Snow conditions offer some wonderful opportunities for photography. However, taking photos in the snow can be a bit tricky. This is due to a number of reasons, from the brightness of the snow to the cold conditions that can hamper camera functions. Then there are the general winter issues, such as ice and cold, which can make conditions difficult for a photographer.
I have taken photos in the snow in places all over the world, from high altitude ski resorts to winter in Nordic countries like Finland, where the temperature has been below 30 degrees Celsius / Fahrenheit.
I’ll include some tips for getting good photos of snowy scenes, the camera settings you need for snow photography, some ideas for snow photos, and some tips on camera equipment and suggested accessories for snow photography. Let’s get started.
Tips for taking photos in the snow
Start with composition
Regardless of the type of camera you have and the subject or scene, the composition of your image should always be one of your key considerations.
Composition in photography is all about deciding what’s going to appear in the image and how the different elements of the image work. So you have to think about what exactly your image is – the subject – and compose around it.
There are lots of composition tips and tricks you can use to improve your image, from things like the rule of thirds to the use of colour, leading lines and so on. If you want some tips, check out my guide to composition in photography to get you started.
Shooting in the blue and golden hours.
Light is a key component of photography. Throughout the day, light changes in both direction and color. In the early morning and late afternoon, when the sun is just below the horizon, the light is very blue and cool-toned, and this time is known as the blue hour.
Just after sunrise and before sunset, the light is very yellow and warm-toned, and this period is known as the golden hour.
These hours of the day are good for photography in general, but they are especially good for photographing snow scenes. This is because snow is very reflective and tends to amplify and reflect light well. Because of this, a warm sunset or the cool tones of pre-dawn can look really good in a snowy scene.
It’s also worth bearing in mind when planning your snow shoots that you’ll generally be shooting in the winter season in most destinations. This means that the days will be shorter, giving you less time for daytime photography.
However, it does have the advantage that sunrise and sunset are closer together, and you can usually capture the golden and blue hours without having to get up too early or go to bed too late. When I have done winter photography in the Arctic Circle, I have sometimes found that the few hours of daylight are all golden all the time, which has made for fantastic photographic opportunities.
Focusing well in the snow
One of the things you may notice when shooting in the snow is that your camera or smartphone may have trouble locking focus, with the autofocus going back and forth. In the worst case scenario, it won’t be able to autofocus at all, and you won’t be able to take a photo. Or you may get an out-of-focus photo that’s not usable.
The reason for this is due to the way most camera focusing systems work. The focus function usually requires a contrasting area to focus on – any area of the scene with contrasting elements. A large expanse of white snow usually doesn’t have much contrast, so the camera doesn’t have much to focus on.
This problem is not specific to snow. You’ll often have the same problem if you try to take a picture of a wide open blue sky: the camera has nothing to focus on.
In both cases, the solution is to find something other than a uniform expanse to focus on. In the case of blue sky, it might be something like a cloud. In the case of snow, it could be a tree, a person, a building, an animal, or any object that stands out against the white snow.
You may have to change the camera’s focus mode and specifically select the object you want it to focus on to get the results you need. So, instead of full autofocus, you could switch to a single point and focus there.
If you’re still having trouble focusing with the autofocus system, check to see if your camera has a manual focus option. If it does, you can use it to override the autofocus system and get a sharp image. Note that not all cameras and lenses support manual focus. Most DSLR and mirrorless cameras do, but not all compacts or smartphones have manual focus.
Using the exposure compensation feature to photograph snow.
A very common problem I see when people in my photography course send me questions about photographing snow, is that their images come out darker than they expect, with snow photos looking gray instead of white.
Snow photos that come out too dark happen all the time, but fortunately there is a simple solution that works on almost all cameras and other devices.
First of all, you may be wondering why your snow photos come out too dark, or are “underexposed,” to use the correct photographic term. The reason is due to the way a camera evaluates the light in a scene. To put it simply, all the white snow in the scene confuses the camera, causing it to reduce the amount of light it captures and therefore underexposing the image.
The good news is that there’s a simple solution to gray snow in your photos. All you have to do is use your camera’s exposure compensation feature. This tells the camera to let in more light when taking the picture, and will result in a brighter image.
Almost every camera on the market, including smartphones, has an exposure compensation option. It will be available directly through a button on the camera itself, which looks like “+/-“, or through the camera’s menu.
Pressing the button should display a scale ranging from negative numbers to positive numbers, perhaps -3 to +3, with zero in the middle. Any number above zero will increase the brightness, any number below zero will decrease the brightness.
Each full positive increment of 1 (i.e. from 0 to 1 or from 2 to 2) will make the image twice as bright.
Each full negative increment of 1 (i.e., 0 to -1 or -1 to -2) will make the image half as bright.
For snow photography, a good rule of thumb is to increase the exposure by “+1”, also known as a stop. Then shoot and adjust if necessary.
You should be able to do this from most shooting modes, although this will vary by camera and device. If you have any problems, check your camera manual or search the internet for “exposure compensation + your camera model”.
Use a lens hood
A lens hood is simply an elongated piece of circular plastic that fits over the end of the lens, giving it an elongated appearance. Usually, the main reason for using a lens hood is to reduce unwanted reflections entering the lens from the sides of the shot, which can cause flare and other image quality problems in your photos.
In snow photography, there is often a lot of glare, as the snow is very bright, and a lens hood can help reduce this, giving you higher contrast and cleaner images.
However, even if it’s not sunny, a sunshade can offer benefits for snow photography. Primarily, if it’s snowing, a lens hood can help prevent snowflakes from falling directly onto the lens glass. This protection is why I almost always have a lens hood on my camera: it’s useful in both snow and rain to help keep the lens dry.
Some lenses come with a lens hood. If not, they are usually inexpensive for most cameras. You can buy them directly from the manufacturer or from third parties. Click here for a list of lens hoods. Make sure the lens hood is designed for your lens, as lenses have different diameters and the lens hood must match.
Try a polarizing filter
Another snow photography tip for cameras that support interchangeable lenses is to use a polarizing filter. A polarizing filter is a piece of glass that attaches to the lens and serves to filter out polarized light.
Polarized light is generally light that has been reflected from a certain type of surface, which includes snow. If you use a polarizing filter to photograph snow, you will reduce glare and enhance the contrast and colors of the image.
Polarizing filters have many uses in photography in general, from reducing reflections to making clouds in a blue sky stand out. So they are definitely a worthwhile investment for a range of photography subjects beyond snow photography. You can read more about polarizing filters here.
Use aperture priority or a special snow photography mode.
I like aperture priority because it allows me to easily control the depth of field of a photo, but frees me from worrying about adjusting shutter speed and ISO as I would have to do in manual. Of course, I keep an eye on these settings to make sure they are within acceptable parameters, but in general I prefer to let the camera take care of those things so I can focus on taking the photo itself.
When photographing snow, it’s mostly outdoor situations with lots of light, so I don’t have to worry about the shutter speed going too low or the ISO going too high. Instead, I can focus on composing my shot and capturing the moment.
Most cameras with an aperture priority mode allow you to set it through the camera’s mode dial. Aperture priority will be marked as “A” or “Av” in most cases.
If your camera doesn’t have an aperture priority mode, then you can check to see if it has a snow photography mode (or winter mode), which will help ensure properly exposed images. Alternatively, try portrait mode for shooting portraits, action mode if you’re capturing fast-moving action, or landscape mode for landscapes.
Shoot in RAW if available
For a long time, RAW was the exclusive domain of high-end digital SLR cameras. Today, however, there are many more devices that can shoot in RAW, including high-end smartphones from Apple and Samsung and high-end compact cameras.
A RAW file is an unprocessed (in most cases) version of the image file that does not sacrifice image data for file size. RAW files have a number of disadvantages, such as file size and having to edit them. However, the advantages are that you have much more control over the final look of the image when editing it.
Protect your equipment
When you’re shooting in the snow, you need to be aware of how conditions can affect your equipment.
For starters, when it’s cold, your battery will last less photos. You may not notice much difference if the temperatures are close to freezing, but as it gets colder you will definitely notice a big drop in capacity. That’s why it’s a good idea to carry spare batteries and store them in an inside pocket (like in a vest or inner jacket) to keep them warm.
Also, if you find yourself in very cold conditions, you’ll want to be careful about bringing your gear into a warm place like your home. The rapid change in temperature can cause condensation to build up even inside the camera, which won’t do the sensitive electronics any good. To avoid this, place the entire camera inside something like a sealed freezer bag before bringing it inside.
If the weather is even more extreme, then you can consider a camera case like this one, which will protect the entire camera from snow and rain. They are a useful accessory for photography in general, and they are not too expensive.
I have more tips for protecting your gear (and you) from the cold in my winter photography tips guide.
Our final tip for photographing snow is to be safe. Photographing snow is great fun and rewarding, but obviously you need to be careful in wintry conditions.
There are all sorts of dangers when it’s cold, from the health risks associated with the cold itself, such as hypothermia and frostbite, to slippery surfaces when it’s icy and avalanches.
Always put your health and safety first, even if it means missing out on a potential great shot. If you’re heading to remote locations, follow best practices and make sure someone knows where you are and what your itinerary is. If you’re traveling alone, make sure you have a way to contact someone local if you have any problems.
Camera settings for photographing snow.
I’ve covered this in part in the tips section, but here’s a quick summary of my suggested settings for snow photography for a few different types of cameras to get you started.
These are, of course, suggested settings to start with and you may need to adjust depending on your specific situation, image style, and device.
Snow photography settings for mirrorless / DSLR / manually controlled cameras.
If you have a mirrorless camera, DSLR camera, or other camera with manual controls, set it up as follows:
Aperture priority, wide apertures (f/1.2 – f/4) for shallow depth of field, and narrow apertures (f/8 – f/16) to focus on more of the scene.
ISO – Set the ISO to auto, or adjust it according to the light. Usually between 100 and 400 will be fine, except at night.
Shutter speed: Aperture priority will be set for you.
Exposure Compensation: Set to +1
RAW: Set the camera to capture images in RAW mode.
White balance: Set to auto and you can adjust it in post processing
Snow photography settings for compact camera / camera without manual control.
If you have a compact camera or a camera that doesn’t give you manual controls, try the following for photographing snow:
Set the camera to “snow” or “winter” mode if it has it (many do).
Exposure compensation: Almost all cameras have some kind of exposure compensation. Set it to +1. Your camera may have a “+/-” button; if it doesn’t, check your camera manual for the function.
White Balance: Auto
Flash: Off (see here for instructions on how to turn off the camera’s flash)
Snow photography settings for smartphone cameras.
If you have a smartphone, chances are you have limited manual control over many of the key settings. However, most smartphones these days are very smart, and should be able to get great snow photos without too much tweaking on your part. Some things you can try:
HDR mode enabled: this will ensure an evenly lit image throughout the frame.
Exposure compensation: Almost all smartphones have an exposure compensation function in the camera app. Set it to +1
White balance: Auto
Flash: Off (see here for instructions on how to turn off the camera’s flash)
Ideas for photographing snow
You’re all set to take some great photos in the snow. But you may be wondering what exactly to photograph. Here are some themes and types of images to consider.
A beautiful snowy landscape is a classic scene to photograph. My tips are to make sure there is good depth in your shot with defined foreground and background elements to give the viewer a sense of perspective and scale.
You can also use a subject such as a person to add some color and a human touch to the shot. Another option could be to use a snowman or other man-made object to interest the viewer.
Snow makes a great backdrop for wildlife photography. From a beautiful red-breasted robin to majestic deer, you can easily use an animal as a key subject in your snow photographs.
If you’re looking for fun ways to photograph people in the snow, I think capturing action is a great way to do it. It could be people having a snowball fight, sledding, building snowmen, skiing, making snow angels, or just out for a walk in a winter wonderland.
For action photography, you may want to switch to shutter priority instead of aperture priority if your camera supports it, as this way you can control whether you freeze your subject (fast shutter speed) or capture some of their movement (slow shutter speed).
Snow photography equipment
Snow photography doesn’t require specialized equipment to get great results, however you may consider investing in some of the following items to have a better experience and improve your images.
If you’re looking for more specific tips for different scenarios, we’ve got those covered too. Check out our guide on northern lights photography, long exposure photography, fireworks photography, tips for shooting the stars and cold weather photography.
We have a guide on how to use a compact camera, how to use a DSLR camera and how to use a mirrorless camera. We also have a guide on how to use a DSLR camera.
Knowing how to compose a good photo is a key photographic skill. Check out our guide to composition in photography for lots of tips on this topic.
We have a guide on what depth of field is and when to use it.
We’re all about getting the most out of your digital photo files, and to do that you’ll need to shoot in RAW. Check out our guide to RAW in photography to understand what RAW is, and why you should switch to RAW as soon as you can if your camera supports it.
We have a guide to the best photo editing apps including free and paid options.
You’ll need something to run your photo editing software. Check out our guide to the best laptops for photo editing for some tips on what to look for.
Colour accuracy is important for photography – check out our guide to monitor calibration to make sure your screen is set up correctly.
If you’re looking for a great gift for a photography-loving friend or family member (or yourself), check out our photography gift guide,
If you’re looking for a new camera, we have a detailed guide to the best travel cameras, as well as specific guides to the best hiking and backpacking cameras, the best compact camera, the best bridge camera, the best mirrorless camera and the best DSLR camera. We also have a guide to the best camera lenses.
If you want a camera or lens, but the prices are a bit steep, check out our guide on where to buy second hand cameras and camera gear to find some money saving options.
We have a guide on why you need a tripod, a guide to choosing a travel tripod and a round-up of our favourite travel tripods.
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You’ll get feedback from me as you go, access to webinars, interviews and videos, as well as exclusive membership to a Facebook group where you can get feedback on your work and participate in regular challenges.
It’s available for an incredible one-time price for lifetime access, and can also be purchased as a gift if you know someone who would like to learn photography. Learn more by clicking here.
And that’s it! I’d love to hear your thoughts on snow photography, and I’d be happy to answer any questions you have. Just post them in the comments below and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
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