8 tips for shooting outdoors and snow this winter

Person with tripod in snow taking photos
Photo by Inu/Shutterstock

Don’t be afraid to take your camera outside to capture friends and family playing in the snow. Sledding, skating, and snowman building make for some great winter photos, as long as your camera is programmed appropriately. Whenever possible, use your camera’s RAW format, remember to bring your tripod, buff up on your camera’s exposure, shutter speed, and colour settings, and keep yourself tuned in to the weather forecast in case of snow.

For anyone who is heading out on their first winter photography excursion, take a look at the eight tips below to get started. Whether you are heading out to capture the joy of making snow angels, or to shoot the flawless beauty of a snow-covered landscape, these tips will help make sure your winter photos are the best they can be.

Temperature matters

When it comes to winter photography, there are two things to remember: keep your camera cold and your batteries warm. If you decide to take your camera from the warmth of your house out into the blistery winter wonderland, make sure you do it slowly. A sudden change in camera temperature can create fog and even harmful condensation on the lens. To avoid lens fog, let your camera adjust to the cold slowly. It could be useful to put your camera in the refrigerator for a little while before you head outside. In case fog does happen, remember some microfiber cloths to wipe off your lenses in the field.

However, while your camera needs to adjust to the cold, your batteries really need to retain their cozy indoor temperatures. Cold batteries drain much quicker, which means you’ll need to carry extra batteries on any winter photography adventures. Keep the batteries in an inside coat pocket to ensure they retain as much warmth as possible until they are needed. If the temperature starts to drop significantly, the best thing for you and your camera is to head inside and try again tomorrow.

Overexpose yourself

During the day, you’ll need to adjust your exposure; letting extra light in will help keep the snow from acquiring a bluish tinge. Overexposure helps compensate for your camera’s metering system, especially if the sun is out. Adjust your exposure-compensation dial by one- or two-thirds to let in more light and keep your snow from turning blue.

To help keep your snow nice and white, you can also use a grey card and adjust your white balance, or turn your flash on; both methods should help reduce the blue cast often found in winter landscape shots.

Use a tripod

Winter is a much darker time of the year, due to the shorter days, so that means you’ll most likely end up shooting in low light. Due to the harsh contrasts sunlight can create on a wintery scene, it can actually be more beneficial to shoot on an overcast day, or even at night.

The snow acts as a reflector, making night shots brighter, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use a tripod. Use a long shutter speed, anything below 1/15 to ensure your shots of the winter landscape, lit-up houses, and family fun are in focus and visually appealing. Check out Canon’s e-store for different tripod options.

Speed things up

If you’re heading out during the storm to capture the falling snow, you’re going to need to keep a few things in mind. First of all, make sure your camera is adequately protected. You don’t want to cause any damage to your equipment. Bring a tripod to keep the camera out of the snow, and set up an umbrella or protective plastic to keep the moisture off your lens. Now you can start playing with your shutter speed.

Even if the snowfall is relatively gentle, a slower shutter speed will make it look like you braved a blizzard. If you are photographing a still subject, such as a tree, bird, or house, this method will be especially effective. However, if you want to capture the falling snow as big, round snowflakes, you’ll need to use a faster shutter speed. A recommended speed for freezing flakes is 1/250th of a second, but it really depends on how fast the snow is falling. If you use a wide aperture, your shot will include some close-up in-focus snowflakes, as well as out-of-focus flakes in the distance. Experiment with your shutter speed until you get the effect you desire.

Get there first

When it comes to a fresh snowfall, being the first one at the scene is vital. The wind might pick up and blow the snow right out of the trees, the sun might heat things up, or people might start trampling across the pristine landscape. As a photographer, you should be the first one outside. Forget showering; grab something to eat on the way and get out there before it’s too late.

When you do head out to capture the stunning beauty of a fresh snowfall, make sure you shoot first, explore later. Your own footprints might end up destroying a perfect winter scene. Take as many photos as you can before heading further out to see what else the snow has to offer.

The snowflake close-up

Capturing an individual snowflake can be tricky, but it is worth the effort because you are guaranteed a one-of-a-kind image. First of all, you need a lens capable of extreme close-ups. You can also use an extension tube, which is relatively inexpensive and allows your camera to focus on something really close. Next, you’ll need a dark piece of fabric for the snowflake to land on.

If the temperature is just right, the snowflakes will be fully formed and ready to photograph as soon as they touch down. Keep in mind you will probably need to experiment and readjust, and you will definitely need a lot of patience.

Consider colour

Snowy scenes are often best captured in black and white, thanks to the contrast of snow and shadows in a landscape. However, adding a pop of colour can be a great way to make your winter photographs stand out. It can be hard to find colour in winter scenes, which often tend to be gray and dreary, so you might have to get creative. Bright red barns, rainbow scarves, orange sleds, or colourful cars add a pop of colour into an otherwise black and white scene.

Another great way to add a little colour to your snowy scene is to shoot at sunrise or sunset. Golden hour offers extended shadows and sun-tinted, snow-covered hills. You can also brave the harsh contrasts and shoot in the middle of a beautifully sunny day. The bright blue sky against the whitewashed world produces an intensely stunning outcome if you follow all the above tips.

Dress for the weather

It might seem like a no-brainer to bring your hat and gloves, but also keep in mind that outdoor and landscape photography keeps you still most of the time, so the layers you normally wear when you head out on a winter stroll might not be enough to keep you warm when you stop moving. And don’t forget to bring some sunglasses; snow blindness is no joke. Finally, one of the most important things to wear on a winter photography excursion is a pair of warm boots. Your toes will thank you.

At the same time, make sure you don’t overdress. You don’t want to be standing around sweating for hours until you take the perfect shot. Make sure whatever layers you are wearing are adjustable, comfortable, and allow you to move about freely. This is especially helpful when it comes to your gloves; you’ll need enough dexterity to work the camera, so it might be best to use a thin pair of gloves while shooting and then pull on a thicker pair between shots. There is a happy medium between freezing cold and sweating buckets; you just need to find it.

Looking to upgrade your camera? Try the incredibly dynamic Canon EOS 80D.

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