Photographing that Winter Wonderland :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photographing that Winter Wonderland

by David Peterson 4 comments

I know, the weather outside is frightful. And the fire... well, please don't be tempted to sit there in front of it. Yes it's true, fire can be a lovely and challenging photographic subject, but there's only so many pictures you can take of that one log burning down under your mantle. You're out of excuses! It's time to put on that warm winter jacket, a good pair of fingerless gloves and your snow boots. It's time to pack up your camera and take some pictures of all that lovely snow.

[ Top image After The Snowstorm In The Forest...!!! by Flickr user Denis Collette...!!!]

Now, don't let anyone tell you it's going to be easy. The first thing you're going to need to do is stay warm. The second thing you're going to need to do is keep your camera warm and dry (the cold weather can suck the life out of your battery). And the third thing you need to do is understand how that snowy landscape can challenge what you thought you knew about exposure.

Get your Exposure Right

If you own a new DSLR, it may already be pretty good at compensating for the light in a snowy scene. But you need to make absolutely sure your camera is getting the correct exposure before you start snapping away at all those beautiful snow covered trees and hills of glittering white.

First a little background on your meter and why you might not be able to trust it on a snowy day. All DSLRs come equipped with a meter that reads reflected light, which is exactly what it sounds like: the light that is reflected off the surfaces and objects in a scene. That's opposed to ambient light, which is the light that simply exists. Wow, that sounds so philosophical, doesn't it? Just think of ambient light as the sum total of whatever light there is in the scene you happen to be photographing. And then forget about the distinction unless you plan to buy an expensive hand-held meter you can use to read ambient light, because the meter in your DSLR measures reflected light. (If you are a glutton for punnshment, read Incident vs Reflected Light.)

You can probably already see where I'm going with this, or perhaps not because if you're standing on a snowy landscape on a sunny day you probably can't see a damned thing without a pair of sunglasses. That's because of all the light that naturally reflects off the ice crystals in the snow. So, just like your eyeballs your poor meter is overwhelmed by all that reflected light, and it makes poor judgment calls.

Your meter is designed to assume that everything in a scene averages out to about middle gray (known in photography circles as 18% gray). That tone is pretty much exactly in the middle between black and white. Most of the time, this is a pretty good guess. Most scenes do average out to about middle gray, so that matrix metering system on your camera generally gets your exposure right. On a snowy day, however, there's a ton of bright light reflecting off the snow. Your meter is still thinking, hmm, how can I get this scene to come out as a middle gray? So it tells your camera to underexpose the shot, and then you wind up with snow that looks just like that stuff that the plows push into the corners of parking lots that just sits there all winter getting grosser and grosser. Gray.

  • Canon PowerShot A540
  • 75
  • f/6.3
  • 0.001 sec (1/1250)
  • 5.8 mm

Your meter may have a problem with snowy scenes. Because it is designed to assume that everything in a scene averages out to middle gray, it may misinterpret all that white and underexpose your snowy landscape.Deer Creek Reservoir, Utah (6) by Flickr user Ken Lund

To correct this problem, carry a gray card with you and use your spot meter to get a reading for true middle gray. Then recompose and shoot. If you don't have a gray card on hand, you meter from something in the environment or you can simply experiment with exposure compensation - +1 to +2 should be enough to fool your meter into making the correct exposure. Check your histogram to make sure you're getting it right.

Or, if you have a point and shoot camera, you can choose the "Snow" preset mode (which does the same exposure compensation adjustment I mentioned above).

The first thing you need to do is to switch to spot metering. Most modern DSLRs have three metering systems: matrix (also called evaluative), center-weighted and spot. I won't talk about center-weighted now because it doesn't really apply to this situation and you probably don't really use it anyway. Most of the time, you're likely to be using matrix. Matrix metering judges exposure by evaluating all the reflected light in a scene and then taking an average. Spot metering, on the other hand, only measures the reflected light that exists in a small circle at the center of the frame. In order to nail the exposure in that snowy scene, you need to point your spot meter at something that is exactly middle gray.

Now, you don't need a gray card for this - if you find yourself out and about without one, you can look for something in the scene that you think is middle gray and take your reading from that. This is of course an imprecise science, since it can be difficult to judge that middle gray unless you've had some practice doing so. To make things easier, pocket that middle gray card and take your spot reading off of it instead.

Now you can use exposure lock (this is probably a small button labeled "AE-L" on the back of your camera that should be easy to reach while your finger is on the shutter release button) to lock in that reading, and then you can recompose and shoot. Or if you're not in a big hurry, you can also do this while in manual mode. Set your aperture to wherever you'd like it to be (you want a pretty small aperture - large f-number - if you're shooting a landscape, for example), then meter the gray card and dial in the shutter speed that will give you the best exposure based on that reading. Then recompose and shoot.

Now let's say you're out without a gray card and you don't really think there's a midtone in your scene. What to do? You can probably make a pretty decent guess at the exposure, especially since you have a DSLR and can look at the image on your LCD to see how close you came. This is where your Exposure Compensation comes in handy - start by overexposing about one stop (+1), check your results and then adjust up and down from there. For very bright scenes, you may need as much as +2.

My meter did OK with this scene, but the image on the left (shot without exposure compensation) is still a bit too underexposed. A lot of detail has been lost in the foreground tree and in the fence just behind it. An exposure compensation of +1 as in the image on the right, gives me better results, though the lens flare is a little too extreme for my tastes. This image might actually benefit from being layered together in post processing.

It's also a really good idea to give yourself a refresher course on histograms. A histogram can be a really easy way to tell whether or not you're getting the exposure right - sometimes it's really hard to see your camera's screen on a bright, snowy day and you may not be able to tell from looking at any one image that you are under- or over-exposing a shot. Look at your histogram instead. An overexposed histogram will be skewed to the right; an underexposed histogram will skew to the left. If your highlights or shadows are "clipping" (either blown out in the case of the highlights, or dead-black in the case of shadows), then you'll see that instead of tapering off at the edge of the histogram they just bump into it, literally looking as if they've been "clipped" by the edge of the graph.

The histogram indicates a clear underexposure with this particular shot. The graph is skewed heavily towards the shadows, though we're also seeing some clipping at the extreme end of the highlights as well (this is because the shot includes the sun, so I'm not too worried about the highlights). However there isn't a lot of detail in the shadow and that probably can't be fixed. This scene needs exposure compensation in camera.

This is one of those times when you need to perfect that seventh sense that photographers have to have. Yes, that's one step beyond the sixth sense - if you have the sixth sense, that just lets you do boring stuff like seeing ghosts and predicting the future (or so sayeth the TV psychic). But if you have the seventh sense, you can see photographs before they're taken. OOO spooky. But really, I just mean that you need to learn to evaluate a scene the way your meter does. Is there a really bright spot over there in the corner? That might get blown out. Are there a lot of deep shadows over there by those rocks? You might lose them. Once you learn how to predict what your image will look like after you've captured it, you can manipulate your settings so that you can change the appearance of the image to your liking.

Most of the time if I'm faced with a choice, I like to preserve details in the highlights at the expense of the details in the shadows. But snowy scenes are different. We're used to being blinded by the snow, so a blown out patch of white in a snowy landscape doesn't look that strange to us. In this situation, if you have to make a choice, choose the shadows over the highlights.

  • Nikon D100
  • 800
  • f/5.6
  • 0.001 sec (1/1000)
  • 70 mm

In this shot, the snow in the foreground is blown out. However, it's really not at all distracting, because the details that matter are all rendered very well. We can see detail in the rider's jacket, on his snowboard and in the mountains in the background. Our eyes don't tend to notice that blown-out area of snow because it's snow, and we expect it to be bright white on a sunny day.Little Grommet by Flickr user dualdflipflop

Now is a Great Time to try out the RAW Setting on your Camera

In tricky lighting situations such as a snowy landscape, you need all the help you can get. That's what RAW is for. The RAW setting on your camera captures a higher dynamic range than the JPG setting, which means you'll often be able to preserve details in both the highlights and the shadows without having to make a choice between the two. You can also change your white balance in a RAW file post-exposure, which is something else you may find you need to do if you take a lot of photos in the snow.

There's a very clear difference between these two images - the first was shot as a JPG and the second one was shot in RAW. In the first image, there's less detail, especially in the shadows. The colors are more muted, too. In the second image, the brown tree branches maintain detail rather than just becoming a drab blob, and the green trees in the background are more vibrant. We can also see a lot more in the darker right side of the image. As an added benefit, the RAW image will be easier to alter in post-processing - the RAW format allows for improving contrast, detail and color and changing white balance if needed.

Speaking of white balance, snowy scenes tend to photograph with a blue cast, which you may or may not want. That blue color can give your scene a certain mood, but sometimes we like to see snow with a warmer cast. If that's what you'd like, too, you can set your white balance dial to "flash", which has the same sort of cast as a snowy scene does. If you're still not happy with your results you can fix your image in post processing, which is pretty easy to do if you shot in RAW. Just take care that that warm cast doesn't turn your snow yellow, because no one likes yellow snow. Take a slight blue cast over a too-yellow one.

The first image was shot with the auto white balance setting; the second was shot with the "flash" white balance setting. The first shot looks colder and a little bleaker, while the second one has a definite warm feeling to it. You may prefer the first over the second, or the other way around - that's purely an artistic decision.

Composition for Snowy Scenes

Now that I've gone on about all the technical stuff, it's time to start thinking about composition. You've got a few variables you need to keep in mind when photographing those winter wonderlands that are somewhat different than what you have to think about when you're shooting a summer landscape. All that white, for example. It looks brilliant in person because it's pristine and it's sparkly and it turns the landscape into soft, white rolling hills. On camera, however, it's hard to capture all the different things that make that broad expanse of snow so compelling and lovely in person. If you include too much open snow in your composition, it's going to look kind of boring in the final image. You need to make sure you're breaking up the scene with other elements - kids sledding, for example, or if you're looking for pristine you can include natural elements like trees, boulders or bodies of water.

  • Panasonic DMC-ZS7
  • 80
  • f/4.0
  • 0.006 sec (1/160)
  • 4.1 mm

The fence and tree in the foreground give this image a three dimensional quality that it wouldn't have if the photographer had hung back and shot it from a greater distance.It Snowed Again... (Explored) by Flickr user Douglas Brown

Don't forget that basic landscape composition rules apply here, too. Keep something in the foreground to help give your shot some depth. Use a small aperture so you'll have a scene that is sharp from foreground to background. And remember the rule of thirds when you're including the horizon - keep the sky in the top third of the frame if it is cloudless and uninteresting, or give it 2/3rds of the frame if it is dramatic and you want it to be the focal point of the shot.

The dark background and red sweatshirt worn by the subject really help to make the individual snowflakes stand out.All she wanted by Flickr user robertjosiah

Falling Snow

If you're lucky enough to be out with your camera while the snow is falling, you have some unique challenges ahead of you. Snowflakes can be hard to capture effectively with a camera, but here are a couple of tricks:

First, angle your camera so that you have something dark to contrast with the falling snow. It doesn't have to be black, but it should be something reasonably dark in color. This could be in your background - a line of trees or an old weathered barn, for example. It could even be your subject - a brown horse, or maybe a child dressed in a navy-blue snow suit. The dark colors will help make the snowflakes stand out.

What's wrong with this picture? The snow was actually falling pretty heavily when I shot it (yes I know she's underdressed but I consider it a triumph that she's at least wearing a pair of boots) but the only part of the scene where you can really see the falling snow is against the brick wall in the background. If your goal is to keep the falling snowflakes in the scene, you need to make sure that you have plenty of dark colors to contrast against that white snow. Since most of this scene includes the snow that is already on the ground, you can't tell that more snow is falling.

Those flakes will look even more impressive if you have a lens with a longer focal length. Using a long lens will give you a layered look, with larger flakes in the foreground and smaller ones in the background. If your lens is long enough, you'll also get some flakes that become bokeh, which is one of those things that photographers just love (if you aren't familiar with the term, bokeh is used to describe those out of focus points of light that become lovely floating circles of color in your image). Use a pretty fast shutter speed to freeze the flakes as they fall; slow it down a bit to capture them as streaks. If you're still not getting exactly the results you want, try using your popup flash. The light will reflect off the flakes and freeze them as they fall.

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XSi
  • 400
  • f/2.8
  • 0.008 sec (1/125)
  • 50 mm

This is a shot of falling snow. To capture it, the photographer used manual focus and a flash. The result was falling snowflakes rendered as out-of-focus bokeh.1.7.2011 357/365 by Flickr user Phil Roeder

  • Canon EOS 7D
  • 200
  • f/20.0
  • 0.167 sec (1/6)
  • 200 mm

Individual snowflakes look lovely when frozen by your camera, but consider also capturing some shots with a slow shutter speed. Those snowflakes will render as streaks rather than individual flakes, which will give your image a surreal quality as well as a stormy feeling.It's Raining Snow! by Flickr user Sangudo

Falling snow is a great time to get used to working with different apertures and shutter speeds, because you get vastly different results depending on what you choose. If you're not the sort of photographer who spends a lot of time thinking about settings, you might want to use the next snow shower as a reason to get more comfortable with your camera's advanced features. Try taking a series of shots using different apertures - a smaller aperture in the f/16 range will give you snowflakes that are in focus from foreground to background, but it may be harder to pick them out from your also-in-focus background. Using a wider aperture will give you a shorter range of in-focus flakes, but those that are out of focus will look softer and will be easier to see.

Now try a range of shutter speeds (you'll need a tripod). As we discussed earlier, a faster shutter speed will freeze each snowflake, while a slower one will make them look like streaks. It's up to you to decide which look you prefer - you're the artist, after all. But trying some different things is a good way to get an understanding of how changing your camera's settings affects the mood of your final image.

In the winter, the magic hour lasts (almost) all day

I know you have heard a gazillion times that you ought to be out in the early morning and late afternoon taking photographs. And it's true, you should be. Those times are Magic Hours, when the sun is low in the sky and the light is warm and soft. But the good news about winter photography is that the sun is always low during the winter, so the magic hour actually lasts longer than it does during the summer. You should still skew your photo shoots towards the beginning of the day and the end, but the light is going to stay pretty good for much longer than it does in stifling summer. Of course this also varies depending on how bright the sun is and how much snow is on the ground. Very bright days, especially as it approaches mid-day, are going to have a very broad dynamic range just based on how much light is reflected off all of that snow.

During the winter, the sun is much lower than it is during the summer. This means that you have more opportunity to capture 'magic hour' photos.Hiver-138 - Belgian winter 2012 by Flickr user massonth

Overcast Days vs. Sunny Days

Which brings me to my next point - pay attention to cloud cover. It's going to affect the mood and the quality of your image. Sunny days on the ski slope are naturally going to produce images with very high contrast, especially if there are shady spots as well as bright ones. Remember to favor detail in your subjects and in the shadows over detail in the snow. No one is going to pay much attention to a blown-out patch of sun, but they are going to notice a person who shows up as a blob of black with a head.

  • Nikon D300
  • 200
  • f/22.0
  • 14 mm

Sometimes a dramatic sky can overwhelm a beautiful snowy landscape. Don't be afraid to give the sky the top 2/3rds of your image if you think it is warranted. In this scene, the snow is beautiful but it's the sky that steals the show.Good Morning North Lake Tahoe by Flickr user WarzauWynn

Those sunny days (especially if there are winter sports involved) will give your images a feel of excitement, action and fun. That may not be what you want if you are just shooting landscapes, though, so it's a good idea to limit your landscape photography to overcast days if you want a moody, cold or bleak feeling in your image. A dramatic sky can help add to this effect.


If you've always wanted to try HDR, a snowy landscape is just the place. On a bright sunny day, this may actually be the best way to capture a complete range of tones, from the shadows on those boulders to the beautiful, shimmering snow over there on that hillside.

HDR isn't really as tricky as it sounds, but you do need a good piece of software that is capable of combining images into one post-processing. Dynamic-Photo HDR ($55) is an example of an inexpensive software packages that can do this. You can also find free programs that will create HDR images - Luminance HDR is one example (I have not tried it but I understand that it is not as easy to use as the software packages that you have to pay for). Photoshop CS6 will create HDR images, too, so you do have a lot of options. Most HDR software will combine and align your images automatically while allowing you to tweak contrast and detail, so you don't need a lot of Photoshopping knowledge to create HDR.

You do need to be precise while you're taking the shot, though, and that's where your tripod and remote release comes in handy. Set your camera to RAW and mount it on a sturdy tripod. Compose your shot, then take a series of images using your remote release. You will need a minimum of three but some photographers take many more than that in order to get the broadest range of tones possible. Start by shooting one image that's a stop underexposed, one at the correct exposure (remember that the correct exposure may not be what your matrix metering system tells you it is) and one that's a stop overexposed. You can also do all the half and third stops in-between, just for fun. Once combined, you'll end up with a pretty amazing, almost surreal image of the scene that includes a dynamic range that cameras just can't capture with a single shot.

I shot this series of images in the morning, so I didn't really need to combine them in order to save the image. However, I like how the final HDR image brings out the detail in this car's wheel and makes the snow look more three-dimensional, especially the stuff that's piled on the car itself. HDR is a fairly simple process, so don't be afraid to try it - especially if you think your final image might be too contrasty as a single shot. I combined six different RAW images to create this photo.


Snowy days are challenging settings for any photographer, but they are also golden opportunities. If you want to discover all the things your camera is capable of (and the many ways your camera can screw up the idea you had), get out there in the snow and take pictures. I know the fire is so much more inviting than that cold world outside, but I promise when you're trying to take photos in the blistering sun next summer, you're going to miss those blustery afternoons with your tripod, your camera, and that lovely snow falling from the sky.

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  1. Doug S says:

    Very good article and it was nice for you to share metering from a professional viewpoint. With the invention of the digital camera a lot of us just set the camera on the snow scene setting and start shooting. Its kind of refreshing to get a professionals prospective. thanks and great article.

  2. David Peterson says:


    Great to hear you loved the article! To save it, just bookmark the page. It will be available online for a long time.


    Metering is not all that complicated. I recommend you read the link I pointed to under "Matrix Metering System" above, as that explains it well.


  3. Rhonda Rose says:

    Oh Lord, metering? ughhh, I'm overwhelmed!!! Will be saving this and re reading and re reading again and again!!!! Jinkies Freddie, I feel like I need a super duper photography class to understand this!!!

  4. flo says:

    Love the article. However there is no way I can absorb all this detail at one time. Is the a way to save it?

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32 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.