideas and inspiration:
Read also: How to Plan and Execute a Themed Photoshoot
If you need more ideas and inspiration for winter photography check out: 28 Winter Wonderland Frozen Images to Get You Out in the Cold.
Another idea is to try your hand at macro photography. My friend Don Komarechka is a master macro photographer. His series of snowflake images is breathtaking, see below for an example.
Happy Winter Solstice
I’m personally not a fan of the snow and my favorite winter sport is hot rubbing and hot chocolate with Bailey’s Irish Cream.
Winter photography can be a fun genre to tackle if you like the cold and snow though. There’s plenty of time to get out and do a winter photoshoot if you’re in the far northern (just starting winter now) or extreme southern hemispheres (winter comes in April for them).
So don’t be a hermit this winter – get out and exercise your photography muscles, use these winter photography tips and get some photos that make you proud to share.
I actually had a hard time finding many examples of winter photos which tells me I need to take my own advice too!
Take care and keep practicing!