Tips for Capturing Winter Pictures

Winter might be cold and dark and many prefer to stay at home in front of the fireplace with a good book. It’s also a season that offers great opportunities for landscape photographers and those who defy the uninviting temperatures are rewarded with sceneries most can only dream of. The best winter pictures can make even the most warm-blooded long for a colder scenery and a moment in the winter wonderland.

Photographing winter is more challenging than other seasons; it demands extra protection for the camera and most importantly it demands more patience and planning from you as the photographer. This article will focus on how you can capture beautiful winter pictures but I recommend reading our article Landscape Photography in Arctic Norway where we look at how you and the camera can stay safe in cold environments.

Look at the Forecast Daily

Yahoo Weather and other weather applications/websites should be your best friend during the winter months. In the northern hemisphere, it can be a long time between sunny days during winter and the season is dominated by a gray (or white) sky.

Weather changes a lot during this time of year and can be hard to predict. By checking the forecast throughout the day, you’ll make sure that you don’t miss the opportunity to capture that beautiful winter picture you’ve been dreaming about.

winter pictures guide
Sky clearing a winter morning

However, it’s not only sunny days you should be looking for; days with large amounts of snow are equally beautiful. Few things are more beautiful than a landscape covered in a white blanket of fresh snow.

Be Aware of Wind

The wind is normally a bad sign during winter. Not because the temperature feels colder than it is but because snow begins falling off the trees, making the landscape slightly less photogenic.

If the trees are covered in snow and the forecast predicts wind in a day or two, go out and photograph it before it’s too late. Even though the landscape still is beautiful without the same amount of snow-covered trees, it’s no longer a winter wonderland.

Here in Norway we only have a few weeks when the conditions are absolutely ideal. If we are lucky, we also get some nice weather during that period but that’s not something to expect.

Overexpose your winter pictures

It’s not often I advise overexposing images but when photographing during winter this is often the key to capturing a beautiful image. It might not always be ideal, but when the sky is flat or it’s a whiteout, it will be a technique that results in interesting images.

Overexpose during whiteouts (click for larger image)
Overexpose during whiteouts (click for larger image)

However, you should avoid blowing out the image. Pay close attention to the histogram and make sure that there are no clipped highlights. Clipping highlights will result in a loss of details in those areas and that’s not what we want.

Look for contrast

During winter, the landscape is normally dominated by white which often leads to boring or flat images especially when it’s a whiteout and you can’t benefit from a sky.

Look for contrasts in the landscape and try to find something that sticks out. This can be:

  • A colorful cabin
  • A person with a colorful jacket
  • A darker trunk of a tree
  • A flower or plant sticking out of the snow
  • An animal

By adding something that separates itself from the surrounding landscape you’ll make the image more interesting and in many cases strengthen the composition. Having an element of color will work as a focus point and the viewer will have an easier time looking at the photograph.

Winter Pictures tips
The red house adds great contrast

Get close to the subject

Since the landscape is dominated by a white blanket of snow, it’s hard to see details in trees or other parts of the landscape. When you’re unable to find something that adds color to the image, go closer to the tree or subject that’s being photographed. This makes it easier to see details and will add a greater depth to the image.

Images appear flat and uninteresting when there’s nothing standing out in the foreground and the majority of the image is white. Getting closer to the subject will add depth and instantly make the image more visually appealing.

Photograph during nighttime

Photographing during nighttime in winter might not be for everyone as the temperatures are freezing and rarely comfortable. However, the scenery is often spectacular at this time, especially if the sky is clear and the stars are shining. In the northern hemisphere, there’s also a possibility to see and photograph the northern lights.

The landscape changes so much from day to night that it’s hard to recognize it. Even though you’re photographing the same location the atmosphere and mood has completely changed and you’re presented with a whole new possibility.

winter pictures tutorial
Northern Lights in East of Norway (click for larger)

To capture better images during the night avoid photographing near streetlights and major cities as the light pollution gives an unwanted orange/red color cast to the sky and even to the snow.

Bring spare batteries

Bringing spare batteries might be the most important factor to remember when you’re out capturing winter pictures. The lifetime of a battery’s charge will dramatically shorten when the temperatures drop so having spare batteries with you is important.

Rather than keeping the batteries in the backpack as you normally would, place them in your pocket during winter. Keeping the batteries close to your body will keep them warmer and result in them lasting longer.

This is especially important to remember if you’re using Live View to compose your images. Live View drains batteries during summertime so you can only imagine what it does during winter.