How To Take Better Winter Photographs

Tips and Advice for Winter Photography

Image of winter season

For some, winter is the time to play. There are easily as many winter sports and activities outside as there are summer adventures. Instead of hiking the wilderness, there’s cross country skiing and snow shoeing. Instead of dirt bikes and ATVs, there are snow mobiles. Downhill skiing replaces water skiing, and for a great number of people, there is simply the appreciation of the different and beautiful settings outdoors.

Winter photography can go hand in hand with all of these activities as long as you follow a few simply guidelines to keep your equipment working, and modify your techniques to compliment the change in outdoor conditions. While photography in winter is different than other times of the year, a bit of understanding can make your efforts produce more dramatic and in many ways more memorable photos than the typical summer shots. Here are just a few tips to remember:

  1. Carry fresh or freshly charged batteries - Cold climates are rough on batteries. The first thing to do is make sure your batteries are fresh or freshly charged, and if possible, carry spares. Your camera and especially the camera’s batteries will not work as well as in the milder months of the year. Remember that winter photography means dealing with an outdoor environment that’s cold and harsh. If your camera is small, of the point and shoot variety, consider carrying it in an inside pocket if you’re going to be outside for any length of time. If the camera is a larger, SLR type camera, think about carrying the batteries in an inside pocket until needed. For either type of camera, if you’re shooting consistently, rotate spare batteries in and out of your inside pocket to keep them warm.
  2. Take advantage of the sun’s lower angle in the winter - Most fine art photographers will tell you that they prefer to shoot either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. There are two reasons for this preference. First, the colors are more “dramatic”. What they mean is that the colors are more toward the yellow end of the spectrum, which is considered “warmer”. Second - and this is the relevance to winter photography - when pictures are shot early and late in the day, the sun is lower, which creates more dramatic shadows. In winter, shadows are more pronounced for longer periods of the day. Even when the sun is higher in the sky and the colors appear to be more normal, the shadow angles will be larger, producing more dramatic effects. Try to make your shots with the sun situated across the subject rather than in front of or behind. This will increase the detail, especially in snow or ice scenes, and will lend depth to the picture.
  3. Use fill flash when shooting people - Rather than place the subject in total front or back light, use a fill flash. While the cross lighting mentioned above is a great technique for scenes, it’s not particularly flattering for people. Some cross lighting is desirable, of course, but using it as the principal light is not the way to get compliments from your subjects. Almost all point and shoot cameras have a small flash built-in, and they’re great for exactly this kind of situation. Instead of the fully automatic camera mode, most of these little digital wonders have a mode that forces the flash to operate. This is the situation where it’s necessary to make the flash come on, since there will normally be adequate light to shoot without it. If you use a SLR, put your flash on the camera and use it. The exposure should still be primarily from available light, but use the fill to just remove the harsh shadows caused by the natural cross lighting.
  4. Compensate your exposure for snow and ice in a scene - If you’re camera has the ability to set the exposure, set it to OVEREXPOSE by one stop (which means one “f” stop) when a scene is primarily snow, ice, or otherwise white. Camera exposure meters try to make things gray. That’s the industry standard. What this means is that every exposure by a camera’s meter tries to set the scene at what the industry has determined to be the color gray, at a reflectance of 18%. For most normal photography, this works quite well, but for snow and ice - where the scene is predominately white - the scenes tend to be a bit underexposed. The snow looks a little “dirty”. This will allow the camera to make the white features brighter than the usual 18% gray reflectance, and produce more white in the image.
  5. In Winter, shoot a scene as soon as you see it - When you discover a shot, don’t try to come back later because there’s a good chance that it will have changed. Shoot it now. Winter scenes are dynamic. What exists now may not be true in a few minutes. An overnight ice storm can bring unimaginable beauty in the morning, but be gone and muddy by noon. When shooting in winter, it’s important to take the shot when you see it.
  6. Elk in WinterDon't unnecessarily stress the wildlife - When you stop along the road to photograph an animal and that animal gives you more than a passing glance, you’re probably too close for comfort. When winter comes, the weather of course gets cold and the food source for most animals gets really scarce. This is especially true for the kinds of animals you’re likely to encounter, which are ungulates (deer, elk, and so on). As any cattle rancher can tell you, the way these animals stay warm - and therefore survive in the winter - is to ingest food. The more they have to eat, the better ability they have to stay warm.

    Most animals also have a fear of humans. When humans are around, they are weary and spend time watching potential predators (the humans) when they should really be focusing their attention on acquiring food. For this reason, photographing wildlife can be especially dangerous to the animal in winter.

    You should move away and seek a better choice for your picture. When we shoot wildlife in winter, we nearly always work in national parks, where animals are used to humans and don’t pay any particular attention. That way, we’re able to get close enough to obtain a decent photograph, but not take any of the animal’s precious time away from finding food.

Whether your particular winter activity involves fine art photography, or just an attempt to capture a part of your life you want to share with friends and relatives, winter photography offers some interesting challenges and impressive scenes. Remember to take your camera when you're out, keep it warm, and bring spare batteries. The main thing of course, is to get out and see what’s there.

Don and Bonnie Fink

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