With winter just around the corner, you may be imagining quiet days inside by the warmth of the fire as the snow falls outside. But, putting your camera away during this time of year would be a massive waste of all the compositional opportunities this season has to offer.
Some of the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever captured have happened in the depths of winter. Although the temperatures involved would make any sane person want to be inside next to a crackling fire, the experience is always worthwhile.
Taking photos in the winter does require a little planning and preparation. Here, I’ve put together a guide that will help you not only survive the challenging temperatures of winter but bring back incredible images you’ll be proud to showcase.
Before going out to shoot, make sure your well versed on all your gear from your camera to your lenses to your tripod.
The freezing temperatures can be uncomfortable and distracting, especially in critical moments.
By practicing before you go out in the cold, you’ll give yourself a better chance against the challenging environments of winter.
Once on location, the last thing that you’ll want to do is spend time fiddling with gear. The ideal photographic moment can pass you by while you’re trying to figure out how to adjust your gear.
2. Scout Your Location
Other than mastering your camera gear, familiarizing yourself with your chosen site should be a part of your preparation.
Once you decide on the location you want to shoot, try to visit it multiple times a day.
Doing so will enable you to study it under different lighting conditions and look for different photogenic compositions in advance.
I recommend scouting your location in the midday hours. Save early mornings and late evening for taking photos, since the light will be ideal at these times.
3. Bring Water and Snacks
Everyone has had a moment where they find themselves shivering from the cold. This is your body’s way of generating heat, and it can be expensive on your energy reserves. Having a snack on hand will help keep you alert and energized when hunger strikes.
It is important to keep yourself hydrated as well. The cold winter air causes us to lose a lot of water as we breathe. We’re also sweating under all those winter clothes, but it’s common not to feel thirsty. Don’t let this illusion distract you, bring liquids to drink while you’re out.
4. Dress for The Weather
The key to dressing for success during your cold-weather photography is building layers. For winter shoots, I recommend dressing in three layers: the base, middle, and outer layer.
The innermost layer, the base, is designed to keep you warm and dry. The fabric you use for the base layer should fit well, be breathable, wick moisture, and maintain your body temperature.
Proper fitting of the base layer helps with moisture removal and heat retention.
Polyester, nylon, and wool are all great fabric choices for the base level. All three fabrics are excellent at wicking moisture and retaining heat.
Another great option for the base layer is compression clothing. Compression clothing is designed to dry quickly, resist odors, and assist with muscle acidity.
Next is the middle layer of clothing. The middle layer is your insulation layer and will work to keep you warm and retain your body heat. The two most important aspects of the middle layer are coverage and fabric.
It is important that the middle layer covers your entire body and that the fabric is warm enough to protect you during severe weather.
Heavy fleece is a popular and traditional option to use as a middle layer. This is a good choice if you will be shooting in calm to moderate weather, but technology today has advanced, and there are many better options.
In particular, the synthetic combinations offered by many brands. I recommend going with a wool/down synthetic blend.
These combinations offer a balance between warmth to weight ration, breathability, and durability. The combination you decide on will be primarily based on budgetary constraints and preferences between heat and weight ratios. Remember the insulating also applies to your bottom half.
Finally, the shell layer is the layer that most will come in direct contact with the elements. As a result, this layer should be waterproof and breathable.
Breathability is important because moisture captured by the base layer needs to escape. Also, recognize that water-resistant and waterproof are different.
Water-resistant is typically for much lighter conditions while waterproof is meant for intense conditions. A waterproof jacket will keep you completely dry even during extreme conditions.
I also recommend going with a hardshell jacket that uses membranes/laminates rather than coatings. Membranes are more durable than coatings, especially since as time passes coatings tend to wear off as well.
Finally, shell pants are important to keep your bottom half and feet dry. If your shell pants do not cover the tops of your shoes, you will need to get gaiters. Gaiters ensure that the gap between your shell pants and boots are covered and remain dry.
5. Choose Your Camera Bag Wisely
Your bag must be able to keep your equipment safe from the harsh environment of winter. When choosing a bag for winter photography, consider the following features:
Your bag should be able to protect your gear from winter elements.
A good tip is to make sure the sealing on your bag is weather-proof. Canvas, nylon, polyester, and cotton are some ideal fabrics you can look at.
When choosing a bag, examine the material’s durability, strength, and resistance to tearing. These three characteristics will determine if your bag will be able to withstand the winter conditions without much wear and tear.
The size of the bag to choose will vary depending on your photographic needs.
If you bring lenses or a backup camera when you go out to shoot; you want a bag that can accommodate it.
Choose a bag that fits your gear comfortably. You don’t want your camera gear to be too loose or too snug inside the bag.
While having extra room in your bag can be beneficial in some situations, most often, this extra space is problematic in terms of comfort and balance.
Your camera bag should have sufficient, but not excessive space to prevent your gear to avoid discomfort and damage as you travel.
You want to make sure that you’re able to access the equipment in your bag quickly. There’s nothing worse than seeing an incredible shot and not being able to get your camera ready in time to take it.
When choosing a bag, think critically about what you’ll need from it to photograph effectively.
6. Fight Condensation
Another struggle you’ll face when you’re doing winter shooting is condensation. When warm air meets a cool surface, moisture condenses on the surface. This is because the cooled surface isn’t capable of holding as much moisture as the warm air that surrounds it.
If you go into a warm car after spending some time shooting out in the cold, you’re going to get condensation on your camera. When you get ready to capture more photos sometime later, your camera may be nearly useless.
To prevent condensation after a shoot, place your camera gear inside an airtight bag while you’re still out in the cold. This will allow the camera to adjust to the new environment gradually.
Some photographers also suggest putting a silica gel in the bag to help keep the inside dry, although I do not do this personally.
Finally, before going out to shoot, be sure to bring a microfiber cloth with you. You can experience condensation when exhaling through your lens, and having a microfiber cloth to wipe it off can be extremely helpful.
7. Keep Your Camera Dry
One common trick photographers use to protect their camera from the snow is placing it in a ziplock bag with a hole for the lens.
I personally don’t do this one as I feel it interferes with shooting and I don’t mind some snow getting on my camera. However, for those of you who prefer to be extra cautious, this may be worth a try.
Otherwise, bringing dry cloths to wipe down your lens and camera body should be sufficient.
8. Keep Your Hands Warm
There’s nothing worse than numb hands when you’re out trying to take a photo. When your fingers are numb, simple tasks such as adjusting your camera settings or leveling your tripod suddenly become difficult.
To prevent this, make sure to wear warm gloves when you go out in the cold. For taking photos, I recommend using gloves with removable fingertips. This gives me the capability of controlling my camera dials easier in those cases where I can’t remove my gloves due to the cold
Another thing you may want to consider is bringing hand warmers with you. Hand warmers are easy to use and a great way to provide your hands with heat when needed.
9. Embrace Discomfort
The only way you’ll be able to take great winter photographs is by being willing and able to stay out in the cold for long periods of time. There is no way around it.
The task can get extremely uncomfortable, so you make sure you’re mentally prepared.
Know your photographic goals and set your limits beforehand. This will help you stick through the discomfort and push through despite the temperatures involved.
With a little preparation, you’ll discover that you and your gear will not only survive but thrive in the cold environment. When you get back home, you’ll be able to appreciate that hot cup of cocoa and a warm blanket all the more.
10. Extra Batteries
Bring spare batteries with you when you go out to shoot. This will prevent you from missing out on photo opportunities because your camera is dead, especially in the winter.
Batteries do not function well in the cold. They tend to “die” temporarily as low temperatures prevent ions from moving and producing current to your device.
When this happens, having an extra battery is the only thing that will save you from the disappointment of missing your shot.
Keeping the batteries warm will allow the ions to flow and produce current.
Try placing your extra batteries somewhere warm, such as inside pocket or with a set of hand warmers to protect them from the cold. This will reduce the chance of them dying during winter
11. Bring a Telephoto Lens
Consider using a zoom lens to help reduce the need to change lenses.
Switching lenses can be a hassle and difficult in the cold, especially if you’re shooting under falling snow. In such instances, snow can get inside your camera as you open it to change your lens.
Long lenses are also great for capturing interesting compositions in the winter. Abstract images seem to crop up when fresh snow is around, which can be captured beautifully using telephoto lenses.
12. A Tripod is A Must
I am a huge fan of using a tripod as a way to improve your photography. That opinion doesn’t change when it comes to winter photography.
A tripod will allow you to photograph with slow shutter speeds without worrying about camera shake.
This is invaluable if trying to capture the beauty of winter night skies or auroras. Using long shutter speeds is what makes it possible for you to take pictures at night despite the diminished amount of light present.
Other than preventing camera shakes, a tripod can also be useful if you want to take a self-portrait. To do this, you can simply set a timer while your camera is mounted on a tripod, and shoot.
Using a tripod will allow you greater creative control over your image and is certainly worth the investment.
13. Shoot RAW
RAW files offer many benefits such as higher quality, improved detail, greater color spectrum, and editing flexibility.
The biggest advantage of shooting in RAW is editing flexibility. In post-processing, a RAW images exposure, white balance, and noise can be adjusted with great precision.
For example, adjusting the exposure of a RAW photo using photo-editing software will yield nearly the same results had you changed them as you were shooting. This means that even if you accidentally underexpose or overexpose your shot, you can fix your mistakes during post-processing.
Keep in mind that you can’t recover lost details due to extreme over or under-exposure using post-processing software. Details lost due to clipping are gone forever. Post-processing software is ideal for making aesthetic adjustments to exposure but it is not designed to repair photos that are unrecoverable.
For the best RAW images, always try to get your settings right as your shooting. This will make your life much easier when you edit.
Another advantage of shooting in RAW is that it is capable of capturing a greater level of detail as well as color. This means that your RAW images will be more accurate representations of the real world.
14. Use The Correct Camera Exposure Settings
When in program mode or priority modes such as aperture and shutter priority, your camera uses a built-in light meter to select the right exposure level.
The camera’s light meter measures exposure by turning colors into tones of grey. It then measures the amount of reflected light as a percentage and sets the baseline for proper exposure to 18% reflectance in visible light (mid-tone grey). Your camera then selects your exposure settings to reach 18% reflectance over the entire image.
That’s a good metric to go by, but it doesn’t always produce a properly exposed image.
For example, white objects, such as snow, in particular, tend to reflect at least 36%. Therefore, metering for 18% on a snow image will produce an underexposed image.
To solve this issue, you need to overexpose your image; this can be done using exposure compensation. Exposure compensation allows you to change what your meter treats as baseline exposure for both program and priority modes.
When shooting in the snow, increase your exposure by 1.3 to 2 stops to account for the bright nature of the snow.
When you are adjusting your exposure compensation, be careful not to overexpose too much, and lose details. There is no perfect formula for the amount of exposure compensation required. It will depend on your camera and the available light in the scene.
Experiment with the exposure compensation settings until you find an environment that is producing the exposure that you want.
15. Check Your Histogram
The histogram is another valuable resource that can help you evaluate the exposure of your winter shots.
A histogram is a tool inside DSLRs that provides a graphical breakdown of the shadows, mid-tones, and highlights of a photo. The highlights are located to the right of the curve, the shadows to the left, and the mid-tones in the center.
While the histogram does not give you an exact measure of exposure, you can use it along with your photo to determine if you have the proper exposure.
For example, from looking at a snowy scene, we know we should have a photo consisting of mostly highlights and a histogram that is shifted to the right. The histogram of a photo taken without any exposure compensation will be mostly mid-tones.
When there is a disconnect between what your histogram should look like and what it looks like, this is an indication you will need to use exposure compensation.
16. White Balance Is Your Friend
Don’t forget to use white balance when taking photos in the winter. White balance is a tool in cameras that will adjust for color cast caused by the different temperature of lighting.
When shooting snow on bright sunny winter days, the bright light often casts a blue hue over the snow. Likewise, if you are shooting during sunset, the snow will have an orange hue to it.
You can solve this problem as you shoot or during post-processing.
As you shoot, adjust your white-balance to account for the color temperature you are shooting in.
I recommend staying away from auto white balance because I don’t always like the correction that it applies. Instead, an easy alternative is to use white balance preset modes. There are plenty of preset modes to choose from depending on the light you are in, such as daylight, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent, and flash.
These work well for basic lighting conditions, but I like using custom white balance mode. This mode allows you to set the exact temperature of light that you are shooting.
The easiest way to determine the temperature of your light is by using an app. I use the LightSpectrum app. This app allows you to detect the color temperature of the scene using your phone’s camera.
Enter the detected temperature into your camera’s custom white balance and start taking photos.
You can also adjust the white balance in post-processing but be sure you are shooting in RAW. In RAW you can adjust white balance just as if you were taking the photo.
After adjusting the white balance on your winter photos, your photos should be an accurate representation of the colors in the scene.
17. Use Manual Focus
In situations with low contrast, you may discover your lens having trouble autofocusing.
You’ll find this common on foggy, overcast days, or when snow is falling.
This isn’t surprising since the autofocus system relies on contrast to detect different elements and focus. The lack of contrast present on foggy or snowy scenes can make it difficult for your camera to focus when on auto mode.
The best way to handle this situation is to shoot in manual focus.
When shooting in manual focus, you can decide exactly where you want to focus. In manual focus, contrast issues will not impact your ability to focus.
18. Be Mindful of Your Footprints
If you’re able to be in a location just after a snowfall, you can use this opportunity to create great images.
Approach your scene carefully so you can create an image that is clean and serene.
Be mindful of your footprints both for yourself and for others who may want to take a photo later. One errant footprint can ruin a composition if it isn’t intended to be there.
19. Take Pictures During the Golden Hours
Sunrises and sunsets, also known as the golden hours, are my favorite times to shoot at any time of the year. But especially so during the winter season.
The low angle of the sun during the golden hours produces soft, flattering light ideal for photographing snow-covered trees and mountains. The skies can also at these times be dramatic, especially in the wake of a snowstorm.
Plus, compared to other seasons, it’s much easier to catch the golden hours, without losing much sleep. This is due to the later time of the sunrise and earlier time of sunset.
For summer photography you may have to be up at 4 am to catch the sunrise, in the winter you can wake u around 7-8 am.
20. Take Pictures During Blue Hour
The blue hour is another great time to photograph during the winter season.
In the moments before the sun breaks the horizon, the world becomes an ethereal place, especially when you’re near the mountains. During this time, natural landscapes become saturated with crisp, cool blue tones giving them a surreal look.
Cities, too, are fantastic subjects for winter photography during the blue hour. After the sun goes below the horizon, the colorful city lights start to come alive.
The combination of car lights, glowing neon signs and snow-covered architecture all work to create unique and exciting compositions.
Despite the biting cold, you’ll never regret taking a day out on a crisp winter twilight with your camera.
21. Look For Contrasting Colors
Some places can be rendered almost entirely white after just a couple of days of heavy snow. In such cases, it can be challenging to find a focal point since nothing stands out.
One way to overcome this is to look for elements of color that stand out against the landscape.
You can offset the white, winter tones with dark elements such as rock formations or shadows. Or you can photograph snow-capped mountains and trees against a colorful sky.
This contrast in colors helps bring variety in your images, making them more interesting and engaging to your viewers.
22. Take Pictures of WildLife
Including wildlife in your winter photography is a great way to add an interesting focal point to your pictures.
Wildlife is easy to spot against a white backdrop. Snowy backgrounds create a majestic surrounding around the animal, highlighting its features. In addition, the snow also makes it much easier to track animals due to the clear imprints they make in the snow.
Walking in the snow can be loud, so be mindful of your steps. Snowshoes can be noisy, and wildlife is sacred away very quickly, especially by unfamiliar noises.
If you are shooting static or walking animals start with a shutter speed of 1/400 to 1/800. To feeze motion of running animals start with a shutter speed of 1/1000.
You may need to adjust this depending on the speed of the animal. In most cases, during winter animals run much slower in the snow than in other seasons.
If you want to capture flying birds start with a shutter speed between 1/1600 and 1/2500. For larger birds start with a shutter speed of 1/1000 and for smaller birds use a shutter speed of 1/3200.
Focusing can be difficult if it is snowing and your subject is moving. If it is snowing autofocus is likely to cause issues due to the falling snow.
To avoid this issue, set your camera to manual focus. If there is no active snow falling use continuous autofocus to track moving animals easily.
23. Photograph Snowfall
Shooting snowfall can be incredible, and it only takes small considerations to get a beautiful photo.
Shutter speed tops this list, and how you set it will depend on the type of snowfall, and the effect you want to create.
To freeze falling snow in midair, start with a shutter speed of 1/400. The shutter speed will depend heavily on the speed of the wind and snow. If the wind is calm, then you can use slower shutter speeds, but if the wind is aggressive, you may need to use faster shutter speeds.
If you want to capture the motion or movement of snow, you will need to use slower shutter speeds. The exact shutter speed will depend on the extent that you want to snow to be blurred.
To capture an image with slight motion, where the snowflakes are long strips similar to when photographing rain, use a shutter speed of 1/60. To place a greater emphasis on the motion of the falling snow, try using a shutter speed of 1/30. Again this will depend on the rate at which the snow is falling.
Your choice of the aperture will also depend on the effect you’re trying to create. If you want to get some out of focus snowflakes, then using a wide aperture is best. On the other hand, if you want to capture all the snowflakes in sharp focus then you’ll want to use a narrow aperture.
The exact aperture will depend on your variety of factors, such as available light, the type of lens you are using, and your shutter speed.
In general, however, for a snowflake bokeh, an aperture of f/4 is a good place to start. For sharp snow streaks, I would start at around f/11.
In the end, the key to a successful snowfall image is to experiment with several combinations of shutter speed and aperture until you achieve the effect you’re looking for.
24. Use Cooler Tones to Create Unique Winter Photos
You may find yourself tempted to make your winter photos warmer to compensate for the lack of color. Take a moment before doing this and consider the opposite.
Drive the coldness of your winter photos deeper. Adjust the color temperature of your camera, and experiment with other cool tones.
Photographers typically use white balance to correct for unwanted color cast in images, it can also be used creatively to add color to your images. For example, if you feel that your image is lacking color, use white balance to give it some color.
Remember the white balance setting you select; your image will experience the opposite color cast.
To add a cool color cast to your image, you need to set your custom white balance setting to a warm temperature. For example, a value of 2500 is a warm yellow tint that will add a soft blue color cast to your image. This can be a useful trick on snowy winter days when all you see is white in every direction.
Thinking outside the box and breaking the rules can produce incredible images when done right.
25. Use Reference Items
Reference items are visual elements used in a photograph to demonstrate scale. They can be anything from a person to wildlife, to man-made structures.
Using reference items is especially important when photographing immense landscapes.
For example, taking a picture of a small cabin next to a tall mountain enables viewers to experience the enormity of the mountain by reference.
I particularly like this one for winter photography. It creates the perfect winter fairytale scene for photographers and non-photographers alike.
If you find yourself in a warm cabin in a snow-capped wonderland during your vacation, make sure your camera is with you.
26. Shoot Macro
Winter can sometimes be challenging with its icy temperatures and perpetual gloom. Sometimes this leads to a struggle with excitement about photographing in it.
Inspire yourself by using a macro lens to capture the beauty of winter. Taking photos of frost and snowflakes is a great way to start.
Frost is ever-present during these cold months, and the unique patterns it creates are stunning. Mixed with soft, natural light, the resulting photos can be breathtaking.
Finding beauty is rewarding and is a great way to keep you inspired on even the gloomiest of days.
27. Shoot Black & White
Black and white photography can make for incredible winter images. This is true even if you go out to shoot during mid-day.
With a 10-stop ND filter, you can create dramatic effects in your photographs without having to wait for the golden hour.
Since hues are irrelevant in this type of photography, pay special attention to the play of shadow and light in your compositions. Choose and adjust your frame based on tones and relative brightness between objects.
If you’re shooting in RAW, you could change it to black and white in post-processing. Or you can set your camera to black and white settings to make it possible for you to see the results instantly.
28. Include People in Your Pictures
Including a person in your scene is a great way to captivate your viewers.
If you’re photographing vast landscapes such as frozen waterfalls or lakes, placing a person in the middle of the scene will help your viewers understand their immensity.
Also, adding a person in the scene helps to establish a deeper connection between your image and your viewers.
For instance, an image with a person standing in the middle of a peaceful winter scene compels viewers to imagine themselves in that person’s place.
To some, such a scene may evoke a feeling of nostalgia, while to others, it may stimulate feelings of joy, calmness, or gratitude.
If you’re photographing architecture, consider doing some street photography. For this one, I like using long exposures to capture the movements of busy streets and neighborhoods.
A shutter speed of ¼ to 1 second is ideal if you want to record beautiful traces of colors across your frame.
If you can’t find a person to photograph, consider doing a self-portrait. Self-portraits are not only a great for creating images, but it’s also a great way to preserve the wonderful memories of the winter season.
Even without your face being in the image, the stunning winter landscape will serve as a great marker of your journey. You may find yourself reminded of the progress you’ve made as an artist when you look at them later.
29. Edit Your Photos
Elevate your winter images by spending some time in post-processing.
Winter images often lack contrast and color due to haze, mist and overcast skies. To minimize this issue, you can use imaging software like Lightroom and Photoshop.
These editing tools enable you to bring back some of the lost color and contrast in your image. This is especially true with RAW format images.
Your images may also benefit from adjustments in exposure, sharpness, and color balance done with editing software.
Winter is an incredible time to get out and capture the majesty of nature, and with this guide, you should be able to do so safely and effectively.
One final tip. Make sure you explore the areas you want to photograph during winter on the warmer months as well. Knowing the terrain can be vital when potential hazards are buried under a serene sheet of white snow.
Good Luck and Happy Shooting!