25 Tips for Amazing Winter Landscape Photography
Winter is a magical time of year that affords photographers some of the best opportunities for capturing breathtaking photos of natural landscapes. But there are also some unique challenges that photographers face when shooting in the winter.
In this article, we will go over 25 of the very best tips that will help you take amazing winter landscape photos so that you'll have even more reason to rejoice this holiday season. So, feel free to put a log on the fire or grab a cup of hot cocoa and let’s get into it.
1. Look for natural contrast
When it has been snowing out for several days, chances are that the natural landscape will be completely white, and as such, it can be difficult to find a ton of contrast. So, you need to look for it. You can seek out color contrast, such as a splash of red, blue, or green, or tonal contrast, such as a hint of darkness hidden amongst the bright snowy landscape. Any contrast you can find will make for a more interesting and visually appealing shot.
2. Overexpose your shots
Sometimes, no matter how hard you look, it will be difficult to find any color or tonal contrast in the winter. Don't fret! There is a simple trick you can use to make those snowy winter shots look great. By overexposing your bright white snowy shots and making them one or two degrees brighter, you'll find that your shots benefit greatly. Just be careful to avoid clipping away the highlights. This technique doesn't work for every photo, but the difference can be dramatic when it does.
3. Choose a cold white balance
You have a few options when it comes to white balance. The first option is to adjust the balance in your camera settings, but an even better method is to shoot in RAW format and then adjust the white balance in post. Either way, remember that winter is cold, and as such, a cold-looking white balance often turns out beautifully and can dramatically enhance the mood of your winter photos.
4. Shoot during the blue hour
The blue hour actually isn't an hour per se; it's the time just before sunrise and just after sunset when the sun is sitting right below the horizon. During the blue hour, the whole landscape will look blue. You'll still have enough light to shoot, and the results are often the very best for winter landscape photography, having a haunting, ethereal effect that you can't capture at any other time.
5. Always have extra batteries
Cold weather drains batteries like nothing else, and nothing is worse than heading outside when it's freezing, finding the perfect subject, and then realizing that your batteries are dead. By the time you head home to recharge or replace your batteries, there's a great chance that the weather, lighting, and shooting conditions have changed for the worse, so always bring an extra set of batteries – heck, bring three.
6. Winter-proof your gear
Also, keep in mind that your gear needs to be protected from the elements in the freezing winter weather conditions that are likely to occur when you're out in the field at this time of year. As such, remember to use photography gloves, bring an easy-to-assemble tripod, and let your camera warm up before taking off the lens cover; otherwise, it will fog up straight away.
7. Use exposure compensation
All too often, you will capture striking landscape shots in the winter only to realize after the fact that all of your shots have been ruined because the snow looks gray. This happens because the whiteness of the snow can confuse the exposure meter built into your camera. To avoid this, always remember to turn up the exposure compensation by at least 0.1 or 0.2; by doing so, you will ensure that the beautiful whites will still be beautiful and white.
8. Choose the right shutter speed
There are a few different options when it comes to selecting a shutter speed in winter. This is especially important if snow is falling. A fast shutter speed will capture the falling snow as tiny white dots, whereas a slow shutter speed will make the snow show up as white streaks. When in doubt, bracket your shots and play around with different shutter speeds until you find the one you like best, given the current weather conditions.
9. Add a splash of color
As mentioned, contrast is often what makes for great winter landscape shots, but sometimes you need to take the initiative and add some color yourself. Don't be afraid to insert a colorful subject into the frame. By placing a single colorful object in front of the white backdrop, you'll be able to inject a great subject into your shot, adding some much-needed contrast while also capturing the feeling of being outside in nature during the frigid winter months.
10. Focus on the small details
When taking landscape shots, it can be easy to make the assumption that you need to capture sprawling vistas and dramatic panoramic scenery. Although such shots are often the hallmark of landscape photography, you can also achieve great things by focusing in on the small details within the frame. A lone squirrel, a fallen leaf, even a paw print – these things give your shots a narrative that would otherwise be missing from the wide, white landscape.
11. Experiment with different filters
Filters are your friend, in fact, your best friend. This is true all year, but especially in the winter, when the landscape and weather conditions can easily make every shot feel monotonous and similar. Play around with different filters and see which ones you like. You might be surprised by the results you get when you use your go-to, summer circular polarizing filter in the dead of winter.
12. Embrace the solitude
Winter can feel haunting, desolate, barren, lonely, all of these things, and that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Embrace the feeling of winter. All of these descriptors evoke intense emotion, which should be the aim of any photograph you capture. So, when you look out the window and feel a sense of sadness or isolation, remind yourself that this is a perfect opportunity to capture that emotion, and by doing so, you'll end up with some of your most evocative winter photos.
13. Shoot in RAW format
It's true that some older model cameras and even some of the newer but lower-end cameras on the market may not feature the ability to shoot in RAW format. However, if you are a professional photographer, then chances are that your camera will be able to capture RAW images. If you are able to, then shooting this way will give you the greatest amount of flexibility when shooting in the winter. You'll be able to adjust things such as the contrast, color balance, and exposure much more easily in post when you capture RAW images. Just remember that the RAW format produces a much larger file size, so remember to bring a few extra memory cards.
14. Be mindful of your footprints
When you are heading out into the field, always remember to keep your footprints in mind. You never want to walk through an area that will be captured in an upcoming shot, as this can subtract from the quality and mood of the scene. Of course, if your footprints are the subject of the shot, then that's an exception, but generally speaking, you want to approach from an angle that you won't be photographing so as to end up with the best, most natural-looking results.
15. Use your camera’s manual mode
When you use your camera's auto or aperture/shutter priority modes, you are sacrificing something; the ability to capture the exact image you want to. If you are just starting out with photography, these modes can help you significantly by automatically adjusting settings that you don't know how to adjust yourself. However, as a professional, especially in winter, you always want to use manual mode, which will allow you to compensate for glare, and other bright light so as to capture the exact shot you desire.
16. Have respect for the wildlife
Remember that winter is a challenging time of year for most wildlife species who don’t have easy access to food and may not have a ton of energy in reserve. So, if you notice animals in your shot and you don’t intend to capture them in your photo, avoid the urge to chase them away, as this will cause them to burn energy that they may not be able to replace. Likewise, if you are trying to film them and they are moving away from you, don’t chase after them as this can startle them and have the same effect.
17. Dress appropriately
As important as it is to protect your gear when shooting outside in the winter, it is even more important that you protect yourself. Sometimes capturing the perfect winter landscape means heading out early and staying out late. It's not uncommon to be outside all day waiting for that one perfect shot to present itself, and as such, you need to plan ahead and dress accordingly. You wouldn't be the first photographer to end up with frost-bitten fingers or toes, so dress warmly, bring a thermos, and don't be THAT guy.
18. Control the blues
Shooting during the blue hour can result in some of the very best winter landscape shots, but too much blue at other times of the day can ruin your shots completely. The sky, in particular, can end up making your shots look overly blue and frankly boring, so always be sure that you are framing your shots within the natural landscape. Snow-covered branches or a mountain range can be the perfect frames to offset the blue sky and other blue tones in your shot.
19. Go for black and whites
Let's face it – winter isn't exactly the most colorful time of year. So sometimes, you just need to embrace the lack of contrast completely. Try opening up your camera's control panel, going into the monochrome settings, and playing around with some of the options in there, such as the contrast, sharpness, and filter features, until you get the exact type of black and white shot you like given the scene and lighting conditions. Black and white winter photography can look stunning when done correctly, so don't be afraid to experiment.
20. Visit a national park
When shooting winter landscape photography, the most important element is often, you guessed it, the landscape. Parks, forests, and fields can all be great subjects, but if you really want the best, most dramatic shots, then you need to head out to where you'll find the best, most dramatic landscapes, which is more often than not in a national park. There is a reason why these regions are designated as national parks, and it usually has to do with them being the most picturesque areas.
21. Use a small aperture
If you want to make sure that all of the details in your photos are crisp and sharp, then consider using a small aperture. Anything between f/8 and f/22 or so should work really well for winter landscapes. This is because apertures between these values tend to have a particularly large depth of field, which ensures that both the foreground and background will remain in focus when you're shooting.
22. Shoot in different conditions
Winter can be challenging, to say the least; that's exactly what makes shooting winter landscapes so worthwhile – There aren't a lot of other people doing it, especially when the conditions are harsh. To elevate yourself from the crowd of semipro's shooting on nice winter days, head out into a blizzard and experiment with capturing the rawness of this time of year in different conditions. Of course, if it's a whiteout and you won't be able to capture anything, then don't waste your time, but you'd be surprised by what you can accomplish in what at first glance appears to be unshootable weather.
23. Work with the histogram
Reviewing your photos when out in the field can be challenging in the winter due to the bright midday sun, glare, and reflected light coming off the snow; all of these things can make it particularly difficult to see your shots on the small LCD screen on your camera. Instead, rely on your histogram. Which can read and measure the lighting in the scene much more accurately than your eyes can, especially when blinded by snow. Of course, you can always jump in your vehicle for a few minutes to review your shots, but this can be inconvenient, especially if you are parked far away.
24. Embrace minimalism
Sometimes, when snow blankets the entire scene, rather than trying to find color, contrast, or an interesting subject, the best thing you can do is embrace the situation. Some of the very best winter shots are those that capture the essence of minimalism. Oftentimes, when you combine a fresh, white blanket of snow with a little bit of fog, you can end up with the very best winter shots. People go nuts for these exact types of shots, so don't feel like you always need to have a magnificent vista; sometimes, no subject is the perfect subject.
25. Print your work!
Finally, remember that you need to print your shots. Having digital copies is all well and good, but if you really want to showcase your work, then you should be printing copies of your very best shots. There are many different options available for printing your work, but in most cases, canvas wraps and metal prints will have the best effect. Try printing out a few of your best shots on a canvas wrap, and then print those same shots on a metal print; you'll immediately understand why these are the preferred printing methods for professional photographers.
Embrace the winter
Winter is, without a doubt, one of the best times of year for capturing landscapes. There is just something special about the way that snowfall sets a scene. That said, taking great photos in the winter can be challenging to say the least, but by following the tips and tricks outlined in this article, you'll be able to take some of your best shots of the year at a time when other photographers are huddled up inside complaining about the weather and wishing it was summer. By embracing what makes winter so unique, you'll be able to elevate your skill level, stand out from the crowd, and capture amazing winter landscapes.