6 top tips for taking photos of falling snow, wintry landscapes and weird winter sky phenomenon
Winter is a magical time for photography. From the ethereal beauty of the northern lights to the crisp whiteness of freshly fallen snow, there are endless opportunities to capture breathtaking images.
Whether you're a seasoned pro or just starting out, winter is the perfect time to try your hand at capturing the beauty of the season. In this article, we'll explore the various types of photography that are particularly well-suited to the winter months, including snow sports, cityscapes, and portraits of people braving the cold.
Whether you're looking to capture the thrill of a downhill ski run, the serene beauty of a snowy landscape or the hustle and bustle of a city in winter, here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1 Snowy landscapes
The snow, ice, and frost of winter can create some beautiful and unique landscapes that are just begging to be photographed. However, you need to get out early. Not only is that when the light will be at its best, but if there's a fresh layer of frost or snow then it will only remain intact up until people start walking and driving to work. A polarizing filter can help reduce reflections and increase the contrast in your photos. This can be especially useful when photographing snow, as it can help to make the snow look more vibrant and crisp. Adjust your camera's white balance to a warmer temperature to avoid blue-ish photos.
The quality of light can have a big impact on your photos, so pay attention to the direction and intensity of the light when you're shooting. Soft, diffuse light is often best for photographing snow, as it can help to bring out the texture and detail in the snow. Although it's perfectly possible to photograph snowy landscapes in the UK, Europe and North America, consider heading north to the Arctic Circle in winter, where you'll be able to exploit much longer, slower sunrises and sunsets even in mid morning and early afternoon.
2 Snow sports
Whether you're skiing, snowboarding, or ice skating, winter is a great time for action and landscape photography. For shots of friends and family indulging in winter sports use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action (about 1/500th of a second or faster). Be sure to keep your shots sharp by focusing on a spot where you expect the action to take place, then switching to continuous focusing mode to track the person as they move. Burst mode will allows you to take a rapid series of photos, increasing your chances of getting a sharp shot. To create a sense of motion you could also try panning, where you follow the movement of the skier with your camera as you press thenshutter button, keeping your subject sharp, but blurring the background. For landscapes around ski resorts and mountains think about the background; scope out epic backdrops and avoid distracting signage and fences.
Should you take your expensive camera out skiing? For both safety and convenience it's tempting to rely only on a smart phone or an action camera when skiing or snowboarding. Although you can get some excellent photos from either device, it's wise to find yourself a good, compact camera bag that you're happy to ski in so you can take a mirrorless or DSLR camera out on the mountain. That way you can stop on areas of the resort, pistes and mountain where the light is good and the backdrop is dramatic. If you see a composition, stop skiing and get to work. Resist the temptation to come back later because the light can change very quickly in the mountains during winter.
3 Winter cityscapes
The winter season can also be a great time for capturing the beauty of frozen cities, with buildings and streets blanketed in snow and twinkling lights. One of the most unexpected effects of heavy snowfall on a city is how it totally reimagines public areas. Squares and parks are transformed from busy looking areas of street furniture, landscape gardening and other distractions to a simple blanket of white. Go visit a well-known and typically busy area of a city after a snowfall and it can look alien as well as empty. Again, it's best to be out early to make sure you get to photograph fresh snow before everything is turned brown by traffic and.
One of the key skills to master in winter cityscape photography is capturing snow falling. It may look like it's fluttering through the air, but snow falls incredibly fast. If you're going to have any chance of capturing them as sharp-looking snowflakes set against an urban cityscape then you're going to have to take exposures of at least 1/250th of a second.
4 Winter portraits
The cold weather and shorter days of winter can create some beautiful, soft light for portrait photography, particularly on cloudy days or in the hours around sunrise and sunset. This is a time of year when the ‘golden hour’ lasts the longest. If there’s been heavy snow then it’s wise to aim for these times of day because winter scenes often have a high contrast between the bright snow and the darker elements in the background. Experiment with different exposures and post-processing techniques to bring out the contrast in your photos. Ask your subject to wear bright clothes, which will introduced some vibrancy to an otherwise monotone scene.
It’s obviously important to dress warmly and protect yourself and your subject from the elements when out taking photo in the winter. One of the major issues photographers have is with freezing hands, particularly if it’s windy and you have to continually set-up a tripod. Avoid fingerless gloves – they merely delay the problem – and instead find some good quality thick, windproof touchscreen gloves that keep your hands warm and able to manipulate the LCD screens on your camera and smartphone.
5 Northern Lights
With the sun waxing towards its once-in-11 years solar maximum in 2024 there's never been a better time to photograph the Northern Lights. After all, the sensitivity of cameras has hugely increased in the last decade since the last opportunity this good. The next few years should see more frequent and more intense displays of aurora at around 66-69° North latitudes around the Arctic Circle. The best places to see them are Alaska, northern Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norwegian Lapland, Swedish Lapland and Finnish Lapland generally between September and March, with those two months rated as being particularly good. Capturing the phenomenon is relatively easy to do if you’re comfortable with using manual mode. With a tripod, wide-angle lens focused on infinity and at maximum aperture (say, f/2.8) and a shutter release cable it’s merely a case of experimenting with exposures of between five and 25 seconds on ISO 400 to 1600. It all depends on how bright the sky is (moonless nights in rural locations are the best) and how intense the aurora are. Always shoot in raw and post-process to reveal the aurora (but don’t over-saturate them!).
Always think about your foreground. Although the Northern Lights look incredible to the eye, in isolation they don’t look too interesting in a photo. Find a good foreground element – a tree, building or natural feature – and craft a landscape photo that would look great even if the Northern Lights weren’t raging above it.
6 Winter solar halo
Although they’re a lot more frequent then rainbows, solar halos are much less photographed. The most common – and the most likely to appear in winter – is a circular halo with sundogs. Occupying about 22º of the daytime sky around the sun, they occur when the air is busy with tiny ice crystals. They refract the light from the sun and cause small sundogs either side of it as well as a faint circular halo around it. It’s something to keep an eye out for on a clear, sunny day in winter, though you do have to be careful. Never look directly at the sun either with your naked eyes or through your camera’s optical viewfinder – only its LCD screen. A wide-angle lens works best for solar halos.
It's important to stay warm and comfortable while out in the cold, so be sure to dress appropriately, in layers. Although most cameras can cope well with the cold, it’s wise to keep a spare camera battery in your pocket to keep it relatively warm.
- AuthorJamie Carter
Jamie Carter is a journalist and author focusing on stargazing and astronomy, astrophotography, and travel for Forbes Science, BBC Sky At Night magazine, Sky & Telescope, Travel+Leisure, and The Telegraph.View all articles