12 Snow Photography Tips (How to Capture Magical Snow Shots)

by John Stapel

how to capture magical photos of the snow

If you want to capture stunning snow photography, then you’ve come to the right place.

I love snow photoshoots, and I’ve been photographing snow for years. In this article, I share my absolute best tips for snow shots, including:

  • The best snow photography settings
  • The best time to head out for pictures in the snow
  • How to keep your camera gear safe in the cold
  • How to photograph falling snow for a beautiful, ethereal effect
  • Magical snow picture ideas
  • Much more!

So if you’re ready to learn how to take gorgeous photos in the snow, then let’s dive right in, starting with tip number one:

1. Focus on contrast

Camera autofocus works by identifying contrast…

…so when everything is white, your autofocus will have a hard time acquiring focus, which can lead to a lot of frustration and even missed opportunities (imagine waiting while your lens hunts back and forth, back and forth).

Fortunately, there’s a simple way around this:

Switch your camera to its single-point AF mode. Then position your main focus point over a contrast-heavy area of your snow scene. For instance, you might focus on the bark of a tree, some vegetation poking through the snow, the roof of a house – anything that pops against the white.

Next, press your shutter button halfway. If you’ve found a sufficiently contrasty part of the scene, the focus should lock – but if it still won’t work, you’ll need to identify an even more contrast-heavy subject.

Finally, hold down your shutter button as you recompose the shot. And once you’ve created the perfect composition, press the button the rest of the way to take your perfect photo of snow!

photographing snow beginner's tips

Note that if you’re trying to photograph a low-contrast scene, such as a white house against a snowy backdrop, you may want to give up on autofocus entirely. Switch your lens over to manual focus, then carefully turn your lens’s focus ring until you’ve achieved perfect sharpness. (For even better results, use your camera’s Live View mode to preview the image on the rear LCD and zoom in to check the focus at a high magnification.)

2. Choose the right camera settings for snow photography

While specific snow photoshoot settings will vary depending on the light, the situation, and your artistic intentions, I do have a few simple recommendations.

First, set your camera to shoot in RAW; when you use the RAW file format, you’ll have far more information to work with when editing. That way, you can recover clipped shadows and highlights (the latter are pretty common in snow photography, thanks to the brightness of sun on snow).

ships on the ice

I’d also recommend you select your camera’s Evaluative metering mode, also known as Matrix metering. This will analyze the entire scene to achieve the best possible exposure in most situations (in fact, it’s what I used for all the photos in this article!). If you’re struggling to get a good exposure, you can always try switching over to Spot metering or Partial metering, but Evaluative metering is a good starting point.

Third, you’ll need to dial in one or two stops of positive exposure compensation. Due to the quirks of its meter, your camera will try to make the snow look gray. Exposure compensation will counteract the meter to keep things bright.

Note: If you’re shooting in Manual mode, you can simply decrease the shutter speed by a stop or two to achieve the same result. Speaking of which:

3. Shoot in Aperture Priority mode or Manual mode

trees heavy with snow

Aperture Priority mode allows you to adjust the aperture and ISO while your camera automatically changes the shutter speed to achieve a good exposure.

This is great for situations when the light is frequently changing or when you’re moving from subject to subject (if you’re photographing birds in flight, for instance). It’s also a lifesaver in cold weather, because you generally only need to spin a dial to adjust your aperture (and cold fingers aren’t so great for doing complex operations!).

Plus, by changing the aperture, you can increase and decrease your depth of field for different artistic looks.

Alternatively, you can shoot in Manual mode. You’ll need to adjust all your settings, not just the aperture and ISO, so Manual mode isn’t ideal for fast-moving situations. But if you want complete control over your camera settings, and you don’t mind working with cold fingers, then Manual mode is an excellent choice.

4. Capture snow while it’s still fresh

Here’s a simple snow photography idea:

If you want magical photos, head out just after a fresh snowfall. The world will be sparkly and pristine. You won’t have any footprints, yellow snow, mud, or dirt to deal with; instead, you can focus on creating stunning shots of your winter wonderland.

snow on a sunny day

That said, if you want footprint-free snow, you should plan the photos you’re going to take and the order you’ll take them in. Otherwise, you might accidentally trample the snow during the shooting process, which will ruin your ability to capture future pristine photos.

Note that pristine snow doesn’t last long. Capturing fresh snow might also mean heading out early to shoot (before the kids get up!), or monitoring the weather and getting outside just as the snow stops. Of course, if your schedule isn’t quite so flexible, that’s okay. Just take your camera to an area that you know people won’t disturb, like a forest or field.

5. Keep your batteries warm

You can’t take pictures in snow without fresh batteries – and unfortunately, in cold weather, your batteries won’t last long.

So carry at least two, and keep one in an inside pocket at all times. (Depending on your camera’s battery life, I’d even recommend shooting with three or four batteries. You can grab third-party options online for cheap.)

When the battery in your camera runs low, replace it with a warm one. Then put the drained battery in your pocket; you may even be able to use it again once it warms up.

6. Bag your camera when you come inside

When you take a cold camera into a warm environment, what happens? You get condensation on the lens and potentially even on camera internals, which is – you guessed it! – not good.

Fortunately, it’s an easy problem to prevent.

When you head out into the cold, bring along a large ziplock bag. I usually keep one in my camera bag or jacket pocket. Then, when you’re ready to go inside, just fill the ziplock bag with cold air, put your camera in the bag, and make sure the lock is sealed tight.

Once you’re in the house, put your camera somewhere it can warm up slowly. When the camera reaches room temperature, you can take it out of the bag and use it normally.

(And if you decide to go back outside to photograph after a brief rest in the house, you can safely take your bagged camera out in the cold, open the bag outside, and start shooting again.)

Note that you’ll need to bag your cold camera before taking it into any warm environment, including stores, heated elevators, and a heated car.

7. Don’t worry about the weather

Snowy landscapes look good in both sunny and cloudy weather, so don’t restrict yourself to shooting in specific light. Simply learn to work with the lighting conditions you’re given.

When the sky is cloudy, find elements that will break up the white snow and add interest to your photos, such as trees, grasses, or ice. When the weather is sunny, look for shadows created by the bright sun (and if you shoot in the early morning or evening, do what you can to capture the warm light on the cold snow).

Also, if it’s snowing, be sure to protect your camera, especially if the snow is wet and/or heavy. Consider using a raincover, or – if the wind is minimal – an umbrella.

snow photography trees on ice

While I personally don’t take my camera out in super-cold weather, some people do, and the resulting photos can be stunning.

8. Act fast

Snow changes quickly. It can stop falling in an instant. And when the sun comes out, snow melts, so that those beautiful trees go from dazzling to drab in no time at all.

Monitor the weather carefully. Look out your window frequently. Have your gear ready to go.

And if you come up with a snow picture idea that you like, or if you look out the window and see beautiful snow photoshoot opportunities, don’t dawdle. Capture some snow photography while you still can!

abstract snow photography of ice and branches

9. Be patient

This tip is a corollary to the one above – because while it’s important to always be ready, it’s also important to be patient, especially when you’re faced with rapidly changing conditions.

You see, depending on the light, snow can look sparkly, ethereal, three-dimensional, flat, and so much more. Sometimes, getting the right look simply involves waiting for the light to change.

So if the snow doesn’t look quite how you hoped, check the light. Is the sun behind a cloud? Is the sun too low or high in the sky?

Then wait for the right conditions to take your shot.

snow in the sun with beautiful light

10. Play with perspective

As with all forms of photography, composition is an essential ingredient of great snow photos – so you should pay very careful attention to the items you’re including in the frame, and you should also carefully consider your perspective.

For creative snow photos, try getting down low to shoot up, like this:

photographing snow up a tree

You might also find a deck or a hill that you can use to shoot downward; that way, you can show how the snow blankets the ground, weighs things down, and clings to everything.

And for each photo you take, look for opportunities to make the shot even better. Walk to either side of your subject, consider different angles, get in close, walk far away, even change lenses. After all, who knows what gorgeous photos await, if only you can find them?

11. Use a fast shutter speed to photograph falling snow

If snow is falling and you want to capture the flakes as they drift toward the ground, you’ll need to use a fast shutter speed. Do a bit of experimentation, as the perfect setting will depend on the speed of the snow – but I’d suggest starting around 1/100s or higher, then carefully reviewing the shots on your LCD to see the results.

Of course, snow tends to fall when the world is dark and dreary, so you may struggle to achieve even a 1/100s shutter speed, especially if the snow is heavy or you’re shooting in the evening. Consider boosting your ISO or widening your aperture to get the shutter speed you need.

Alternatively, you can embrace blurred snow; at 1/30s or so, the flakes will turn into long white streaks, which can give a wonderfully artistic look when done carefully.

12. Capture some sparkly bokeh

A sunny winter day is a great time to create bokeh thanks to all the sparkling snow and ice.

You see, pinpricks of light – e.g., light sparkling on snow – when rendered out of focus, can create outstanding bokeh effects, like this:

ice on a branch snow photography

So here’s what you do:

First, look for a subject that has something bright or shiny in the background. This background element could be light reflecting off melting snow, light broken by tree branches, or light shining through ice. Set your camera to a wide-open aperture (e.g., f/2.8 or f/4), and make sure there is some distance between your subject and the shiny background.

Thanks to the wide aperture, your subject will be in focus, but not the shiny background elements.

And when you hit the shutter button, you’ll get lovely background bokeh!

Snow photography tips: final words

Will you be out taking photos on the next snow day? I’m planning on it, and I hope you are, too.

Have fun with your snow photography and experiment with different settings for creative results. Just remember to dress for the weather and bag your camera.

Now over to you:

Which of these snow photography tips and ideas do you plan to try? Do you have any snow photoshoot tips I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

12 Snow Photography Tips (How to Capture Magical Snow Shots)