There is nothing quite so wonderful as the look on a child's face the moment it starts to snow. But if you are a veteran of many play days in the snow, you know that getting great snow photos is not as easy as it seems like it ought to be. If you frequently find yourself scratching your head at those weirdly gray photos of what is supposed to be a white winter wonderland, keep reading.
Before we get started on the specifics of photographing family fun in the snow, let's talk about some of the idiosyncrasies of wintertime photography. Snow is notoriously difficult to photograph well. That's because snow is very, very bright. It's reflective, which means that your meter is going to have some real difficulty guessing at the right exposure.
The reason for all that trouble is because modern camera meters use reflected light to arrive at exposure decisions. What's more, your camera’s meter is designed to assume that everything in any given scene will average out to roughly middle gray in tone. And that is true for almost all scenes that you’re likely to encounter, with the big exceptions being very dark scenes and, you guessed it, very bright scenes. In your camera encounters a scene with a lot of white in it such as a new blanket of snow, it thinks that it's looking at an average scene full of mostly average tones. So it is going to assume that there are more grays than there are whites, and the results will be an underexposed photo. This is why so many of those pretty winter scenes that you photograph end up looking gray. Fortunately, there is an easy fix for this—first check and see if your camera has a “snow and beach” setting, and if it does, make sure you use it whenever you’re taking pictures in the snow. What this setting does is add some positive exposure compensation so that those whites will render white rather than a muddy gray.
Untitled by Flickr user _djh
Capturing that winter feeling
Now one thing you want to do whenever you're shooting photos of a winter wonderland is to make the scene feel as wintry as possible. You may think that it's enough just to include the snow, but that is not necessarily true. Kids in woolly hats, gloves, and scarves do a great job at conveying to your viewer just how cold it actually is. So if you’re photographing your kids, wrap them up in brightly colored scarves and hats before following them outside with your camera. And if you can capture rosy cheeks, too, so much better.
One thing it's important to keep in mind whenever you're shooting a family event of any kind is that you should always try to capture the beginning, middle, and the end. Most people sort of default to getting their camera out for the middle part, and they completely neglect the preparations and the aftermath. But those two things can be just as important to the story as a whole as the middle action is. When the snow starts to fall, what do your children do? If they're like most kids, the arrival of that first week of snow is a magical moment. Make sure you get some pictures of their excited little faces looking out the window, watching the snow come down. And don't just take a few pictures of them all bundled up and ready to go outside, get some pictures of them getting bundled up. That frantic search for last year's winter hat, the struggle to get into that heavy winter jacket, pulling on the snow boots—these are all images that will help capture the excitement and anticipation of the moment.
Once they're outside, remember not only to use the exposure compensation tool we talked about earlier, but also remember that your shutter speed must be set somewhere near 1/500. You can also use sport mode, which will accomplish the same thing. The reason you want this fast shutter speed is because you know your kids are going to be moving fast. They're going to be running, throwing snowballs at each other, sledding down the hill, and the one thing they probably won't be doing is keeping still. You need to make sure that your shutter speed fast enough so you can freeze the action. Now, of course, there may be some exceptions to the fast shutter speed rule. If your kids are making a snowman, for example, you have a little more leeway in using slower shutter speed if you need to. Or you may want to capture a little bit of motion blur, such as the blur of a snowball leaving your child’s hand and heading in your direction. Try experimenting with different shutter speeds until you get a shot that you like.
Fill the frame
One mistake that beginning photographers often make when photographing any kind of that action is failure to get close enough to their subject. Now this is a pretty innocent mistake when it comes to photographing sporting events where it may actually be difficult to get close to the action, but when you're shooting winter fun and your subjects are your own family, you are out of excuses.
If you have a telephoto lens, make sure that you use it. You should ideally be close enough that you can see the expressions on your kids’ faces as they go barreling down the hill on their sled—and you also want to make sure that you're capturing enough context that your viewers know why they’re smiling and laughing. In other words, get close, but not so close that you're excluding the sled. When in doubt, ask yourself this question: “Can I tell what my subjects are thinking when I look at this photograph?” If the answer is no, you probably aren't close enough. Then ask yourself this question: “Can I tell what my subjects are doing in this photograph?” If that answer is no, then you probably are too close.
Don't forget the usual rules for photographing children—you want to make sure you get down to their level as much as possible. The reason why this is important is because your viewer will connect on a more personal level with a subject who he can make eye contact with. Because most adults don't view children from a child’s perspective, at least not ordinarily, the images shot from this angle are infinitely more compelling. In the snow, of course, this may mean that you end up with wet knees. So just because you're going to be holding a camera and not playing in the snow yourself doesn't necessarily mean that you don't require snow pants.
Take care of your gear
Speaking of getting wet, you want to make sure you take reasonable precautions with your camera anytime you're out in the snow. When moisture gets inside of a camera it can cause a lot of damage, so try to avoid changing lenses especially if there's a chance that a flying snowball may come your way. And remember that the cold can cause condensation inside your camera when you bring it indoors, so when you're finished shooting it's a good idea to put your camera in a Ziploc bag or some other watertight container, then bring it inside and let it come up to room temperature. If you fail to do this, condensation may form inside your camera while it’s warming up and then you'll have trouble.
I personally like to use my rugged camera to take snow photos because it’s designed to be freeze-proof, waterproof and impact resistant, which are all qualities that are pretty handy to have when you’re taking snow photos. A more-or-less indestructible camera is also handy for snow pictures because it can be really fun to insert yourself in the action—you can have your kids throw snowballs directly at you, for example, and you’ll get some really fun shots of those snowballs just before impact without any fear for your camera (just for yourself). And if you slip on the ice, you’re covered. You may bruise your tailbone but your camera will be safe.
Playing in the snow is a lot of fun for kids, so the name of the game is to make sure that you capture all of that fun. That means the happy smiles and laughter are going to be you up your primary subjects. But that doesn't mean that you should avoid the bad moments, too, if your toddler fell down in the snow and really didn't like it, don't be afraid to get a picture of that unhappy face. And if a sibling snow fight turns into World War III, make sure you capture all of the drama of that event as well as any happy smiles (or not as the case may be).
And don’t forget the aftermath, too. Get some photos of the kids coming inside afterwards and shaking the snow off of their boots. Take some shots of them sitting by the fire warming up, and, of course, don’t forget those marshmallow-filled cups of hot cocoa.
Winter play is so much fun, and if you stay inside and take photos through the window you’re going to be missing some wonderful shots and wonderful memories. So don’t be afraid to go outside and really be a part of the fun—take close shots and long shots and unusual perspectives and encourage your kids to be kids. Your photos will be a great reflection of all the fun you had.
- Use “snow” mode or exposure compensation
- Brightly colored hats and scarves
- Capture the beginning, middle and end
- Use a fast shutter speed (1/500)
- Slow down to get a little motion blur
- Don’t change lenses
- Let your camera warm up in a bag
- Use a “rugged” class camera
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