Snow is stunningly beautiful, yet capturing gorgeous photos of snow can be surprisingly difficult. If you simply head out on a snow photoshoot without proper preparation, you may run into autofocus and exposure issues (plus, the weather can lead to all sorts of gear failures).
Fortunately, I’ve been photographing snow for years, and I know how to handle each and every one of the common snow photography problems. In this article, I share my absolute best tips for snow shots, including:
- The best snow photography settings
- The best time to head out for pictures in the snow
- How to keep your camera gear safe in the cold
- How to photograph falling snow for a beautiful, ethereal effect
- Magical snow picture ideas
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to learn how to take gorgeous photos in the snow, then let’s dive right in, starting with tip number one:
1. Focus on contrast (or use manual focus)
Camera autofocus works by identifying contrast. This works great in normal shooting situations – but when everything turns snowy and white, your autofocus will have a hard time acquiring focus, which can lead to a lot of frustration and even missed opportunities.
Fortunately, there’s a simple way around this:
Switch your camera to its single-point AF mode. Then position your main focus point over a contrast-heavy area of your snow scene. For instance, you might focus on the bark of a tree, some vegetation poking through the snow, the roof of a house – anything that pops against the white.
Next, press your shutter button halfway. If you’ve found a sufficiently contrasty part of the scene, the focus should lock – but if it still won’t work, you’ll need to identify an even more contrast-heavy subject.
Finally, hold down your shutter button as you recompose the shot. And once you’ve created the perfect composition, press the button the rest of the way to take your perfect photo of snow!
Note that if you’re trying to photograph a low-contrast scene, such as a white house against a snowy backdrop, you may want to give up on autofocus entirely. Switch your lens over to manual focus, then carefully turn your lens’s focus ring until you’ve achieved perfect sharpness. (For even better results, use your camera’s Live View mode to preview the image on the rear LCD and zoom in to check the focus at a high magnification.)
2. Choose the right camera settings for snow photography
While the best snow photoshoot settings will vary depending on the light, the situation, and your artistic intentions, I do have a few simple recommendations to keep your snow shots looking sharp and well-exposed.
First, set your camera to shoot in RAW. You see, when you use the RAW file format, you’ll have far more information to work with when editing. This will let you recover clipped shadows and highlights (and thanks to the brightness of sun on snow, the latter are pretty common in snow photography).
I’d also recommend selecting your camera’s Evaluative metering mode, also known as Matrix metering. This will analyze the entire scene to achieve the best possible exposure in most situations. If you’re struggling to get a good exposure, you can always try switching over to Spot metering or Partial metering, but Evaluative metering is a good starting point.
Third, shoot in Aperture Priority mode. It’ll allow you to adjust the aperture and ISO while your camera automatically changes the shutter speed (with the goal of achieving a good exposure).
Aperture Priority mode is a great way to gain control over different camera settings without feeling totally overwhelmed. It’s also a lifesaver in cold weather because you generally only need to spin a dial to adjust your aperture (cold fingers aren’t so great at doing complex operations!).
(Another option is to shoot in Manual mode. However, in Manual mode, you’ll need to adjust all your settings, not just the aperture and ISO, so Manual mode isn’t ideal if you’re still wrapping your head around exposure, nor is it great for fast-moving situations. But if you want complete control over your camera settings, and you don’t mind working with cold fingers, then Manual mode is an excellent choice.)
Once your camera is set to Aperture Priority mode, you’ll need to choose an aperture and an ISO. I’d recommend setting your ISO at its base level (generally ISO 100, though this can change depending on your camera). This will keep your images looking clean and free of noise.
As for your aperture setting: This really depends on your artistic interests. A wide aperture (such as f/2.8) will give a beautiful shallow depth of field look, but a narrow aperture (such as f/11) will keep most or all of the shot in focus, which can help highlight all the intricate details in a snowy landscape. If you’re not sure which aperture to choose for your snow photography, try shooting two images of each scene – a wide-aperture shot and a narrow-aperture shot – then compare them when you get home and see which you like best.
After you’ve chosen an aperture and an ISO, take a look at your shutter speed. Your camera will choose this based on exposure considerations, but if you’re shooting handheld, you’ll want to make sure the shutter is fast enough to ensure a sharp shot (1/100s or so is a good starting point, though it’s a good idea to experiment so you have a sense of your own handholding skills and limitations). If the shutter speed is too slow, go ahead and either widen the aperture or raise the ISO, which will force the shutter speed upward.
Finally, you’ll generally need to dial in one or two stops of positive exposure compensation. Due to the quirks of its meter, your camera will try to make the snow look gray, and exposure compensation will counteract this effect to keep things bright. Note that your shutter speed may drop below its acceptable limit (see the previous paragraph), and if that happens, you’ll need to adjust your aperture or ISO to move the shutter in the right direction.
3. Use the right snow photography gear
You can capture gorgeous snow photos with any gear, but if you’re looking to really elevate your shots, I do have a few recommendations.
First, make sure you use a camera with a larger sensor and strong high-ISO capabilities. On dark, cold, snowy days, the light is often relatively limited, and you’ll need to boost your ISO to capture sharp handheld shots, so an impressive sensor can make a big difference. A full-frame mirrorless camera like the Canon EOS R5 or the Sony a7 IV will do an amazing job, though you can also get great results using an APS-C mirrorless model (e.g., the Nikon Z50 or the Canon EOS R10) or a DSLR.
Second, if you plan to shoot in bad weather, make sure you pick a weather-sealed lens. The focal length isn’t especially important, though it should match your interests; you don’t want to shoot with a super-telephoto lens if you’re trying to capture snowscapes! If you’re not sure what type of images you want to capture, consider using a 50mm prime lens (which works great for street photography, portraits, and walkaround photography) or a 24-70mm zoom (which is extremely flexible and can handle both wide-angle landscapes and tighter shots).
Third, if you’ll be working with limited light, be sure to use a sturdy tripod or at least a monopod. That way, you can keep your shots sharp even when the sky is heavily overcast or covered by falling snow.
You also shouldn’t neglect your own winter gear; make sure you wear warm clothes, a heavy coat, a warm hat, and warm but flexible gloves. You don’t want to head out only to end up with frostbite (and it’s also worth noting that, if you’re shivering due to the cold, it’s tougher to capture sharp shots!).
4. Capture snow while it’s still fresh
If you want magical photos, head out just after a fresh snowfall. The world will be sparkly and pristine. You won’t have any footprints, yellow snow, mud, or dirt to deal with; instead, you can focus on creating stunning shots of your winter wonderland.
That said, if you want footprint-free snow, you should plan the photos you’re going to take and the order you’ll take them in. Otherwise, you might accidentally trample the snow during the shooting process, which will ruin your ability to capture future pristine photos.
Note that pristine snow doesn’t last long. Capturing fresh snow might also mean heading out early to shoot (before the kids get up!), or monitoring the weather and getting outside just as the snow stops. Of course, if your schedule isn’t quite so flexible, that’s okay. Just take your camera to an area that you know people won’t disturb, like a forest or field.
5. Keep your batteries warm
You can’t take pictures in snow without fresh batteries – and unfortunately, in cold weather, your batteries won’t last long.
So carry at least two batteries, and keep one in an inside pocket at all times. (Depending on your camera’s battery life, I’d even recommend shooting with three or four batteries. You can grab third-party options online for cheap.)
When the battery in your camera runs low, replace it with a warm one. Then put the drained battery in an inner pocket; you may even be able to use it again once it warms up.
6. Bag your camera when you come inside
When you take a cold camera into a warm environment, what happens? You get condensation on the lens and potentially even on camera internals, which is – you guessed it! – not good. (If you’re really unlucky, it can lead to mold.)
Fortunately, it’s an easy problem to prevent.
When you head out into the cold, bring along a large ziplock bag. I usually keep one in my camera bag or jacket pocket. Then, when you’re ready to go inside, just fill the ziplock bag with cold air, put your camera in the bag, and make sure the lock is sealed tight.
Once you’re in the house, put your camera somewhere it can warm up slowly. When the camera reaches room temperature, you can take it out of the bag and use it normally.
(And if you decide to go back outside to photograph after a brief rest in the house, you can safely take your bagged camera out in the cold, open the bag outside, and start shooting again.)
Note that you’ll need to bag your cold camera before taking it into any warm environment, including stores, heated elevators, and a heated car. Therefore, if you want to photograph an outdoor snow scene and a beautiful interior in a single photoshoot, capture the indoor areas first, then go outside. That way, you won’t get stuck waiting around while your camera warms up (which often takes several hours!).
7. Shoot in any light
Snowy landscapes look good in both sunny and cloudy weather, so don’t restrict yourself to shooting in specific light. Simply learn to work with the lighting conditions you’re given!
When the sky is cloudy, find elements that will break up the white snow and add interest to your photos, such as trees, grass, or ice. You can also look for intricate landscapes, such as grasses against snow or patterns in frozen puddles and streams.
When the weather is sunny, look for shadows created by the bright sun, and try converting your shots to black and white. If you shoot in the early morning or evening, do what you can to capture the warm light on the cold snow. Consider using a wide-angle lens and see if you can find a high angle that really conveys the expanse of the landscape.
You can also capture beautiful blue-hour snowscapes, though you’ll need a tripod to keep your camera steady for a lengthy exposure. If you do decide to go this route, I recommend identifying several potential compositions in advance, then setting up a few minutes before the blue hour arrives. Once the light gets going, take plenty of shots, but be careful not to touch your camera; you don’t want to cause any blur due to vibrations! Here, a remote shutter release can be extremely helpful.
8. Photograph when the snow starts falling
Some photographers don’t like to take their cameras out in bad weather, which is perfectly understandable; just know that snowy days often provide amazing opportunities for images!
Here are just a few ideas for photography on snowy days:
- Birds huddled in snow-covered trees
- Trees surrounded by a minimalist expanse of white
- Pedestrians hunched over against the wind
- Plants with little “hats” of snow
- Cityscapes with blowing snow and warm lights in the distance
If your goal is to capture scenes that feature falling snow, you’ll want to avoid using lengthy shutter speeds, which will simply blur the snow into near-invisible streaks. Make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the snow (if needed, you can always boost the ISO – noise doesn’t show up as clearly when mixed in with snowflakes!).
Of course, be sure to protect your camera, especially if the snow is wet and/or heavy. Consider using a rain cover or – if the wind is minimal – an umbrella. I’d also recommend carrying a towel, which you should use to wipe any stray flakes off your camera and lens, as well as a rocket blower, which you should use to blow snow off the front lens element. It’s also a good idea to use a lens hood to prevent snow from landing on the front element, though you’ll need to check the front of your lens frequently to make sure it’s snow-free.
9. Act fast
Snow changes quickly. It can stop falling in an instant. And when the sun comes out, snow melts, so that those beautiful trees go from dazzling to drab in no time at all.
Monitor the weather carefully. Look out your window frequently. Have your gear ready to go.
And if you come up with a snow picture idea that you like, or if you look out the window and see beautiful snow photoshoot opportunities, don’t dawdle. Capture some snow photography while you still can!
10. Be patient
This tip is a corollary to the one above – because while it’s important to always be ready, it’s also important to be patient, especially when you’re faced with rapidly changing conditions.
You see, depending on the light, snow can look sparkly, ethereal, three-dimensional, flat, and so much more. Sometimes, getting the right look simply involves waiting for the light to change.
So if the snow doesn’t look quite how you hoped, check the light. Is the sun behind a cloud? Is the sun too low or high in the sky?
Then wait for the right conditions to take your shot.
11. Play with perspective
As with all forms of photography, composition is an essential ingredient of great snow photos – so you should pay very careful attention to the items you’re including in the frame, and you should also carefully consider your perspective.
For creative snow photos, try getting down low to shoot up, like this:
You might also find a deck or a hill that you can use to shoot downward; that way, you can show how the snow blankets the ground, weighs things down, and clings to everything.
And for each photo you take, look for opportunities to make the shot even better. Walk to either side of your subject, consider different angles, get in close, walk far away, even change lenses. After all, who knows what gorgeous photos await?
12. Capture some sparkly bokeh
A sunny winter day is a great time to create bokeh thanks to all the sparkling snow and ice.
You see, pinpricks of light – e.g., light sparkling on snow – when rendered out of focus, can create outstanding bokeh effects, like this:
So here’s what you do:
First, look for a subject that has something bright or shiny in the background. This background element could be light reflecting off melting snow, light broken by tree branches, or light shining through ice. Set your camera to a wide-open aperture (e.g., f/2.8 or f/4), and make sure there is some distance between your subject and the shiny background.
Thanks to the wide aperture, your subject will be in focus, but not the shiny background elements. And when you hit the shutter button, you’ll get lovely background bokeh!
Pro tip: You’ll get the best results if you can get close to your subject, so pick your closest-focusing lens and have fun!
Snow photography tips: final words
Will you be out taking photos on the next snow day? I’m planning on it, and I hope you are, too.
Have fun with your snow photography and experiment with different settings for creative results. Just remember to dress for the weather and protect your gear!
Now over to you:
Which of these snow photography tips and ideas do you plan to try? Do you have any snow photoshoot tips I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!