Winter Photography, Tips and Tricks

Winter is a photographer’s biggest test.  And it can also be their greatest reward. If you’re up to braving the elements, you can capture some fantastic images.

Here’s a little secret about photography in the Winter.  The air is clearest when it’s cold.  That’s right.  No murky brownish skies.  No marine layer.  No campfire smoke.  It feels like you can see forever.  El Capitan covered in snow (1 of 1)And if you’re a fan of those super sharp, in focus from your feet to infinity, landscape photographs, all of that clear air will just make your day.

So, it sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Just put on your waterproof boots and a parka and you’re ready to bring home the goods.  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  That’s because as advanced as cameras have become, they’re nowhere near as good as the eyes in your head.  The exposure meter in your camera sees snow as one great big overexposure.  So when it tries to adjust for all that whiteness, the meter does what it’s supposed to do – it compensates.  Unfortunately, your camera will compensate for white snow so much; you’ll end up with a dark gray photograph that will make you wish you stayed in your motorhome’s nice warm bed.

So here’s my first trick.  Use your camera’s exposure compensation controls, and your camera’s histogram to lighten your exposure.  Histogram SamplesWhat’s a histogram you ask?  It’s the funny little graph your camera shows you after you’ve taken a photo.  On some cameras, you can even see it before you take the shot if you’re shooting in live view.  Normally, you want your photographs to peak mostly in the middle.  If your histogram leans to the left too far, you’re probably underexposed.  If it leans too far to the right, you’re probably overexposed.  However, white snow is very, very white, so when you’re shooting in the winter, you really want to see your histogram leaning pretty far to the right.  And this is especially true if you’re shooting a subject, like a person, in front of that white snow.  If you don’t adjust your camera to move your histogram to the right, your subject will probably be completely underexposed.  And I’m sure you don’t want that wonderful picture of your spouse to look like they just took a bath in a bucket of ink.

If you move the histogram, using your exposure compensation controls, too far to the right, you may end up with areas in your photo that end up being completely white and lack any details.  But in some cases, that’s perfectly acceptable.  Snow by itself doesn’t have a lot of details.  Especially on bright sunny days.

Just using exposure control by itself will work most of the time, but if the conditions are especially difficult (extremely high contrast between the snow and your subject) I’d suggest setting your camera to bracket your exposures.  SONY DSCThat will give you the exposure you’re set at, and exposures that are both slightly underexposed and slightly overexposed.  Hopefully, one of these exposures will do the trick.  If you’re really not sure your camera can capture the scene in one exposure, try shooting several exposures and combining them in a program designed to produce High Dynamic Range photographs, or HDR.

So, now you’ve got a perfectly exposed winter photograph.  That’s great.  But hey, wait a minute, why does your photograph look blue?

Your camera has another feature you may not have played with very much, called White Balance.  SONY DSCMost of us leave this set to “Auto” the majority of the time.  But nearly every camera set to auto shows a cool blue color cast when photographing snow.  You might think that’s okay, because that blue tint implies the “feeling” of cold, but I personally don’t like it. So, I tend to try a variety of adjustments on my white balance settings until the blue goes away.  The “Shade” setting often works, as it increases the “warmth” in your shots, negating that cold blue.

Of course, if you’re shooting in RAW, you can make adjustments in both exposure and white balance in your favorite editing program.  In fact, if you understand RAW, I’d recommend using it all of the time.  Or at least for those photographic situations where you’re sure you will want to get the best possible image.

Here’s another “Gotcha” old man Winter is going to throw at you.  Battery life on a cold Winter’s day is horrible.  Make sure you have at least one backup battery and keep it as close to your body as possible.  It works.  I would even consider sewing a battery pocket in my underwear if that didn’t sound so creepy. But seriously, a little body warmth can bring a depleted battery back to life in no time.

So, now you know how to get the right exposure and how to get rid of that blue tint.  Now you just have to decide what to photograph.SONY DSC  For a lot of photographers, putting a bright, colorful subject in front of that pure white snow is a combination that really works.  And don’t be afraid to bump up that color either.  While over-saturating photographs isn’t something I’d normally recommend, it can really work in a winter scene.

River IceBe on the lookout for little details.  Sometimes the patterns in a frozen river provide a whole landscape on their own, just in miniature form.  And trees, which look like giant green blobs the rest of the year, take on individual personalities when they’re covered in snow.  But, be sure to look where you’re walking.  The last thing you want to do is mess up a great photographic location with foot or snowshoe prints.

And remember, even though the Sun is lower in the sky than it is in Summer, you’ll still get the best shots in the early morning and late afternoon.  And that warm light will really look great against the contrasting cold snow.

When you’re processing your photographs, especially your landscape photos, you might want to consider converting them to black and white.  And I always recommend at least “looking” at your photo without color.  You’ll be surprised as how much drama black and white can provide.

Another cool trick for winter photography processing is to use a reverse vignette.  It’s common to add a dark translucent border to a photograph to draw the eye into the middle of the picture.  But with bright Winter shots, the light border works much better.Bird in the Snow (1 of 1)

I hope this helps you get the most from your Winter photography.  If you have additional tips, or questions, please feel free to leave a comment.

Next time, Winter Gear any photographer will love.

3 Responses

  1. Just to let you know, the last three photos in this post are Rochelle’s. She really has an eye for the great little scenes in nature.

    Also, I found the cool Histogram illustration over at

  2. Kevin,
    Just a quick note to say thanks for the tips on Winter photography. You observations reflect your wide knowledge of the subject and its commendable that you are taking the effort to share your experience with everyone.
    Best regards to you and LTL,

    1. Thanks Brian,
      It’s sure been a long time. I’m going to have to come up with another photo excursion sometime soon so we can all get together again.

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