How to Photograph Falling Snow
You wake in the morning morning to realize the world has been transformed into a winter wonderland. The ground is already covered in a thick layer of untouched snow, and in the hushed silence, heavy flakes continue their gentle descent. You grab your camera—but what other gear should you bring? Let’s take a look at all the tips and tricks for getting the best photographs in snowy conditions. Soon, you’ll know exactly how to photograph falling snow like a pro.
Prepare yourself and your camera
When shooting in more extreme weather conditions, like snow or rain, it’s important to make sure you and your camera are both ready. Make sure to wear waterproof boots, especially if the snow is deep already, or promises to keep accumulating during your shoot.
Remember that while you will be doing a lot of walking around, photography requires you to stand still and focus, so dress accordingly. Wear plenty of layers, which will keep you toasty warm when standing still, but which you can easily shed once you’ve been moving around and your body temperature rises. Consider fingerless gloves to ease of focusing and adjusting camera settings.
In both rain and snow, your main concern is keeping moisture out of the inside of the camera. Special waterproof cases are available for DSLRs, but a quick fix is as easy as using plastic-wrap or a plastic bag wrapped around your camera, secured with rubber-bands.
If the snow is not falling too heavily, you will probably be safe without any sort of heavy-duty cover—which can be annoying to fiddle with in the cold. However, it’s a good idea to wear a baggy overcoat, in which you can stick the camera while not shooting to keep it dry while you’re figuring out how to photograph falling snow.
When the weather is really cold, you might consider acclimatizing your camera before you head out. Some photographers suggest putting the camera in a sealed Ziploc bag inside a partially-closed backpack, and letting that sit outside for 20-30 minutes. You should repeat this process when coming back inside—but we’ll get to that later.
Good gear for snow
Consider shooting on a zoom lens when photographing falling snow to avoid unnecessary lens changes, and minimize the chance of snow getting inside the camera. Remember to keep your lens cap on when not shooting, to avoid snow landing on the end of the lens. A lens hood is another easy accessory to keep the snow at bay. Should a couple flakes land on your lens, don’t breathe on the glass to clean it—your body temperature is way above that of the camera, which can fog up the lens and leave you losing precious time as you wait for it to clear.
For the same reason, try to hold your breath when focusing, because you might accidentally fog up the LCD screen or viewfinder! This is an important tip to remember when you’re learning how to photograph falling snow.
Instead, make sure you bring a microfiber cleaning cloth—and some extras—or a pack of dedicated lens wipes. It is also a great idea to bring a UV or clear filter with you, which you can remove if it accidentally gets wet, and continue shooting without breaking stride.
Snow is bright—really bright. A polarizer will help reduce glare on snow and ice-covered surfaces, as well as bringing down a bright, cloudless sky, so it’s worth packing one for your snowy photo-shoot.
Finally, consider keeping your spare batteries in an inner pocket of your coat, to avoid them getting cold or wet, which can make them stop working.
Depending on what kind of image you are going for, you can consider bringing along a tripod and an external flash. We’ll discuss a little later on what each tool will offer you.
Adjusting camera settings
It is always best to shoot in RAW when photographing falling snow, in part because the extremes in shadows and highlights can throw off your camera readings, and will allow you more room to adjust in post.
The metering systems in DSLRs are designed to shoot for a standardized middle gray. Normally this is no problem, but on bright, white, snowy days, the lack of this middle gray means you might find that all your photos are coming out way too dark. Keep this in mind when photographing snow, and overexpose by a couple of stops to keep the snow looking crisp and vibrant white. Always check the histogram on your camera to know exactly what your camera is capturing.
Another common failing when photographing falling snow is the camera’s tendency to turn everything unnaturally blue. You can manually adjust the camera’s white balance to account for this. If you prefer to do things for yourself, consider adjusting the white balance to around 6500K, and then making small adjustments as necessary.
Another option is to set the white balance to the flash setting, which tells the camera to off-set the blue light which it expects to see from a flash. In the cold weather, we want to keep our fingers as happy as possible. To avoid having to make too many adjustments on the go, consider shooting on Aperture Priority mode.
Shooting with a flash
Some photographers bristle at the idea of shooting falling snow with a flash—you’ll get big blotches of blurry, overexposed snowflakes right in front of the lens, and a rather dark background beyond. However, with the right attitude and the right settings, you can achieve some wonderfully artistic shots this way. One photographer who excels in this method is New York-based Russ Rowland, who captures mesmerizing images of snowy days in the Big.
This method is best achieved at night or in the evenings. First expose properly for the background—not the snow in front. Also, make sure to focus manually—the camera’s autofocus might otherwise try to focus on the falling snow, putting your entire image out of focus. Use your camera’s built-in flash, or an external flash or even better results. Experiment with different foregrounds and backgrounds, paying attention to how the snowflakes change the world around them.
Shooting in the dark naturally means using a slower shutter speed. Bring a tripod, or if you’re really confident, hold your breath and go for the shot hand-held. Remember that nearby railings or posts are a city’s free-to-use tripods, and leaning against a tree or a light-pole will help steady you when shooting hand-held.
Using a tripod without flash
If you are shooting in the day and don’t plan to use a flash, shooting on a tripod will allow you to erase falling snowflakes from your scene, or blur the falling snow for a nice effect. To get the snowflakes frozen in the air, shoot at a faster shutter speed. This is how to photograph falling snow in an elegant way.
Shooting snow on an overcast day is often a better experience than going out in the piercing brightness of a cloudless day with all the sunlight reflecting off the snow. On cloudy days, you are less likely to get the harsh contrasts of the snow, which leads to an easier time exposing.
For a different look, consider shooting snow at sunrise or sunset. Expect the snow to reflect the colors of the sky—you might get more warm tones, or more blue tones this way. Don’t fight it—let it be part of the story!
Framing and composition
Those who don’t know how to photograph falling snow often just point ahead and shoot, and of course those initial experiments aren’t very satisfying, since there’s very little real content in the shot. Shooting a bright white expanse of snowy landscape can be a little disorienting.
Often, a good snowy photograph needs something in the frame to ground the image. This can be anything from a couple walking in the snow to a single tree in a blanketed field. Keep an eye out for additional elements which can bring out your photos, like a neon sign on the side of a building or the beautiful red of a farm barn against the backdrop of white snow.
Coming back inside
Once you’ve finished shooting, your job isn’t over. Coming back inside, you need to help your camera adjust to the warm temperatures, to prevent condensation from forming on the lens and electronics. Your very first step is to brush off any snow from the outside of the camera which has accumulated during your shoot, as this will obviously turn to water once inside!
Place your camera inside a plastic bag like you did when heading out. You can even wrap it in a towel or down jacket to let the camera come to room temperature slowly. Some photographers even suggest using a cooler on extremely cold days.
Snow photography is a rewarding medium, and a fun project for any photographer who doesn’t mind braving the cold. Remember to keep yourself and your camera warm and dry, and don’t be afraid to experiment! The extreme brightness of snow can throw off your camera’s readings, so there is no shame in trying, and trying again.
Try photographing falling snow at different times of day and at all different angles, and enjoy the beautiful images you will capture.