I’ve always loved winter and grew up skiing and playing in the snow but as a photographer, it took me years to really appreciate it.
Perhaps it was because I was young when I started and didn’t have a means of getting around, or perhaps my vision has changed or evolved since.
Anyhow, that’s not the case anymore. Winter has become my favorite season to photograph. The constantly changing weather and beautiful layer of snow can make even the most ordinary landscapes something special.
Photographing during this time of year comes with its challenges, though. Keep reading and we’ll take a closer look at how you can create more compelling images of winter.
#1 There’s no Bad Weather
It might be tempting to stay at home in front of the fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate when it’s a full-on snowstorm outside but you might want to consider going out with the camera.
This type of weather is part of what makes winter special. Especially if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere.
Whiteouts and snowstorms offer great opportunities for landscape photographers. It’s the perfect time to capture the true colors of winter.
Some of my favorite winter images have been captured in “bad” weather when it was more tempting to stay at home. I’ll admit it’s an internal battle to go outside on those days but I rarely regret it.
If you’re in a full-out snowstorm, you can try experimenting with the shutter speed to see how this affects the snow.
#2 Isolate the Main Subject
One of the most efficient steps you can take to create more compelling winter images is to isolate the main subject. Make it obvious what you’re photographing.
Take the image below as an example. There’s little doubt what the main subject is. This is thanks to the main subject standing alone and isolated from distracting elements.
Being able to isolate a subject takes some trial and error. You need to be careful when setting up the composition. Take a close look at the image preview and see if there are any distracting elements that are overlapping with the main subject.
What about the background? Is your subject blending in or standing out? This is perhaps the trickiest part. Sometimes you simply need to wait for the ‘right’ conditions. The image above, for example, wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t a whiteout and you could see the forest behind.
Isolating subjects is a powerful compositional technique in general but it works extra good for winter photography.
#3 Watch Your Step!
It’s easy to get carried away and run around looking for new compositions but I strongly recommend that you mind your steps. Especially when photographing in fresh snow.
Take a few minutes to look around and consider what you’re going to photograph and from which perspective it’s most likely that you’ll be positioned.
When you’ve got an idea of what your approach will be, walk carefully towards the desired composition and avoid making unnecessary tracks in the snow. Take a detour if necessary.
Failing to do so will give you a lot of extra work in post-processing and can, in the worst case, ruin an otherwise great image.
Remember, you want your images to have as few distracting elements as possible. Unintentional footprints are one of these elements you want to get rid of.
#4 There are 24 Hours of Opportunities
As landscape photographers, we often hear that good images are only captured during the Golden Hour. It might be true that this time of day has a photogenic light but it’s not true that it’s the only time you should be taking images.
TJ Thorne says it best in his eBook ‘There’s No Such Thing as Bad Light’. Good light is all around us.
This is especially true during winter. The opportunities are equally great during day and night. Even a blue sunny sky with harsh light can result in interesting images when you’re in a winter wonderland.
Personally, my favorite times to photograph winter is at night or midday on a snowy day. There’s not much that’s more exciting than hiking in a snow-covered landscape with a star-filled sky above your head and perhaps even the odd possibility of some northern lights.
#5 Use a Cold White Balance
Those that have done photography for a while are well aware that the White Balance can easily be adjusted in post-processing and has little to say when you’re photographing in RAW.
If you’re anything like me, though, you like doing as much as possible in-camera to give yourself a better starting point when the editing begins.
Adjusting the White Balance does exactly that: give you a better starting point. You’ll find that a cold White Balance does best for most winter images.
Yes, a colorful sunrise or sunset can benefit from a warmer setting but keep in mind that you’re not photographing the Bahamas. A warm value will quickly make the snow look dirty.
Setting the White Balance to a cold value will help enhance the true winter atmosphere.
#6 Look for Textures in the Foreground
Winter brings a lot of opportunities when it comes to finding interesting and unique foregrounds. Take the image below as an example, this shot wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the freezing temperatures and cracked ice.
It’s easy to think that all foregrounds are gone when the landscape is covered in snow but this is far from the truth. The fresh snow can be a great foreground itself. You can also look for cracked ice, patterns in the snow or ice, frozen lakes, or elements that are penetrating the snow.
This is yet another reason why it’s important to slow down and observe your surroundings before you begin photographing winter. You’ll be surprised by what you find!
Bonus Tip: Bring Extra Batteries
It’s no secret that battery lives are dramatically shortened when temperatures drop below freezing. I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself. It’s even more noticeable when using Live View.
There are ways to extend battery life when photographing winter but I strongly recommend that you always keep a couple of extra batteries in your pocket or backpack.
Personally, I always bring a minimum of two spare batteries no matter what. If I’m planning to stay out for several hours, I’ll bring even more.
Winter is a great season for landscape photographers who are willing to brave the cold and stormy weather. It’s a time where you’re able to really capture the elements.
At the end of the day, the most important advice is to have fun. Take the time to appreciate the time spent outdoors and try not to stress too much about doing everything ‘technically correct’. Let the surroundings speak to you, then photograph what you’re inspired by.
That being said, remembering these tips can help you in capturing even better images.
Good luck! Be sure to share some of your favorite winter photos with us in a comment below.