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Complete Guide to Winter Photography

Here, Arctic Terns fly in front of icebergs in Iceland's Jokulsarlon Lagoon.

Winter is an amazing season for photography, especially nature photography. Conditions may be harsh, but your photos will reflect that – they’ll stand out and convey different emotions than normal. Of course, winter photography also brings with it a number of challenges. This guide covers everything you need to know.

For starters, I hope it goes without saying, but there are some safety-related challenges during winter that matter more than normal. Icy roads are dangerously slippery, and “moderate” hikes can turn into exhausting slogs before you know it. A photo is never worth that sort of danger, so keep your wits and don’t do anything stupid for a handful of pixels.

Beyond that, I’ll mention that my definition of “winter” for this article is a bit flexible. Meteorologically, it’s just the three coldest months – December, January, and February in the Northern Hemisphere. Astronomically, it doesn’t start until the winter solstice, around December 21st. But in reality, the “winter experience” can stretch much longer depending on where you live, and the tips below still apply (aside from some of the dark sky related tips). So, let’s dive in.

Camera Equipment Challenges

It’s not easy to use a camera in the cold, and it gets even trickier the more that temperatures drop.

From an operational standpoint, the biggest issue is operating the camera in gloves. Depending on the camera you have, it may be easier or harder to set the proper settings if your fingers are as dexterous as oven mitts. One of the unsung things I like about Nikon cameras is that you can select a menu item by pressing the right arrow (much easier to mash with gloves) rather than just the OK button.

Some photographers use fingerless gloves (or fingerless-convertible) to get around this problem, but that only works in more mildly cold environments. If it’s so cold and windy that your tear ducts start to freeze, fingerless gloves will be too much of a frostbite hazard.

There’s no great way around this problem except for practice, and, when possible, using a tripod. But the gloves and camera you select do have some impact, so if you do a lot of winter photography, make your decisions with that in mind. It’s also a good idea to bring along a few heat packs so you can warm up your hands if you do need to expose them at all.

This landscape photo shows Rocky Mountain National Park in the snow during winter.

Beyond the ease-of-use considerations, I’ll note that most cameras aren’t actually rated to shoot in particularly cold conditions to begin with. The typical temperature range is 0 to 40°C (32 to 104°F) for an advanced DSLR or mirrorless camera. That’s still cold, of course, but not horribly so.

The reality is that, most of the time, you can use cameras in far colder environments than that before they start to fail. Not all the functions will work as well as normal, but that’s to be expected. Your battery won’t last as long, and chances are good that your maximum FPS rate will fall. But it takes wickedly low temperatures to actually damage most cameras on the market.

That said, one thing you definitely want to be careful about is moisture. If you bring a cold camera into a warm environment – especially indoors, but even a tent or car – it can fog up rapidly. That can prevent you from taking pictures, especially if the fog freezes up again when you bring it back outside. The better thing to do is to leave your camera in your bag when bringing it indoors, so it can warm up slowly. (In really cold environments, you may want to put your camera in an airtight plastic bag before bringing it inside.)

When I took the photo below, that type of condensation isn’t quite what happened. Instead, in this case, it was simply so cold outside that my breath froze almost instantly, and little crystals started growing over time on the front of my lens. But still – moisture. It wrecks havoc in the cold. (Once, an icy wind blew a solid ring inside the hood of my 14-24mm lens, preventing me from zooming out!)

The lens flare in this photo is caused by ice crystals on the front of my lens.
This photo, a nighttime shot, has strange flare around the moon because my frozen breath had fogged up the lens.

Metering and Exposing for Snow

There seems to be a lot of headache surrounding proper exposure in snowy conditions. Naturally, with the bright highlights of snow, it does take a bit more effort to avoid blowing out your subject. And a scene filled with snow may indeed fool your meter into consistently underexposing (though modern cameras are getting better at this).

But at the end of the day, optimal exposure in snowy conditions is exactly the same as normal. Your goal is to capture as much light as possible without blowing out any important highlights (also known as ETTR). Just keep an eye on your histogram, and maybe review your photos a bit more often than normal just to make sure you aren’t consistently getting the wrong exposure.

As far as specific tricks like changing your metering system to center-weighted or spot, or exposing manually according to some sort of “snowy 22” rule, I don’t see any value in those approaches. Expose like you normally do, just with the knowledge that it’s slightly more difficult than usual and requires a bit of extra care.

Astrophotography in the Winter

One genre of photography that can be amazing during the winter is astrophotography. Although the Milky Way core itself is generally more visible during the summer, other celestial subjects are much better during the winter.

An obvious example is the aurora (both Northern and Southern Lights). They’re on many photographers’ bucket lists for obvious reasons, and winter is generally the best time to see them. That’s because you need a dark sky to see the lights, and places near the poles (where aurora activity is strongest) don’t see much darkness until mid-autumn and beyond.

Along with that, even regular stargazing can benefit from the generally lower levels of moisture in the air when it gets cold. One of the more disappointing things to see while doing astrophotography is a thin haze or fog that harms your photos. Something like this:

The stars are very difficult to see in this landscape photo because of all the haze.
The hazy horizon here made it difficult to capture a lot of stars, despite the fact that I took this photograph at midnight.

This sometimes still happens in winter, of course, but it’s not as common. Cold air simply can’t hold as much moisture as warm air.

Even better, the fact that it gets dark earlier during winter means you don’t need to stay up as late to stargaze. Assuming that it’s not too cold out, this gives you more of an opportunity to see (and photograph) things like meteor showers that you may not be awake for during the summer.

One big meteor shower peaks around December 13-14 of 2019, for example – and there are many others throughout the next few months as well. By the same token, you can make longer timelapses and star trail photographs during winter than usual, if that’s your goal. It just gives you more flexibility in terms of timing.

Because it gets dark early, winter can be a great time to capture celestial events like meteor showers over a landscape.
A meteor over Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, winter 2018

Animals and Wildlife Photography

A lot of animals ride out the winter months underground and aren’t as active as the rest of the year. However, that’s certainly not the case for all of them. Some animals prefer the snow, and their winter activities can be very interesting to document because not as many people see them.

Now’s also a good time to bring up the people who live farther south in warmer environments. Even if you don’t see snow very often or at all, winter can still be an amazing time for photography.

For starters, I’ve done a decent bit of macro photography in Florida during the summer, and it can be rough – especially if the humidity is as high as it tends to be. Winter is far more pleasant (and with fewer mosquitos), extending your chances for photography.

Beyond that, wildlife activity often peaks during the winter months as animals migrate south.

In Florida, there's rarely snow, but winter can still be an amazing time for photography thanks to an increase in wildlife activity.
NIKON D7000 + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 800, 1/500, f/2.8
January wildlife in Everglades National Park, Florida

The specific migrations in your area will vary, of course. There may not be any where you live. Still, even in the coldest of places, there’s usually some wildlife to photograph during the winter. When there is, you can add another dimension to your wildlife images that not everyone has seen before.

Animals tend to migrate during the winter months. If you live in an area near the migration, you can capture some amazing wildlife photos.
Sandhill crane migration, early March, San Luis Valley, Colorado

Later in the article, I’ll cover the emotional messages that winter conveys, but I do want to add a brief note here related to wildlife. If you’re doing wildlife photography in snowy conditions, it inherently makes your subject seem hardy and impressive (especially in more and more intense weather). This won’t always be the emotion that you convey, but if it’s an emotion you want to convey, winter is a great time to do it.

A mountain goat stands in front of a snowy mountain landscape.

Even with “common,” everyday subjects, winter conditions add an interesting twist to a wildlife shot. A squirrel playing in the snow instantly bumps up its cuteness game by several notches.

Winter Abstracts

For photographers like me who love abstract photography, snowy conditions are an absolute playground. Ice makes some remarkable shapes – both up close and far away – and the unusual nature of snowy conditions makes it harder than normal to tell exactly what’s going on in a photo.

It's easier than usual to take abstract photos during winter thanks to patterns in ice and snow.

If you want to capture abstract photos during winter, you’ll probably want to use a long lens, or at least bring one along. It’s not necessary for close-up shots of ice, but more distant landscapes benefit from a telephoto’s ability to isolate details.

This abstract photo shows the patterns of lines on a glacier.

If you don’t live in an area with a lot of landscapes to photograph, you’re still in luck. Ice bubbles make for beautiful subjects, and the up-close textures you can capture often turn out very well. You can even do macro photos of icicles or super-macro photos of snowflakes. There are a lot of possibilities out there for abstract work in winter.

Snow and ice make great abstract macro photography subjects up close. This black and white photo shows bubbles in a piece of ice.
Nikon F100, Kodak Tri-X 400

The Emotions of Winter

I’ve written a lot on Photography Life about the ways in which you can capture emotions in your photographs. A lot of that has to do with decisions – conscious or not – that you make for every photo. In winter conditions, especially snow, some of those decisions are more prominent than usual.

For starters, in many cases, snow is empty. It really simplifies the scene in front of you. A mountain landscape during the summer may have rocks, grasses, and ponds that all attract attention. In winter, all of those features could be covered under a blanket of snow.

This gives you the opportunity to capture high negative-space photos which convey emptiness, isolation, loneliness, and so on. In warmer months, it’s difficult to capture these emotions so frequently, aside from very foggy days.

The high levels of negative space in this image convey a sense of isolation and emptiness. That's much easier to do during winter conditions with a lot of snow.
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 200mm, ISO 140, 1/800, f/7.1

This is exacerbated by the fact that snowy conditions often have much less color than normal. A near-monochrome scene can look bleak and stark – not always the emotions you want to convey, but certainly ones that work well for some subjects.

For example, the following is a color image rather than black and white. I even increased the vibrance slider in Lightroom from the default:

Although this is a color photograph, it looks monochromatic because of all the snow.
This is a color photograph, not black and white

You’re not totally restricted to black and white in snowy conditions, of course. If your subject has bright colors – for example, a person wearing red – they’ll stand out all the more because of it. This offers a lot of potential if you want to convey a sense of importance to your main subject, and de-emphasize the rest of the image.

Along with that, because snow is so reflective, it tends to mimic the colors of the light and shadows. At sunset and sunrise, this often leads to an atmospheric blue/gold color contrast that attracts the eye. Such colors are often extremely peaceful, especially with the added simplicity that snow can bring:

This photo of icebergs in Jokulsarlon lagoon has beautiful golden colors, because snow and ice tend to reflect the colors of the light around them.
Emotions like peacefulness and calm are also possible to convey during the winter, thanks to the fact that snow reflects sunset/sunrise light so well.

Still, given that it’s easier than usual to capture a feeling of harshness during winter, I recommend at least occasionally seeking out subjects that work for that message. It’s why I personally like photographing subjects like jagged mountains and abstract patterns during the winter months. They’re intense, often chaotic scenes – and their emotions match well with the harsh conditions around them.

This is a harsh black and white photograph of a winter landscape. The jagged edges of the mountain match well with the intensity of the cold weather conditions.
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 200mm, ISO 100, 1/1250, f/8.0
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