Tips For Photographing In the Snow

December 8, 2022

Winter can be a lot of things. Cold. Wet. Damp. Raw. But it can also be magical. Fresh snow and ice can sparkle over the landscape, make it clean and fresh, and change it from the norm. That's one of the reasons I love photographing in the snow. There's nothing like a fresh blanket of white stuff to refresh a familiar landscape, and make it new and exciting. Photographing a snowy landscape isn't without its challenges. Here are a few easy tips for getting great photos in the snow, whether you're using a camera or your cellphone.

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse stands above the snow-covered rocky Maine coastline.
Newfallen Snow at Pemaquid Point

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, at sunrise on a winter morning, stands tall and proud, its white exterior contrasting against the deep blue of the early morning sky. In the foreground, the rocky landscape is blanketed in a layer of fresh snow, covering the ridges of rock of the Pemaquid peninsula and drawing the eye back to the historic beacon. The light of the impending sunrise casts a warm glow over the landscape, illuminating the lighthouse as well as snow-covered rocks and trees, completing this peaceful winter tableau.

Get Out While the Snow is Fresh

Snow looks best when it's fresh. There's nothing like photographing a pristine blanket of fresh snow, with no footprints, no dirt, no blemishes at all. It's just so clean looking. I wrote about how I made my image "Newfallen Snow at Pemaquid Point", walking well clear of any area I might want in my image to ensure that the snow in my foreground was undisturbed. It's ideal if you can get out just as the snow stops. If it's snowed overnight, getting up early will provide you with a huge advantage. But even if you can't time your outing with the snowfall, finding undisturbed snow isn't impossible. Find places people don't normally go, such as in the forest, a field, or otherwise low-traffic area.

A hay rake rests under a cherry tree on a winter evening in Woodstock, Vermont.
Winter Twilight

A hay rake rests under a cherry tree on a winter evening in Woodstock, Vermont.

Photograph During the Blue & Golden Hours

Just before sunrise and after sunset is what is known as the Blue Hour. The light takes on a cooler tone as the sun sits below the horizon, leaving lots of shadow areas coupled with soft highlights. The effect can be clearly seen in my image of Pemaquid Point at the top of this article, as well as in the images of Portland Head Light and the Nubble below. Golden Hour is just after sunrise or just before sunset, when the sun is low in the sky, but above the horizon. The light has a warmer tone, and can cast long shadows. My image "Winter Twilight" above was taken during golden hour. It was snowing off and on and the clouds softened the light, but the warm tones filtered through. These times of day allow for deeply colored, richly toned images that help bring the viewer into the scene.

A maple sugram shack sits under a fresh blanket of snow in Vermont.
Winter at the Maple Sugar Shack

A classic maple sugar shack sits under a blanket of fresh snow in Vermont. Firewood to feed the boilers is stacked outside, ready to start boiling sap down to a sticky maple syrup.

Use Exposure Compensation (Or Brighten Your Images)

When cameras meter scenes, they are trying to make those scenes conform to average. Scenes that have overall bright tones, like snow, or overall dark tones, like dark green grass or water, will often cause the camera to return a photo that isn't quite what our eyes see, often making snow look grey and slushy, or grass looking bright and washed out. You'll need to use your camera's settings to adjust the exposure so it's proper. When photographing snow, you'll want to brighten your image a little so the snow looks properly white. For my image "Winter at the Maple Sugar Shack", taken midmorning a few years ago, I needed to use exposure compensation to brighten my exposure by about two stops so that the snow on the roof and in the brightest areas appeared appropriately white. You can also make this adjustment if you're using a cellphone. For instance, on the iPhone's camera app, if you slide your finger up or down on the screen while composing your image, the scene will brighten or darken accordingly.

Sea smoke rises from the curface of Casco Bay on a bitter cold winter morning at Portland Head Lighthouse.
Winter Morn at Portland Head Light

Sea smoke, caused by frigid air temperatures moving over warmer water, rises from Casco Bay as Portland Head Lighthouse stands on the headland keeping its watch early on a winter morning. Recent snowfall covers the rocky shoreline while the horizon glows pastel orange and pink through the fog on a day where the temperature measured -14ºF with a -24ºF wind chill.

Keep Your Batteries Warm

It's no secret that the cold saps the life of camera batteries. While most smartphones don't have interchangeable batteries, all cameras do. If you're carrying spares, it's best to keep the spares in an inside pocket of your jacket, pressed against your body to help keep them warm and ready to go. Because once you put them in the camera, the cold will quickly start to drain them.

A lobster shack is decorated for Christmas as snow falls on a December morning in Cape Porpoise, Maine.
Christmas in Maine

A lobster shack is decorated for Christmas as snow falls on a December morning in Cape Porpoise, Maine.

Use a Fast Shutter Speed to Freeze Falling Snow

If you're out while the snow is still falling, but aren't seeing snowflakes in your images, it's possible that your shutter speed is too slow. This can happen especially if you're photographing during blue hour when the light is more subdued. You'll want to use a faster shutter speed to freeze those falling flakes, as seen in "Christmas in Maine" above. If the light is very low, you may need to boost your ISO to allow for the use of a higher shutter speed. Capturing falling snow helps add interest to the scene and helps set the context for your viewer.

Flume Covered Bridge in Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, on a winter day.
Flume Covered Bridge

Spanning the Pemigewasset River in Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, the Flume Covered bridge was built in 1881. It is seen here on a winter day near Lincoln, New Hampshire.

Look For Contrast

One of the things about snow scenes is that the white stuff decreases the contrast significantly. Cameras use contrast to focus, so a lack of contract can make it difficult to make sharp images. But contrast is also pleasing to the eye, so when composing, you want to find contrasting tones or colors to help bring your scene to life. For instance, the bright Christmas tree in the fishing shack in my image "Christmas in Maine" above, stands out due to the warm light against the bluish tones of the predawn scene. Your eyes are drawn right to it. The same can be said for the red covered bridge in "Flume Covered Bridge", or the red maple sugar shack above. That stark contrast to the white and gray tones in the scene not only made for great places to focus on due to the contrast, but also made those compositions far more interesting. Imagine if the maple sugar shack was painted gray! How bland would that scene be?

Cape Neddick lighthouse, the Nubble light, stands watch over a wintry landscape on a January morning.
Winter Morning at Cape Neddick

Cape Neddick lighthouse, the Nubble light, stands watch over a wintry landscape on a January morning.

Here on the Maine coast, I'm still anxiously awaiting the first snowfall of the year. We haven't even had a flake yet! I hope these tips will help you as you capture the beauty and magic of the winter landscape.