7 Tips for Great Winter Photos

October 16, 2012
cross country skiing
Jerry and Marcy Monkmana 1/4-second shutter speed blurs the movement of a skier in Windsor, Mass., while a simple composition reveals the stark contrast of fresh snow on the trees.

The Northeast can be magical in winter. Scenes of snow-draped evergreens set against bluebird skies, rushing mountain streams dotted with cobblestones topped with fresh powder, and village greens under a blanket of white all provide inspiration for taking pictures. Itching to get out and capture some outstanding winter images? Here are seven tips to make your winter photography journeys a success.

1. It ‘s all about light.
The quality of light can make or break a photograph, and this is just as true in winter a other times of the year. Taking pictures of a snowcovered landscape in overcast skies usually results in flat, gray images with soft details. Instead, take advantage of sunny days when the sun is low on the horizon, lengthening shadows and revealing the subtle textures in the snow. By shooting within half an hour after sunrise or before sunset, you will further enhance your photos with the warmer yellow and orange color of light found at those times of the day. The usually cleaner atmosphere of winter also makes for great color in the sky, and that color is often nicely reflected by snow in the landscape, making for vibrant, dramatic photos.

2. Simplify your compositions.
The forests of the Northeast can be beautiful in winter, with dark tree trunks contrasting with the white of the forest floor. However, taking a good photo in a forested landscape can be a challenge because of the confusing mess of branches and understory shrubs. Taking successful forest photos requires taking the time to find scenes that are simple enough to translate into compelling two-dimensional form. Thankfully, winter does its best to help you with this by blanketing the landscape in snow and covering up a lot of the mess. Look for repeating patterns of tree trunks and shadows cast by the low-angled sun, or search out streams that aren’t completely frozen and can add a nice angled or curvy element to the scene. Often, less is more in photography, so be selective in what you include in your compositions, framing photos in a way that eliminates any element that doesn’t complement your main subject.

3. Capture the action.
Exploring winter landscapes on snowshoes or skis may inspire you to photograph the action at hand, and including a person in the landscape can often create an all-important center of interest in a photo. When photographing people at play, it is important to decide how you want to capture the action. By using a fast shutter speed like 1/500 second or faster, you can freeze a person in mid-stride or mid-slalom turn, creating a strong sense of energy in your photos. Alternatively, by using a slower shutter speed like 1/15 or 1/8 second, you can blur the action, infusing your photos with a dramatic sense of motion. With the slower shutter speeds, you’ll need to use a tripod or brace your camera against a tree or rock to avoid having a fuzzy background. Alternatively, you can pan with the movement to purposely blur the background, while keeping your subject relatively sharp. To do this, dial in a shutter speed of 1/15 second, then follow your subject with the camera, holding down the shutter button, taking photos continuously as the person passes by you.

4. Expose for the highlights.
A snowy landscape will often throw off a camera’s meter, sometimes to the point of underexposing your photo by as much as two stops. When shooting in winter, take a test shot and check your LCD. If your snow looks gray and your main subject is too dark, take another photo, but use a slower shutter speed, keeping your aperture (also known as your F-stop) the same. I like to expose my winter images so that the snow is as white as I can get it without it being overexposed. If you know how to use your camera’s histogram (a graph that shows you the distribution of light and dark pixels in a photo), shoot for an exposure that results in a histogram where you have pixels stretching almost to the right side of the graph in order to ensure properly exposed snow. If your histogram has a gap on the right, your photo is underexposed, and you should add light to your exposures by using a slower shutter speed. However, if your histogram spikes on the right side, then your photo is overexposed and you need to use a faster shutter speed.

5. Shoot when it’s snowing.
When the snow is falling, try a variety of shutter speeds. A shutter speed of 1/250 second or faster will stop the motion of falling snow—if that’s the look you want. For a streaky snow and a stormier look, use a shutter speed between 1/125 and 1/30 second. Slower than that, the snow may blur and look more like fog.

6. Stay powered.
Cold temperatures can greatly reduce the length of time your camera’s batteries will function. Always bring a spare or two, and use powersapping features like auto focus, live view, and LCD playback as little as possible. Keep spare batteries warm by storing them in a pocket that is close to your body. If you use a camera that uses AA or AAA batteries, you will get much longer battery life by purchasing lithium batteries, which are less affected by the cold than alkalines.

7. Keep your gear dry.
Keep snow away from your camera and lenses as much as possible. While dry, fluffy snow isn’t as bad as rain on your equipment, you should still blow or wipe it from your gear whenever necessary. (To blow snow off your gear, use a rubber bulb blower available from most camera stores.) When snow is falling, cover your camera in a nylon camera cover. (I like the Storm jacket by Media Vortex.) You can also go the low-budget route by using plastic bags and rubber bands, and even an umbrella. If your lens came with a lens hood, use that as well to keep falling snow off of the front of your lens. Also, never bring a camera and/or lenses directly into a warm environment after they have been out in the cold. Pack them in your camera bag or plastic bags before heading inside and let them warm up to room temperature before taking them out. Otherwise, moisture will condense on the glass and metal surfaces, potentially damaging your gear. I once had to warm a lens in the oven at Greenleaf Hut to dry it out after forgetting this tip. I don’t recommend this—I’m pretty sure it voids the manufacturer’s warranty!



“Keeping your hands warm in winter is especially challenging… I recommend wearing a pair of thin silk or polypropylene liners under wool or fleece mittens. Most glove liners are thin enough to allow you to work your camera’s controls.” – Jerry Monkman, AMC Guide to Outdoor Digital Photography

AMC Guide to Outdoor Digital Photography by professional photographer Jerry Monkman has won a 2012 National Outdoor Book Award in the instructional/how-to category. The annual awards program recognizes the best in outdoor writing and publishing. Learn More >>

Search AMC Outdoors and Blogs

Search for:

Jerry Monkman

Jerry Monkman is the author of several AMC books, including AMC Guide to Outdoor Digital Photography. See more of his work at ecophotography.com.