Shooting White: 6+ Winter Photography Tips You Need to Know

Winter is a beautiful time of year but it can be a challenging season for photographers. Overcast skies and snowy scenes can easily cause blown highlights and tricky contrast situations, resulting in less-than-desirable photos. But with a few minor tweaks, winter photography can also result in some of your most gorgeous images yet.

Here are a few of my winter photography tips and tricks to help you overcome these winter conditions and get the shot you want.

1. Make the most of limited lighting

Long gone are those summer days that seem to stretch on and on. Depending where you are, your daylight may only last a few hours. Plan ahead and take advantage of your blue and golden hours , the hours around sunset and sunrise where natural sunlight is the least harsh.

While the midday sun can create high-contrast between light snowy areas and dark shaded areas, during sunset the golden rays reflect off of the ice and snow, making for some spectacular photographic opportunities.

2. Use white space to your advantage

The photographic term " white space " refers to intentionally leaving a portion of your photograph open to try to convey an emotion or sense of movement. When shooting winter photography, it's easy to see only white — but you can use this to your advantage. Remember white space doesn't always have to be white; it can be any open area that is unoccupied in your photo.

In the example above, I intentionally left white space in front of the skiers to convey a sense of moving forward and exploring the unknown.

3. Blown highlights

Probably one of the most common troubles photographers run into during winter is blown highlights. Highlights are the whitest parts of your photograph. Especially with snowy scenes, it is very easy to overexpose your photo, turning your winter wonderland into a blinding flash of light.

You can playback your image to see how your picture turned out, but your photo may look completely different on your computer compared to the tiny little LCD on the back of your camera. This is where your histogram really comes in handy.

Using your histogram for winter photography

The histogram is a graph that displays the tones of your image from black on the left, to white on the right. If your photo has blown highlights, you will see that there is a lot of data smooshed on the far right of the graph. This means there are a lot of white pixels in your photo.

Try taking the picture again with a darker exposure and notice how this moves the histogram data to the left, adding more contrast to your highlights. This is a great tool for any situation, but for winter photography, it can be especially helpful to get that perfect exposure.

4. Shoot RAW

Did you know that even the best cameras can only "see" a fraction as well as your eyes can see? No matter how good your camera is, it won't look the same at home as it did when you saw it with your own two eyes. When using the normal JPEG setting, the camera automatically compresses the image file to make it smaller.

Shooting RAW files instead stores all of the data from the photograph so you can go back and edit properties like saturation, exposure, and clarity more accurately using post-processing programs like Photoshop and Lightroom . Photographers use these programs to recreate a more accurate representation of the scene to what they saw with their eyes.

5. Protect your gear

Freezing temperatures, falling snow and harsh wind can wreak havoc on delicate photography equipment. Keep these tips in mind before braving the winter weather:

  • Don't change your lens too often. You don’t want to get moisture or condensation inside your camera or your lens.
  • Bring rain covers for your gear. Even if it’s not raining or snowing, you never know when a few flakes could fall off a tree branch!
  • Use a camera strap. Even if you don't usually use a camera strap, winter is the best time to break it out. When your hands are cold, they have less dexterity and grip. It’s easier for the camera to slip out of your hands when they are cold or wet.
  • Let your gear come warm up slowly. Before you come inside, put your camera and lenses in sealable plastic bags. That way the condensation forms on the bag not the gear. (You can take out your memory card first, if you want.)
  • Keep extra batteries close to your body. Even a battery that says it’s dead or nearly dead can come back to life if you warm it up. If you have at least one extra battery, swap batteries from time to time, taking one from the camera and putting it inside your shirt to keep it warm. 

6. Stay warm and be careful

You shouldn't let the winter weather keep you from going outside to shoot, but you should be prepared before you brave the storm. Dress in layers (fingerless gloves are a godsend for photographers!) and watch out for ice.

Do you have any other winter photography tips? Share them in the comment section below!

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Editor's Note: This post was originally published in November 2015 and was updated in January 2018. It also includes contributions from Kevin Pepper.
February 05, 2018
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Shooting White: 6+ Winter Photography Tips You Need to Know