Tips for Photographing Snow and Ice

Winter has officially arrived where I live in western Montana. After a week of below zero temperatures and about six inches of snow in the valleys, the icy world beckons! If you enjoy making pictures of snow scenes, here are some suggestions to improve your results.

Adjust the Exposure
Snow is actually brighter than the camera's exposure records it. To make your snow look pristine white, lighten the exposure but keep texture in the brightest areas. You can do this by using the Snow (or Beach) scene setting. Or you can set the Exposure Compensation to +1 for snow in direct sun or +1.5 for snow under overcast skies
  Camera's Exposure

Brighter Exposure

The most controlled method is using spot metering to measure the light on just the snow. (You will still need to adjust the exposure.) If your camera can display a histogram (a graph of the brightness in your photo), check it as a guide to an exposure that's brighter but not too bright. The graph should be shifted toward the right side instead of being in the middle. You can also practice on white subjects inside to figure out how much to lighten the exposure while still keeping important details. 
Dealing with Shadows
Shadows record very dark compared to sunlit snow. Your camera can’t record detail in shadows even though you can see it. Watch for shadows and make them part of the composition. Side lighting and back lighting produce shadows that give snow texture. Cloudy days and shade create no shadows, so no texture is visible in the snow. On cloudy days look for color subjects to add an accent to the scene.

 Side lighting shows texture
Cloudy light shows little texture
Adjusting Color
Because snow is white, it reveals the color of the light shining on it. Shadows on snow are the color of the sky---blue. Highlights are the color of the sun---yellow in the midday, pink at dawn or dusk. To record these colors, try the sunny white balance setting in addition to automatic white balance. Winter is also a good time to experiment with black and white photography since dormant trees and other plants have turned gray and are surrounded by white snow.

Sun on the snow is yellow; shadows from clouds are blue
Winter scenes make nice black and white photos
Early and late in the day, snowdrifts show the color of sunlight and texture. Look for interesting shapes and abstract compositions. Watch where you walk so you don’t track footprints through a scene you want to photograph as pristine.

Snowdrifts create abstract patterns of light and shadow

Falling Snow
If you want to record snowflakes falling through the air, find a dark background so the flakes will be visible. Use a shutter speed of 1/60 second or faster to stop their motion, or 1/30 to 1/15 second for streaks. You can also try fill flash to freeze falling flakes close to the camera.

Falling snow is easier to see against the dark windows

Frost on Plants and Windows
Extremely low temperatures often result in intricate patterns of frost and ice that make fascinating pictures. Avoid touching the plant and making the frost fall off. The slightest breeze makes frost fall like snow! Opening the curtains or door and touching the window may cause frost to melt.

Watch for patterns of color visible through the ice on windows. Use the close-up focusing setting on a compact camera to record the details. For an SLR camera a macro lens or close-up filter is useful. For either camera a tripod holds the camera steady for a sharp shot.

Frost on rose hips
Frost on window

Ice in Streams and Ponds
As puddles, ponds, streams and rivers begin to freeze over, air becomes trapped below the surface. These bubbles make interesting designs especially for macro photography. Leaves, pine needles and other vegetation frozen in the water create still lifes. If you have waterfalls in the area, visit them for interesting ice sculptures created by the flowing water.

Leaves frozen in ice
Snowflake pattern in pond ice

Camera and Personal Care
Finally, don't forget to take care of your camera and yourself when out in cold temperatures.

For your camera, always carry spare batteries inside your coat to swap with the first set when cold saps their power. The batteries aren't really dead, just too cold to produce a charge. If your camera can use them, lithium batteries last longer than alkalines in the cold. If snow sticks to your lens, use a soft brush to remove it. Don’t try to blow the snow off or your breath may freeze on the glass!

When you are finished shooting, put the camera in a plastic bag or your camera bag while you are still outside the warm house or car. This traps cold air around the camera and prevents condensation from forming both outside and inside the camera. Too much moisture could damage the electronics. Then warm the camera up slowly, such as under a blanket or inside a padded camera bag, away from direct heat sources.

For yourself, dress in layers that wick away moisture if you are going to be active and wear an outer layer that blocks the wind. Wear thin gloves inside mittens. Mittens always keep your fingers warmer than gloves, but you need dexterity when adjusting the camera controls. So the gloves provide a measure of protection from the cold air. Wrap your tripod legs with pipe insulation or padded bicycle handlebar tape so you aren’t touching bare metal even with gloved hands. This will help keep the warmth in your hands. And stick a couple chemical hand warmers in your coat pockets so you can warm up those fingers (and batteries) when they become chilled.

With all these suggestions you should be well prepared to capture photos in your amazing winter landscape.

Additional Resources

The Most Useful Exposure Override” by Peter K. Burian,

Digital Photography Tips --- Winter Photography” by Tom Cavalieri, New York Institute of Photography
Cold Weather Pictures: How to Use Your Camera in Cold Weather”, New York Institute of Photography

How to Take Great Skiing and Snowboarding Pictures”, New York Institute of Photography