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How To Make Amazing Snow Photos

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

Making amazing snow photos can be challenging but, with interesting subject matter, good light, solid technique and great composition fantastic pictures are possible.

Successful snow photos are the result of realizing creativity by controlling fundamental aspects of photography like light, exposure, white balance and composition. This enables you to control the brightness, contrast and color of the scene depicted and showcases your own unique vision of the world.

Whether you’re photographing spectacular natural locations like Huangshan Mountain in China or exploring the streets of your own town there’s a wide variety of interesting subject matter you can draw upon to form the basis of your snow photos.

A few examples would include the following:

  • Wide angle landscape photos depicting snow clad mountains
  • Medium distance images of a stand of trees within a snow covered environment
  • Close up nature study examining delicate details and the sometimes perilous nature of survival at altitude during the harshness of a deep winter

For urban landscapes consider the following examples:

  • An overview of your town or city on the morning after a heavy snowfall
  • A car covered with snow that’s parked in front of a downtown apartment building
  • A snowman in a quiet city park

Wherever you live don’t let the short, cold days of winter get you down. Get out and about with your camera and look for interesting opportunities to make fun and creative snow photos.

Snow Photos And Light

Light is the most important aspect underpinning photography. Light illuminates the subject of your photos, creates shadows, enhances texture, influences color and brings a greater sense of three dimensional space and depth to your photos.

The facets of light that need to be considered when making snow photos can be described as follows:

  • Intensity of the Light
  • Quality of the Light
  • Direction of the Light
  • Color of the Light

Let’s explore these critically important facets of light that will allow you to create amazing snow photos.

Intensity Of The Light In Snow Photography

The intensity of the light is important as it determines the brightness of your subject and the dynamic range or contrast within the scene.

What’s more, depending upon the angle of the light and what areas of the scene are included in the composition, the intensity of the light under which you’re photographing can effect a camera’s ability to record subtle highlight and shadow detail in a single exposure.

It’s also worth mentioning that the intensity of the light will influence the relative brightness of subjects within the scene your photographing and, as a result, the shutter speed and/or iso at which you’ll make your photo.

Quality Of The Light In Snow Photography

You’ll likely find the quality of the light to be the most important factor in producing amazing snow photos.

The quality of the light is usually described in either of two ways, which we can describe as follows:

  • Hard light which is generally considered to be an unflattering light source
  • Soft light which produces more romantic, pictorial results

Hard light is a small light source producing a hard or harsh quality of light. As its name suggests hard light is not a particularly flattering light source and, outside of certain types of photojournalistic photography, it’s generally avoided by serious landscape and portrait photographers.

Actually the quality of the light is defined by the relative size of the light, in relation to the subject, under which you’re photographing.

So, while the sun is huge, at midday it appears small in the sky and, in relation to the size of a face in the average portrait photo, is considered to be a relatively small light source.

However, when the sun is closer to the horizon it appears larger in the sky. That makes it a much larger light source, compared to the size of a face in the average portrait photo.

As a consequence, the quality of the light from the sun is considered to be softer and more flattering closer to sunrise and sunset.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that the edges of the day are favored by landscape photographers. The soft, warm light produced when the sun is closer to the horizon creates opportunities for a range of picturesque, atmospheric or dramatic photos.

All of the photos in this post were made under soft lighting conditions. However, they weren’t all made during the golden hour near sunrise or sunset.

My hike across the famous range of mountain peaks in China commonly known as Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) was conducted during the middle of winter.

That meant heavy cloud cover and overcast conditions. Those clouds acted like a big old soft box obscuring the sun and producing a soft, diffuse light.

A similar thing happens in photography studios when photographers produce a softer, more flattering quality of light in one of the following ways:

  • Through the use of a reflector onto which the light is made larger and then reflected back towards the subject
  • Through the use of a soft box, placed in front of the light to produce a physically larger and more diffuse light source.

Direction Of The Light

The direction of the light is a critical factor in creating excellent snow photography. We can think about light hitting the landscape from one of three different directions.

  • Front light
  • Side light
  • Back light

Front Light

The term front light can be a bit confusing. It actually refers to light coming from behind the camera and hitting the subject front on.

Front light, while not the most dramatic angle of light, is ideal when you’re wanting to reveal information about the subject or scene in question.

For example, if the color of the scene in question is of particular importance you’d do well to position yourself so that the subject is front lit. That’s because front light reveals color.

Side Light

Side light illuminates parts of the scene and places areas that are not illuminated into shadow. In doing so local contrast is increased and textures are emphasized which is a great advantage in a lot of landscape and architectural photography.

Snow, like sand, can photograph quite flat and textureless. That’s particularly the case when it’s illuminated by direct front lighting which can reflect a lot of the tiny details and textures off the surface of the snow covered landscape.

Large, near white areas of an image that are recorded with minimal texture tend to be quite boring to look at. They can even become a bit of an eyesore and effectively ruin an otherwise interesting picture.

A polarizing filter can help to reduce this often unwanted loss of texture in lighter areas of an image.

However another way to avoid the problem is to move yourself so that you’re photography side on to the light.

It’s amazing what a difference this quite simple technique can make to a photograph. An otherwise large and uninspiring expanse of snow can be transformed into a highly detailed landscape displaying subtle gradation in highlight tonalities.

Back Light

Back lighting often results in silhouettes. A backlit scene can produce incredibly dramatic results, particularly when the subject in question forms a graphic shape.

However, as backlighting causes a subject to record significantly darker than they actually appear, much of the information that would normally describe them (e.g., color and texture) is lost in the silhouette.

This can be a problem when photographing snow as the normally light toned snow renders significantly darker, even black in the final photo.

While it’s certainly possible to add more exposure to your image to lighten the snow, it’s not the same as actually adding light to the image.

You’ll find the formerly underexposed snow will record light, but so too will the brighter background.

This linear change in exposure often results in a blue sky background rendering white in the photo. So, while it’s possible to lighten the snow, you won’t necessarily produce a better photograph.

Color Of The Light

The color of the light is an essential element in determining the mood of the image.

From an hour after sunrise until an hour before sunset the color of sunlight is considered to be neutral in color.

Neutral colored light can be beneficial in the case of relatively straight documentary photography, regardless of the genre in question.

When the weather’s good sunlight at either end of the day is warm in color. That’s ideal when you’re looking to produce images that communicate a romantic, life affirming view of the landscape.

But what about the image at the very top of this post. The dominant hue or color in the image is blue, which is a result of the scene being illuminated with heavy, overcast clouds.

It’s important to understand that dark, rain or snow bearing clouds are not gray in color. They’re actually quite bluish and the darker the clouds the bluer the light that is filtered through them onto the world below.

The reason most folks don’t know this is because, while the eyes actually see this blue colored light and the effect it has on the world around them, the brain does it’s best to neutralize the color of the light so that the world appears the way we’d expect it to.

In photography we refer to this phenomenon of neutralizing the color of the light as white balance.

So how is it that I’ve been able to retain the evocative nature of the blue colored light and record it’s visual and emotive effect on this snow covered scene from Huangshan Mountain?

I simply turned the camera’s white balance off and allowed the camera to accurately record the color of the light and it’s affect on the scene being depicted.

The way to do that is to set your camera’s white balance to the Daylight or Sunny setting.

It’s not my default white balance setting, but I employ it when, as I say, I want to prevent the camera from white balancing the scene in question.

As a way to help you master white balance in your own photography I’ve produced a great article titled White Balance Explained.

It describes all the white balance settings in your camera’s menu and explains when to use each one to produce the best possible results. Do check it out.

Understanding Tonality In Digital Photography

These days a histogram is used to describe the distribution of tones in a digital image into a maximum of 256 levels of brightness (where 0 is jet black and 255 is pure white) for each of the primary photography colors: red, green and blue.

If you multiply the 256 levels of theoretical brightness for each of the three colors (i.e., 256 x 256 x256) you end up with more than 16 million discrete colors.

That’s potentially many levels of brightness for the red, green and blue colors in an image. Incredible!

However, most folks photograph with their cameras set to JPEG. That’s fine as doing so tells the camera to function not just as a recording device, but also as a kind of photo lab influencing the color, contrast and sharpness of your photos.

This is most convenient because it means that the result image is processed and able to be shared without any further processing in photo processing applications on the desktop.

However, while a convenient kind of image file, a camera generated JPEG file is quite highly compressed reducing the amount of tones (i.e., levels of brightness) in an image to a maximum of 256.

This is fine for most amateur photographers, though more discerning enthusiast and professional photographers prefer the greater flexibility and control they’re able to achieve from uncompressed, camera generated RAW files on the desktop.

This is most likely going to be noticed when you’re trying to render subtle differences in tone and color while post processing images on the desktop, particularly when significant adjustments in brightness, contrast and color are required.

Put simply, the more data in your image the more it can stand up to rigorous degrees of post processing.

Exposure Compensation When Photographing Snow

It’s important to understand that your camera really doesn’t have much of an idea of what it is you’re photographing.

Have no doubt that, while your camera’s light meter can determine the brightness of a subject like snow, it doesn’t know it’s snow or sand or, for that matter, a typical white wedding dress.

To all intensive purposes your camera’s light meter, the device designed to help your camera achieve a so-called correct exposure is, therefore, somewhat limited in its ability to do so.

Despite its sophistication your camera’s light meter is not always as reliable a tool as you’d think it should be.

If you doubt what I say simply consider all the photos you’ve made where the brightness (i.e., exposure) of those images has been either too light or too dark.

It’s certainly true that a camera’s light meter might understand that it’s being pointed at something that’s relatively bright.

However, if the camera doesn’t know that the scene in question features large areas of near white snow, it will try to record what it sees as a mid tone, a default action around which camera light meters are designed to function.

A mid tone is a level of brightness between jet black and pure white. Fortunately much of what we photograph often contains mid tone areas, some being a little lighter and some a little darker than what’s referred to as mid gray.

This is why, with very little technical knowledge, most folks are able to achieve decent exposures when photographing so-called average scenes.

That’s because, by guiding your camera towards a mid gray exposure, much of what you photograph often records relatively as you’d expect it to.

However, when the subject or scene you’re photographing consists of predominantly light or dark tones your camera, in producing a mid gray result, will produce a poor exposure.

Therefore the way to ensure your snow photos aren’t underexposed, turning out much darker than you’d expect, is to override your camera by allowing more light to enter the camera than what the light meter considers is required.

As a basic rule the brighter the subject or scene the larger the exposure compensation will be required.

How much of an adjustment you’ll need to record great results when photographing snow is tricky as it depends upon the intensity and direction of the light as well as how much fine texture you’ll want to retain in the snow.

Most often I’d estimate that you’ll need to make an exposure compensation of between one and two stops (i.e., +1.0 to +2.0).

There are several ways to override your camera’s poor choice of exposure, depending upon the exposure mode in question.

Manual Exposure

Adjust the shutter speed, aperture or ISO to either lighten or darken the picture.

Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority or Program

Adjust the brightness of the image via the camera’s Exposure Compensation function.

Please be aware that it’s likely that any of the other exposure modes on your camera are, by nature, highly automated and, as a result, may not allow you to adjust the brightness of your exposure beyond what the camera has deemed to be correct.

This is one reason why serious photographers avoid those particular exposure modes.

Black And White Snow Photography

Like the term chalk and cheese, black and white photography is often used to describe exact opposites in a photograph.

While it's possible to make photos of extreme contrast, with little or no tonality between black and white, the classic black and white print will display a full range of tones often described as follows:

  • Jet black
  • Dark to open (i.e., relatively light) shadows
  • Mid tones
  • Subtle highlights
  • Near white

The creation of a great black and white image also needs to take into account the quality, direction and intensity of the light together with one or more elements of composition.

  • Line
  • Shape
  • Texture
  • Symmetry
  • Balance
  • Repetition

While potentially important in any photo, these elements of composition are of particular importance in the absence of color.

The great American landscape photographer and master printer Ansel Adams is perhaps the most famous exponent of black and white landscape photography.

I love Adam’s photographs because, in addition to being beautiful in their own right, they’re easy to read in that they speak to how the photograph was constructed. As such the photos of Ansel Adams provide great lessons in how to make classic black and white photos.

This image featuring fenced off conservation areas on Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) in Eastern China displays quite a long tonal scale from black to near white.

Notice how the image also showcases line, shape, texture, balance and repetition. You might consider it to be a good example of classic black and white snow photography.

I remember turning my camera up the hill towards this beautiful, yet somewhat surreal scene.

It's always strange in remote or wild areas to see nature contained by barriers, albeit as part of an important regeneration strategy.

I was hiking under a heavily laden sky. As a result the light was soft producing a lovely, almost shadowless light.

The majority of the tones were mid tones or brighter (i.e., high key image) and the snow covered trees and ground added subtle texture to the scene.

The problem with this sort of scene is that it can look flat. Fortunately the black fence lines added contrast, as well as great leading lines, moving the viewer through the frame and enhancing the sense of three dimensional space in the image.

It’s inventible that some delicate tonality will be lost on most computer screens in this small, compressed JPEG (i.e., Joint Photographic Experts Group). 

Nonetheless there should be enough retained on your monitor to illustrate some of the luminous beauty and sheer wonder I experienced at the top of the steep trek across Huangshan mountain.

But it’s the composition of the photo that, ultimately, brings the sense of harmony and cohesion to the image.

Notice how the fence line leads the eye up to the great tree near the middle of the frame. Notice also the highly textured areas in the ice encrusted trees and the more delicate textures left by other climbers after they’ve trudged through the snow.

Beauty, visually interesting composition and a sense of narrative are all contained within this simple scene.

Snow Photos: Technique Meets Creativity

But neither the world you photograph nor your intentions always lend themselves to this classic rendering of tones.

You may be photographing a scene comprising predominantly light (e.g., beach or snow) or dark (e.g., close up of a dark tree trunk) tones and, as a consequence, the tonality in your image may be reduced.

Of course software provides so many options by which an image can be altered, enhanced or manipulated to achieve (hopefully) new, interesting and thought-provoking results.

Your journey might see you produce a high key image, where the majority of tones are mid tone or brighter or, alternatively, a low key image, where the majority of tones are mid tone or darker. 

Now take a look at this black and white image of a mountain retreat surrounded by snow covered trees.

The path I was following led me to a high, windswept vantage point with outstanding views in several directions.

This particular photo was made back down towards the hotel I'd stayed at the night before, on my birthday, while tracking across the spectacular Huangshan Mountain.

In addition to the texture, tonality and repetition that underpins the composition the low lying cloud cover is important as it speaks to the bitter winter weather that threatened throughout my journey.

A color image, displaying the same bluish color hue present in the photo at the very top of this post, would have produced a more melancholy result. However, on this occasion I decided to opt for a more classic black and white rendering of the scene.

Huangshan mountain is an amazing place to photograph and I'm very much looking forward to my next Yellow Mountain adventure where I’II continue to explore the many scenes and moods this mountain wonderland offers.

Nature image of a tree branch covered in snow on Huangshan, China.

Snow Photography Of Nature Based Subjects

Take a look at this lovely detail of a tree branch, weighed down by snow on the slopes of Huangshan.

While it’s an accurate study of a fairly straightforward scene, it’s also an interesting image in that it conveys a somewhat melancholy mood and describes the weather, in particular the mist and cold on this most atmospheric and sublime mountain location in China.

If you’re looking to produce really iconic nature based snow photography it might be helpful to think not just of what you’re photographing, but what you want to communicate in your photo.

journey and help you make even more interesting photos into the future.

Snow Photography In Winter

Needless to say most snow photograph is done in winter though, in some parts of the world snow remains on mountain tops all year round.

Snow photography usually requires special purpose fleece and gore tex clothing, commonly worn in layers, quality leather boots and, on occasions, knee length waterproof overboots.

Movement through snow covered landscapes can be slow and difficult. What’s more daylight hours for serious snow photography adventures is reduced during winter months.

But the one big advantage for photographers during the winter months is the usually lower dynamic range a photographer as to deal with.

During winter months you can expect to experience less intense sun and more diffuse light resulting from often overcast conditions.

This makes it much easier to produce a full tonal scale and hold onto a significant amount of subtle details and textures in shadow and, importantly, highlight areas of the scene.

Snow Photography On A Sunny Day

While a blue sky can look amazing in a snow covered landscape photo, sunny days can be challenging as they often result in scenes displaying a relatively higher dynamic range. Here are the most effective ways I’ve found to deal with this problem.

  • Change your composition and eliminate the sky from your photo, thereby reducing the dynamic range within the scene.
  • Move to a position where the light is coming from behind you. You may not be able to record as much fine texture in the scene, but at least you’ll be able to reduce the likelihood of important highlight and shadow areas recording white or black respectively.
  • Employ a High Dynamic Range (HDR) workflow in camera and during post processing.

Conclusion: Create Your Own Amazing Snow Photos

Traveling to beautiful landscape locations in the middle of winter can provide truly memorable experiences. That’s most certainly the case when it’s a snow covered landscape like the spectacular Huangshan Mountain in China.

After the cost and effort required getting to such locations, let alone dealing with the vagaries of weather in the middle of winter, it’s only natural that you’d want to preserve your memories of the adventure with great photos.

Frankly, I couldn’t imagine not making the most of my opportunities by taking the effort to explore my response to the landscape through photography.

This post has explored the fundamentals of composition, exposure, dynamic range and white balance, particularly as they relate to photographing snow covered landscapes.

I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a comprehensive post which I’ve created in the hope it will enable you to make truly amazing snow photos for yourself. At the very least it should allow you to achieve good results more often.

After a little bit of practice your confidence will grow and you’ll be able to adjust exposure and white balance to overcome the kinds of technical issues that defeat most photographers documenting snow covered landscapes.

As evidenced by the color photos in this post you’ll also be able to employ white balance to explore mood and heighten the drama and emotional impact of your own photos.

Finally, exploring the fundamentals of composition will allow you to direct your audience into and through your photos in interesting ways that can reveal your own, unique response to the world around you.

I hope you’ve found this post to be both informative and inspiring and I wish you well with your own snow photography adventures.

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