Top Tips for Amazing Winter Photography

Temperatures are dropping, ponds are freezing over, and snow is falling. Winter is here! As winter’s chill sets in, don’t pack away your camera with your summer clothes. Winter is a magical time for outdoor photography, but you need to know how to handle the challenges presented by the season. So, bundle up, and head out there! Here are my top tips for getting the most out of your winter photography.

Want more winter photo tips? Keep reading!

Wait for strong, colorful light

Snow and ice can reflect up to 90% of the light striking it, which means it takes on the color of the light. So, avoid the winter grays! Overcast skies are your worst enemy, making a colorless winter landscape look bleak and desolate. Strong, colorful light really brings a winter landscape to life. Ice will reflect colorful sunrise and sunset clouds very well, behaving similar to water. Low angle light, such as side-lighting and backlighting, can reveal texture and three-dimensional relief, and transform a winter scene into something magical, especially at sunrise and sunset. When shooting winter landscapes, look for opportunities to juxtapose warm and cool tones, such as snow warmly lit by the setting sun next to the deep blue of snow in shadow.

Strong light brings winter landscapes to life, no matter what time of day. Grand Teton National Park, USA. Canon 5DII, Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens, ISO 100, f/13, 1/200 second.

Choose your winter exposures carefully

Winter exposures can be tricky. Lots of bright snow can fool your camera’s light meter, which will try to compensate by darkening the exposure. If your exposures are coming out looking too dark, Increasing exposure by a stop or two is usually sufficient to correct the problem. When shooting a winter scene in mixed light, be careful not to overexpose parts of the scene in direct sunlight. Make sure that you turn on your camera's highlight warning option (the "blinkies") to ensure that you don't accidentally overexpose important highlights in your winter photographs.

Be careful with your winter exposures, especially when there is a mix of shadow and direct sunlight on bright snow. Banff National Park, Canada. Panasonic DMC-FZ1000, ISO 125, f/8, 1/1600 second.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Heavy falling snow can set a wintry mood and transform even ordinary scenes into something extraordinarily beautiful. Take advantage of the soft, atmospheric effect created by shooting through a heavy snowfall to make moody and ethereal photos. But don’t let your thinking about snow end there. Fresh snow—and lots of it—is critical to many winter landscape scenes. Old snow gets stomped on by people and animals, melts off trees revealing unattractive bare branches, and often just looks dingy and unappealing. And too little snow on the winter landscape usually means lots of distracting objects poking up through the snow. If you wait to shoot after big snowstorms, you’ll be rewarded with landscapes that look fresh and photogenic. The outdoor landscape gets remarkably simplified when almost everything is covered in snow.

Fresh snow makes a winter landscape more appealing and photogenic. Grand Teton National Park, USA. Canon 5DII, Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens, ISO 200, f/11, 1/5 second.

Brave the cold for winter night photography

Cold, cloudless nights can produce some of the clearest skies you’ll ever see. Winter stars seem to twinkle with extra intensity, making them perfect for photographing long exposure star trails, or shorter exposure static star field shots (try ISO 1600 or higher, with your lens wide open, for 30 seconds or less to capture stars looking like points). Those far enough north can photograph the Northern Lights, a night-time light show produced when solar winds come into contact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Long winter nights are perfect for maximizing your chances of seeing the aurora.

The Northern Lights dance over the eastern fjords of Iceland. Canon 5DIII, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 800, f/2.8, 6 seconds.

Take advantage of winter atmospherics

Strange things can happen when cold air and moisture collide. Geothermal areas, such as Yellowstone National Park, become incredibly photogenic in the winter, as warm steam rising from geothermal features interacts with the cold air, creating abundant mist which coats nearby landscape features in rime ice. You can witness a similar effect in coastal and mountain areas, and near waterfalls that haven't frozen over, and localized inversion effects can occur over any winter landscape if conditions are right, which can create a thin layer of fog over the snowscape.

The sun sets behind snow-clad trees wreathed in geothermal steam, revealing stunning sunbeams. Yellowstone National Park, USA. Canon 1DsII, Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/22, 1/50 second.

Keep warm and dry

Nothing ruins a good winter shoot like chilled hands and toes, or worse—hypothermia or frostbite. Dress in layers so you can fine tune the amount of warmth you need depending on your activity level. Make sure you bring enough clothing to keep you warm even when you are standing still for long periods of time waiting for the perfect light for your photography. I recommend insulated boots to keep your toes warm, but keeping your fingers warm can be more difficult, as you must balance the dexterity needed to operate camera controls with warmth. I typically use a lightweight pair of liners coupled with heavy duty mittens made for extreme cold environments. I keep my hands in the mittens whenever I can, taking them out only when I need to operate the tiny buttons and dials on my camera. Whenever my fingers get cold, I stuff them back in the mittens, which warm my hands up in no time. Some people also use chemical or battery-powered hand and toe warmers to stay extra toasty. When photographing wildlife, you might need to have your hands on your camera more than with landscapes; I recommend an insulated camera cover with openings for your hands.