How To Take Better Winter Photos

This post by Doug Diekema originally appeared in Washington Trails Magazine, and is graciously shared via our partner, Washington Trails Association.

Winter presents wonderful opportunities for the photographer. Familiar landscapes look completely different surrounded by snow and ice. But capturing those landscapes can be challenging, requiring preparation and flexibility. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your winter shots.

Since light meters “assume” your subject is neutral gray, bright snow can fool your camera into underexposing the scene, capturing a snowy landscape as dull gray rather than white. The easiest way to obtain a proper exposure is to use the camera’s exposure compensation setting (the button with +/- on it). For a scene with lots of snow, increasing the exposure between +1 and +2 stops is a reasonable starting point, but you’ll need to experiment.

Snow has texture and detail, which can add immensely to a winter photograph. While you don’t want snow to appear gray, you also don’t want it to become a boring white blob. Use your camera’s histogram to get it right. A scene with lots of snow should give you a hump toward the right side of the histogram. Approaching the right border is good, but take care that the histogram is not climbing up the right edge, which will give you pure white with no detail.

Large areas of uninteresting snow and a featureless gray sky are not ingredients for an interesting photograph. Look for patterns, textures and colors to add interest to a scene. Take advantage of the patterns, lines and shapes formed by the snowy landscape. Colorful trees, buildings or clothing on a snowy background can make a photo pop and highlight an interesting subject in ways that might be more difficult in the summer. Place your main subject off center, using the “rule of thirds” we have discussed in other columns.

Stay safe and dry
Keep your camera and lens as dry as possible. When moving into a warmer environment, moisture will condense on and inside of a cold camera. One solution: Seal your camera in a zip-locked bag before bringing it inside and leave it there until it reaches room temperature. Since batteries quickly lose power in cold temperatures, bring an extra battery. Keep the spare warm, swap it out when the camera battery dies and put the “dead” battery in a warm spot to “revive” it. Most importantly, be safe! Tell someone where you plan to go, bring the Ten Essentials, wear proper footwear and warm clothing, and avoid avalanche terrain. Be aware that snowy landscapes, combined with snowfall, fog or gray skies, can be disorienting, making it easy to get lost.

Tips for capturing details
• Color cast: On sunny days, snow may take on a bluish tint. Changing the white balance setting on your camera to “shade” will help eliminate that.
• Focus: Auto-focus may have trouble finding the focus in snowy landscapes without much contrast. Either use manual focus or set your camera to focus on a high-contrast area of the scene (like the line between snow and sky).
• Filters: Polarizer filters can help reduce glare and darken skies, but be careful not to overpolarize. With low sun in the winter, overpolarizing will turn your skies a very dark blue.
• Time of day: Shooting on snow is often best earlier and later in the day, because the lower angle of the light will bring out texture and detail. That being said, because Washington is so far north, the sun is close to the horizon for much of the day in winter and decent photos can be taken even at times we would normally call midday.


Photos by Doug Diekema, Dan Patitucci and Oskar Enander.