For Photographers | Tips for better winter photos

For Photographers | Tips for better snowy winter photos

When you live in Alberta, it’s almost impossible to avoid shooting in the winter unless you decide to hibernate with the bears. Winter photography is trickier but it’s beauty cannot be denied. Over the years I’ve learned a thing or two through trial and error (a whole lot of error really) so I thought I’d share some of my hard learned lessons!

Prepare your subjects for being photographed in the cold. You’re probably thinking this is a bit silly, people know what winter is like, but when it comes to being out in the cold for an hour or two posing for photos, it’s a whole new world. Noses are going to run, toes are going to get cold, fingers are going to freeze. So before you shoot, make sure they have warm footwear. If they opt for something less practical, have toe warmers on hand to slip into their shoes. You can last a lot longer out there with warm toes. Have them dress in layers. Suggest longjohns under their clothes. I sometimes pack extra socks to share, hand and foot warmer packs and blankets to bundle up in for pictures. Suggest they bring coffee, hot chocolate, whiskey – something to warm them up!

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(both of these images were shot on the same day in -30C temperatures)

Shoot fast. When it’s cold out you don’t have the luxury of standing around chatting. You need to have a plan for posing and execute it quickly. You can get a huge variety of images in 15 minutes if you move fast and know what you are looking for and direct your subjects. You always have time for chat in the car. When possible I like to do multiple locations in the winter to get car breaks from the cold. I also suggest to take boots off in the car during the drive to let toes warm up more before the next location. When it’s cold out, you need to get down to business to get as much as you can before they fade out.

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(we moved quickly through locations for both of these sessions and took numerous breaks to warm up so we could keep shooting)

Shoot a lot. It might seem like overkill, but I shoot a few extra frames of each pose in the winter. Cold fingers don’t push the buttons as well as warm ones so you can miss focus more often. Your gear is a little more sluggish in the cold too so I over compensate with a few extra shots. Plus, if it’s snowing, those flakes wreak havoc with auto focus. You think you’re focused on your subject but the flakes 6 inches in front them grab focus and they are just a blur. Maybe ok for a few artsy shots, but not for the full set.

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(my fingers were literally freezing to the camera for both of these sessions because it was so cold so i took extra shots to ensure I got good focus)

Use a fast shutter speed. A fast shutter is going to freeze the action when it’s when it’s snowing so you don’t get trails of white lines. You get small crisp flakes. That’s ideal.

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(a higher ISO and a faster shutter speed was used for these images to freeze the snow)

Think about your background. If you want to capture snow falling and highlight it in your photo, you need to be shooting against a darker background. White on white really doesn’t show up that well. So shoot into green trees, a building, a mountain, something with contrast against the white so the flakes show up.

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(I tried to shoot against a few darker background elements to contrast the snow falling. Snow is only visible where there is contrast (or you choose to backlight it to separate)

Expect to fix white balance in post-production. Winter light can be cold. The snow and people tend to take on a blue cast, especially if shooting in the shade or on a cloudy day. Don’t be surprised if you are adjusting your white balance above 13k to bring back proper white balance.

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(both of these images needed considerable white balance adjustment to remove the blue cast of shooting in late afternoon winter light – over 13k)

Watch when you breathe. It sounds funny, but when you breathe can actually impact your images. It can work to add a fun foggy feel, but you can also totally haze over your subject with a big cloud of breath. Exhale super slowly so it’s only a tiny cloud of fog that could get in front of your lens.

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Embrace the beauty of winter!

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So there’s a few tips to help you shoot better snowy winter portraits. I’d love to hear your tips in the comments!


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