How to photograph landscapes in winter

First published:
January 17, 2021
February 12, 2024

How to photograph landscapes in winter

First published:
January 17, 2021
February 12, 2024

Cover image by Matthew Baxter

Winter photography comes with its challenges. But with a little preparation, technical know-how and above all, a sense of adventure - you'll be getting beautiful shots in no time

As a Norwegian who’s living north of the Arctic Circle, winter is my favourite time to take photographs. Watching the landscapes transform into a winter wonderland, the dark and starry nights, and the Northern Lights dancing above, makes this the perfect season for a landscape photographer.

But winter photography comes with a fair bit of challenges. It requires more from you as a photographer as you'll be taking images in harsh and sometimes uncomfortable weather conditions, and you might experience technical difficulties as the temperatures drop below freezing.

Maybe you’d even prefer to stay inside in front of the fireplace with a hot beverage? I don’t blame you. But keep reading and I’ll teach you just how you can capture awe-inspiring images in the winter months...

Choose the right clothes

Before we begin talking about camera gear and techniques, it’s important to understand just how important it is to have warm clothes for winter photography.

Trust me, it’s not enjoyable to try taking beautiful photographs when the temperature is dropping to minus -30 degrees Celsius (-22 °F). Not only is it uncomfortable, it can be dangerous.

Make sure to always bring an extra layer or two on your winter adventures. The warmer you can remain, the better it is. I recommend having a solid pair of winter shoes, wool socks, thermal underwear, fleece or warm mid-layer, and a good down jacket. The colder it is, the more important proper clothing is.

It’s not uncommon that I have workshop participants here in Lofoten who after our first day out, realize why I tried to get them to purchase some better clothes. A stop by the sport shop on day two has become a regular part of the schedule!

Photographer taking pictures in snowy conditions
Image by Nico Garstman

Pack extra batteries 

Camera batteries tend to drain quicker as the temperatures drop. For that reason, you should always have at least 2 or 3 spare batteries in your camera bag.

When it gets really cold, I also recommend that you keep one spare battery in your inner pocket. By keeping the battery temperate, you can extend its duration a little more.

Look for whiteout conditions

Wooden house and flowing river in wintry conditions

Most people prefer to stay home on a stormy winter day - but for landscape photographers they are the perfect conditions.

Heavy snow and whiteouts create endless of photographic opportunities. You won’t see the grand landscape but the smaller and more abstract scenes are amazing. This is a good practice for your creativity and it forces you to pay more attention to the details surrounding us.

Top tip:

Try to look for elements that are standing out. Could it be a house, a tree, a creek? Contrast is the key to this situation. Colorful elements could also work, for example a red house.

A red house and tress against a white winter landscape
A farm lost in the snow of Switzerland. Image by Dominique Dubied

Wait for heavy snow

Winter forest scene with trees covered in snow

The period before winter properly arrives is one of my least favorite to photograph. The snow might have arrived but in small amounts, and is rarely not enough to cover the landscape. This leaves a lot of unwanted contrast, and while contrast is good in landscape photography, too much becomes a distraction.

I find that the winter landscapes look the best when there’s a lot of snow. When the trees are covered and the landscape is pure white. During this time, there are much fewer distractions in the landscape, which makes for cleaner images.

Winter scene with a snow covered tree

Use a cold white balance 

Winter landscape at Lofoten, Norway

While the white balance is a setting that can be adjusted in post-processing, I strongly recommend trying to get it as close to the desired look as possible already in the camera. When photographing winter landscapes, the best practice is to use Kelvin mode and set it to a low/cold number.

It’s more natural to have a colder cast to a winter image than a warm one. The latter quickly makes the image look grungy and amateurish.

What is Kelvin mode in photography?

Kelvin is a measurement of temperature, and in photography this relates to the temperature of the light source in the scene.

To put it simply, when adjusting white balance in Kelvin mode, you're adjusting the white balance to correlate to the the temperature of the outdoor conditions. The warmer the temperature, the warmer the white balance, and the colder it gets, the colder the white balance.

Overexpose your images

Winter tree landscape with snow covered trees

Underexposing images can be a good way to introduce some drama and atmosphere but when photographing in winter conditions, the opposite can be just as amazing.

By overexposing and creating a high key image, you’re able to enhance that winter feel and make the viewers feel almost as cold as you were when capturing the image.

Winter scene of an abandoned farmhouse in Muirkirk, Ontario, Canada
An abandoned farmhouse in Muirkirk, Ontario, Canada. Image captured on an extremely overcast day during a snowstorm. Image by Brian Krouskie.

Photograph during the night 

Snow covered trees under an aurora sky

Winter and night photography are a match made in heaven, especially if you’re photographing mountain landscapes. The snow-covered peaks are the perfect contrast to a detailed night sky and it’s a good eye-catcher that leads to impressive images.

It’s especially important to dress for the conditions when you’re heading out at night. Trust me when I say that it’s no fun standing outside in -30 Celsius waiting for the perfect conditions, if you don’t have warm enough layers on...

Next steps

Winter is my personal favorite season for photography and it’s one that’s often under-appreciated by a lot of photographers. Pushing yourself to go outside in freezing conditions might take a bit of work but we’ve all seen amazing images that prove just how scenic this period is. 

I find that the best winter shots are those captured when there’s a lot of snow. This removes most of the distracting elements and make it easier to create a clean and efficient composition.

As long as you dress according to the weather, take a few extra precautions, and are willing to put the work in - you can capture incredible images of winter landscapes.

Video tutorial

All images by Christian Høiberg unless otherwise stated

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