Winter landscape photography is a lot of fun – and it doesn’t have to be hard, either, assuming you know the right techniques!
In this article, I share 16 critical winter landscape tips so you can start capturing beautiful snowy landscapes like the pros. Specifically, I discuss:
- The best time of day for winter landscape photography (this one might surprise you!)
- How to work with the weather
- The right winter camera settings
- How to enhance your winter landscape compositions
- Much, much more!
So if you’re ready to take your winter images to the next level, then let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:
1. Pay attention to the weather
Weather can be the difference between an exhilarating photoshoot and a wasted handful of hours – so it’s always important to check the weather in advance, follow the weather on your phone, and constantly observe the conditions while you’re out shooting.
There’s not one best type of weather for winter landscape photography, of course. Instead, you need to think about the type of images you want to create, then make plans that coincide with your weather requirements. For instance:
- If you want to photograph a pristine snowfall at sunrise, make sure you choose a morning just after the snow has ended so that the blanket of white is completely undisturbed.
- If you want to photograph mountains or trees in a snowstorm, make sure you head out in the thick of the snow (or just before the snow starts). It can help to observe the snowflakes before setting off to make sure they’re reasonably large and are falling sufficiently fast; otherwise, you may struggle to capture the kind of moody winter landscape you’re pursuing.
You should also watch the weather for safety reasons. If you plan to photograph a snowy mountain scene from a high altitude, you’ll want to avoid driving in during a blizzard. Instead, you should wait until the snow stops or head out in advance. That way, you can capture the photos you want, but you don’t risk yourself or your gear in the process.
2. Make the most of winter’s longer dusks and dawns
In spite of the colder temperatures, one of the joys of winter is that the sun tends to linger longer at dusk and dawn. It also remains lower in the sky throughout the day, providing great light.
If you can brave the elements and venture outside to capture these magical moments during the winter, you are more likely to have a productive shoot and be rewarded for your efforts. One advantage of photographing at dusk and dawn in the winter is that sunrise is much later than in the summer, and sunset is earlier.
3. Set the alarm for earlier than necessary
You’ve calculated that the sun rises at 6:00 a.m., you want to get there by 5:30 to set up, it takes you 10 minutes to get there, so you set the alarm for 5:10. But be honest, it never works like this does it?
The alarm goes off at 5:10, it’s cold, you’re snug in bed, it’s dark outside, you were in the midst of a dream, and you roll back over. Missed sunrise.
How often do you ever jump straight out of bed at 5:10 to take photos, in the midst of winter? By learning this mistake, I set the alarm for 4:40 then give myself three hits on the snooze button to take me to 5:10. It never fails (unless it’s cloudy!).
4. Look for contrast to make those winter compositions stand out
After a few days of heavy snowfall, the landscape will be completely white: white trees, white lakes, white mountains, and (normally) a white sky. And when everything is white, it’s quite challenging to find a compositional focal point as nothing really catches the eye.
So what do you do?
You look for contrast – either color contrast, where you find a splash of red, blue, or green against the white – or tonal contrast, such as a splash of darkness against the bright snow.
Here’s an example of color contrast, where I found a red house against a white and gray background:
The red color is what makes this picture interesting. Without it, the scene would lack a focal point and the viewer’s eyes would have no place to rest, which would make for a bad shot.
Happily, contrast is easy to find on snowy days because it’ll catch your eye just the same as it’ll catch a photo viewer’s eye. So you can just go around with your camera, searching for an eye-catching element or two. Make sense?
By the way, I find red color contrast to be particularly pleasing in winter landscape scenes, but you can really search for any dominant color or tonal variation. Maybe there’s an autumn leaf laying on top of a thin layer of snow, or maybe you can see a few skiers wearing red jackets, or maybe you’re standing before a dark mountain surrounded by white. Just find a dominant color or tone in the otherwise white landscape, then use careful composition techniques to make it a standout focal point.
5. Photograph colorful scenes when the sun is out
Make the most of the winter light and shoot brightly-lit scenes. The bright white snow adds a certain beauty to a winter scene and can make a dull subject more interesting. A great time to shoot colorful winter scenes is when the sun is shining.
Seek out colorful vistas that may include an animal, a tree, people, a house, a building, or even a snowman. Capture their warm colors in the glowing light. You may find you will need to overexpose a touch if your pictures are coming out slightly dark to make your images slightly lighter.
6. Don’t be afraid to use manual focus
As I mentioned above, winter landscapes can be intensely white – and when you’re dealing with monochromatic scenes, your camera will often struggle to lock focus.
When that happens, you have two options, both of which are generally effective. First, you can try using the focus-and-recompose technique. Simply set your camera to its AF-S (or One-Shot AF) setting, set the AF point to the center of the frame, half-press your shutter button to lock focus on an area of clear contrast in the scene, then recompose the shot. As long as you can find some part of your shot that’s contrasty – a few rocks, a lone tree, or a river – you’ll manage to capture a photo that’s both in-focus and well-composed.
Occasionally, however, you’ll run into a situation where your scene features very little contrast or the only clear contrast exists far behind your main subject. In the latter situations, I’d recommend switching your lens over to manual focus. Then set your camera to Live View, zoom in on your LCD, and carefully adjust the lens focus ring until you get a perfect result!
7. Use exposure compensation to ensure you capture plenty of detail
Camera meters are generally accurate, but they come with a significant problem:
They believe that everything should be a neutral gray tone. So while your camera’s meter will do a great job of properly exposing for medium-toned subjects, a bright white subject – like snow – will cause major underexposure. (Why underexposure? Your camera sees the bright snow and tries to darken it down until it turns gray!)
Fortunately, cameras offer an easy solution: You can add in a stop or two of positive exposure compensation (or, if you’re using Manual mode, you can deliberately overexpose). The perfect amount of exposure compensation depends on the scene, so I’d recommend testing out a few exposure adjustments to see what works. Just pay careful attention to the highlights; you don’t want the snow to become a detailless white!
I sometimes lighten my winter landscapes even further because I like to create a bright-white effect:
Such an artistic technique won’t work for every image. But plenty of snow landscape photography can benefit from a bit of extra brightness, and you can always create multiple shots and see which you prefer!
8. Choose a cold white balance to amplify the atmosphere
Technically, you can choose your white balance in camera or – if you’re photographing in RAW – in post-processing. Either of those options works well, though sometimes it’s nice to see a preview of the white balance in camera, so don’t shy away from doing it that way (and remember: you can always change it later!).
Anyway, because winter is cold, a colder (i.e., bluer) white balance tends to look gorgeous:
Note how the cool colors enhance the shot above. The image feels frigid, wouldn’t you say? That’s thanks to the color balance.
Now, I don’t recommend you go overboard. You don’t need your shot to look like it came from a blue alien planet. But feel free to push the white balance, experiment, and see what you get!
You’re also free to tweak the white balance in post-processing, assuming you’ve shot in RAW. You can use the Temperature slider to move back and forth between warm and cool effects, and you can decide which look you prefer.
9. Seek out intimate winter landscape scenes
Many landscape photographers feel compelled to capture sweeping shots that include everything in the composition…
…but did you know that you can also create beautiful photos from intimate subjects? I’m talking about those small-scale scenes that are easy to pass by without noticing, such as:
- Berries in the snow
- Bubbles trapped in ice
- Plants poking out from under the snow
- Drooping tree branches
Winter’s embrace creates unique opportunities for abstracts and patterns. Ice on small ponds will be filled with cracks and bubbles. Generally, the more thawing and freezing that has occurred, the more the ice takes on an artistic quality. On foggy days, hoarfrost can cling to trees and prairie grass creating silvery outlines that accentuate the cold feel of the season.
Look for these patterns and use a macro or telephoto lens to zoom in and focus on them. Sometimes even the simplest patterns and shapes that are created or isolated by snow and ice can become compelling subjects.
Finding intimate landscape shots can be difficult at first, but with a bit of practice, you’ll start to notice all sorts of opportunities. And while you’re free to experiment with different camera setups, I’d recommend starting with a 50mm lens or a short telephoto macro lens. Then just see what you can create!
10. Photograph during the blue hour for ethereal winter landscapes
The blue hour refers to the time just before sunrise and just after sunset when the sun sits below the horizon and the world goes all beautiful and blue. During the blue hour, you still have enough light to shoot, yet nothing is lit directly. The light is soft and gorgeous.
And it works great for winter landscape photography.
You see, the soft light caresses the snow, making for a fairytale effect. And if your photo includes streetlights or house lights, the composition can turn even more magical. Here’s an example blue-hour image:
See the magical effect? And do you see how the lights from the cabins look truly gorgeous against the cold background?
Spend a few days shooting during blue hour, and you may start to feel overwhelmed by the cold and darkness; in other words, you’ll probably want to stay inside underneath a blanket.
But do yourself a favor. Force yourself to put on a coat, grab that camera, and get outside. The images will be worth it, even if the cold hits you like a blast in the face!
Note: You can still capture beautiful snowy landscape shots during sunrise and sunset or even around noon. But if I were able to choose just one time of day to head out with my camera during winter, it would be the blue hour. It really is that amazing.
11. Try photographing winter prairie scenes
If you don’t live near rugged mountains, gorgeous boreal forests, or stunning seascapes, don’t give up; did you know that you can capture amazing images of winter landscapes on the prairie? Sure, it can be a challenge to capture the essence of this cold terrain, but there are a few tips that can help you capture a winter landscape on the prairie. Specifically:
Embrace the sky
The prairie’s grassland flows into eternity, eventually joining with the sky at the horizon. If you want to capture the essence of the openness of the prairie, including a lot of sky is a good idea. Use a wide-angle lens, usually something in the range of 11-24mm and tilt the lens to include a large portion of the sky.
A recent snow will become a huge light reflector taking on the ambient hues. During sunrise and sunset, the snow can take on all sorts of hues – oranges, reds, purples, that give the prairie an otherworldly quality. Take advantage of these times to convey that even on the coldest days there can be a bit of warmth.
Love the little details
While capturing grand wide-angle prairie shots can be fun, be sure to get near the ground. Don’t be afraid to get your clothes dirty and wet while getting low. Tracks in snow, prairie grass, snow on branches, these little details help provide context and shape the story of winter on the prairie.
Choose a fairly wide open aperture to give the background a nice blur and isolate your subject. Including the low sun in the composition can add an additional interesting element to the composition of a winter landscape.
Be open to other options
When preparing for a sunrise or sunset shoot on the prairie it’s always a good idea to keep your options open. Scout around and find 3-4 locations facing in various directions, just in case the light turns out better in one direction than another. Find your ideal positioning and frame some shots in all of these locations so that you can quickly move if conditions change, and always assume they will.
Set up your tripod in your ideal location and frame your shot. As the light changes check the locations and angles you chose earlier. If you use a quick release with your tripod you can remove your camera quickly to check if there are stronger compositions. If so, grab your tripod move to the new shot. You’ll find your keeper rate will rise with a little pre-planning!
12. Bring extra batteries and keep them warm
If you photograph in the bitter cold, then this tip is absolutely essential. Batteries drain much quicker in winter, and if you shoot mirrorless or you use Live View for most compositions, you’ll soon find yourself without a drop of charge – unless you remember to bring plenty of extra batteries. Original-manufacturer batteries can be pretty pricey, so you might want to consider purchasing third-party batteries. (Some people love them and some people hate them; in the end, the choice is yours!)
By the way, it’s a good idea to keep spare batteries in an inner pocket of your jacket. That way, the batteries stay warm, which prevents the charge from draining fast. And once you’ve finished with a battery, put it back in your coat; you can sometimes “resurrect” dead batteries with a bit of coat warmth!
(Make sure, however, you don’t put your camera in your coat. That may cause the lens elements to fog up, which is very problematic.)
13. Keep your gear clean and safe
Snow and cold may not seem quite as threatening to your gear as rain or sea spray, but they can still cause problems. Snow can collect on the front of your lens and cause blur; it can also melt inside your lens and – if left unchecked – lead to mold or rust. And cold can cause your equipment to fog up and/or turn frosty, neither of which are good for your images (or your gear!).
Therefore, I encourage you to take a handful of steps to actively prevent cold-weather problems:
- Don’t change lenses in snowy conditions
- Keep a towel and rocket blower handy to wipe the snow off your camera and lens
- If the snow is heavy, consider using a rain cover
- Always leave your gear in a tightly sealed bag when moving from cold to warm environments (and give the gear a few hours to acclimate before taking it back out)
- Don’t breathe on the front of your lens
14. Keep yourself warm
One of the most important challenges with photographing winter scenes is keeping warm. It is amazing how quickly your body temperature can fall when standing still photographing in the cold.
Wear layers to keep the heat in (thermal and wool base layers work really well). Wrap up warm with gloves and a hat and consider hand (heat) warmers. These are great for heating your hands after they have exposed them to the elements, especially if you have to remove your gloves to navigate the camera buttons when taking photos.
There are winter gloves designed specifically for photographers. The thumb and forefinger flip back so you can keep your hands warm while photographing. Consider investing in a pair if you will be in snow and cold a lot.
Also, bring snacks and water to stay energized and hydrated.
15. Consider purchasing shoes with spikes
Think about it – you’re an avid photographer who has set up a kit to your liking with lenses, filters, batteries and your camera. You put it in your bag, put your shoes on, head to the wet, rocky location then bammo, you fall over on the freezing, slippery moss. Either you or your bag gets wet, and neither is a desired result. There’s nothing scarier than trying to keep your bag on your back and out of the water as you slip around the rocks on ill-equipped shoes.
I have fisherman’s boots that cost $40. They have small metal spikes on the sole, perfect for getting across the rocks, and for scurrying to new locations quickly. They’re waterproof too. Alternatively, you could try the little clamp-ons that hikers use in icy conditions. They work well too, but your shoes will get cold and wet.
16. Don’t forget to edit your winter landscape shots!
As a landscape photographer, you should do your best to get your photos right in the field.
Yet you should also spend time editing your winter landscape shots, if only briefly. A bit of editing can dramatically improve nearly every winter landscape you capture, so I encourage you to review each image, then test out a few presets or play around with a few sliders (at the very least).
In particular, I’d recommend tweaking the white balance (as I mentioned above, I favor a cooler color cast, but you can push the Temperature slider until you get an effect you like), adding a bit of contrast, subtly boosting the exposure, fine-tuning the tones (especially the highlights and shadows), and experimenting with different hues and saturations.
Your editing skills will develop over time, but even a few minor adjustments can go a long way!
Winter landscape photography: final words
Hopefully, you can now confidently photograph winter landscapes – so the next time you get a nice snowfall, head outside! Take some photos, appreciate the beauty, and have plenty of fun.
Now over to you:
Which of these tips do you plan to use first? Do you have any winter landscape photography techniques of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- 5 Tips for Setting the Focus in Your Landscape Photography
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- 5 Tips for Better Winter Landscape Photography
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES