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’ll share five critical winter landscape tips so you can start capturing beautiful snowy landscapes like the pros.
Specifically, I’ll discuss:
- The best time of day for winter landscape photography (this one might surprise you!)
- The right winter photography 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. Look for contrast to make those winter compositions stand out
After a few days of heavy snowfall, the landscape is 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, where you find a splash of darkness against the bright snow.
Here’s an example of color contrast, where I find 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 element and the viewer’s eyes would have no place to rest, which would make for a dud 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 a particularly pleasing in winter landscape scenes, but search for any dominant color or tonal variation. Perhaps there’s an autumn leaf laying on top of a thin layer of snow, or maybe it’s a few skiers wearing red jackets, or 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.
2. Overexpose for beautiful winter landscape photography
Say that you can’t find tonal or color contrast. You can still make great images, even with an utterly white landscape. You just need to use this trick:
Overexpose your image.
You see, if the landscape is white – especially if it’s snowing – a winter image can benefit from being a stop or two brighter. Just avoid clipping the highlights.
For instance, check out this image, which features very little tonal or color contrast:
I’ve added a bit of overexposure, so that the snow at the bottom of the frame is a near-pure white, and the sky at the top of the frame features a featureless white, as well. The snow-covered trees in the middle of the image, however, offer a desaturated green that almost looks gray, and it gives an interesting, even ghostly, sense of atmosphere. I also love how the slight overexposure helps convey just how cold you were when the shot was taken, plus it provides a sense of wonderful calmness.
The technique won’t work for every image. But plenty of snow landscape photography can benefit from a bit of brightness, plus it’ll help you retain detail in the shadows, which is always a good thing.
By the way, I’d recommend overexposing the shot by reducing the shutter speed. But make sure you have a sturdy tripod, and watch out for falling snow; a long exposure plus heavy snowflakes can white out your shot completely, so make sure to preview your LCD often, and don’t be afraid to raise your ISO or widen your aperture if necessary.
3. Choose a cold white balance for the best snow landscape photography
Technically, you can choose your white balance in camera or – if you’re photographing in RAW – in post-processing. Either of these options work 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, the point here is that winter is cold, so a beautifully cold white balance looks gorgeous, like this:
Note how the cool colors enhance the shot. 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 experiment 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 determine what you prefer.
4. Photograph during 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.
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’ll realize that it’s cold, dark, and sometimes snowy. In other words, during the blue hour, 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 in the middle of the day. But if I was 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.
5 – Bring Extra Batteries and Keep Them Warm!
The last tip is perhaps the most important when it comes to photographing cold climates in general – bring extra batteries. Batteries drain much quicker in winter and if you’re like me and use Live View for most shots, you need to bring at least a few extra batteries – just in case.
I tend to keep at least one spare battery in an inner pocket of my jacket to keep it from draining or failing in the cold temperature. I’ve also found that doing so will result in the battery lasting longer when you do start using it.
Lastly, related to keeping the batteries warm, you need to stay warm as well. Always be prepared and rather bring a layer too many than too few. You always want to have the opportunity to dress down, especially if you’re going on a hike.
Over to you
Do you get winter weather where you live? Get out and take some winter landscape shots and share them in the comments below. We’d love to see them.
Table of contents
- 5 Tips for Setting the Focus in Your Landscape Photography
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- 5 Tips for Better Winter Landscape Photography
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES