In this article, you’ll learn six quick tips for taking better winter holiday photos. Make your frosty images sparkle and glow and capture the magic of the season.
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere we just passed the winter solstice so our days are getting longer again. So it’s the perfect time to get out and do some winter photography.
For those of you in the southern part 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 tips for winter holiday photography
- 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 furry subjects to your images
#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 by adjusting the white balance.
By choosing a warmer tone (Shade or Cloudy White Balance Preset on the camera) 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 on the left looks kind of dirty? Does the second one 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 it 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.
#2 – Expose for the highlights
Snow can easily be overexposed, especially when it’s sunny and bright 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 images above and below.
The one 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 texture of the snow.
PRO TIP: You NEED to have some shadows to make a pure white object appear three-dimensional.
#3 – Lighting for maximum sparkle
To make the snow look like it’s sparkling and pretty, you need to have the right quality and direction of light.
Hard light, such as direct sunlight, will provide more texture and shadows (see pro tip above). Side or backlighting 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. Can you see how that affects the snow texture?
Read more here:
- How to Create Texture in your Photographs
- What is Quality of Light and How to Use it to Take Better Photos
#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.
- 5 Tips for Creating Spectacular Photos at Blue Hour
- How to do a Zoom Burst Special Effect with Your Camera (try this too!)
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, NEVER trespass! And dress warmly so that you don’t get cold. Get some good gloves that will allow you to work and stay warm too (like THESE).
- How to Make a Stunning Light Painted Image Using Photoshop Layers
- Light Painting Experiments to Improve Your Photography
- Tips and Tools for Light Painting – Review of Light Painting Brushes
#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 “get 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 (first image below) I darkened the background and make it bluer so that the frost on the leaves would stand out more. Your camera can not 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 you can 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, 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 above?
I used a mask in Lightroom to select the areas I wanted to affect (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 critters 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 opened 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 opened 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!
Happy Winter Solstice
I’m happy to know we are over the hump and the days are now getting longer for those of us in the north. So don’t be a hermit this winter – get out and exercise your photography muscles.
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!