Tonje Lilleås

Winter photography for beginners – How to capture that winter wonderland magic

February is right around the corner and this winter is halfway. Have you found yourself in winter wonderland and wanted to capture the magic this winter? In this post I give you tips and tricks on winter photography for beginners. But first let me give you a few behind the scenes stories from when I first started out photographing in the cold.

You should check out this post if you want tips on improving your landscape images: 8 tips on how to improve your landscape photography

Winter photography for beginners – The one about a camera in changing conditions

When I had just started photography, I was eager to shoot everything I loved. Now I’ve always loved winter. I mean what’s more magical than hoarfrost, snowflakes or blue hour right? Not knowing too much about how a camera would react in -20 degrees Celsius I brought my camera out to shoot on a day skiing. It was almost sunset, there was some interest in the cloudy skies and I had a composition I wanted to test. I couldn’t take my gloves off as my fingers turned to icicles immediately if I did. But I managed to operate the camera with them on, and captured some images.

Eager to look through my images I spotted a small coffee shop nearby. I headed on over with the camera in my hands, walked inside and observed all the frost on the camera immediately turn into small drops of dewy water all over it. Having a entry level DSLR with the kit lens I knew it wasn’t weather sealed. I panicked and walked back outside. Camera still in my hands. Dewy drops of water turned into ice within seconds. How stupid can one be?

I should have read an article about winter photography for beginners before going out, right? Luckily my camera was fine, and I learned something valuable about routines for shooting in the cold.

Winter photography for beginners – The one where I thought my lens was broken

I had spotted this amazing tree that I really wanted to capture against the colorful sunset skies. It was one of those mid winter days where the sun has started giving some warmth. And the thing about these winter days is that I tend to forget how freezing cold it gets once the sun creeps below the horizon.

Having arrived at location during golden hour, I didn’t think this night was going to be too cold. As the sun started to set I got really eager to capture the shot I had imagined, and I did not notice the temperatures starting to creep really low as well. Just as the skies exploded in oranges, reds, pinks and yellows, I heard a weird sound from my lens. I couldn’t get the camera to focus properly and there was this screeching sound from the lens. Broken from all the heavy use was my conclusion and I headed back home with disappointment.

You’ve probably guessed by now that the lens had not broken at all. It just wasn’t coping with the freezing temperatures. Neither was my fingers, but I didn’t notice that until after I had packed my gear and was walking back home. That’s dedication for you. And once again I know now I should have read that winter photography for beginners article before heading out.

Winter photography for beginners – 7 tips to help you on the way

Now having had a few experiences of disappointing winter photography, I decided to do some research and preparation before I headed back out. I finally read that article about winter photography for beginners I should have started out with. And over the years I have gotten way better at winter photography. So here’s my tips to help you on the way to capture some of that winter magic.

1. Get out when snow is fresh and it’s freezing cold

Winter is at its most magical when the snow is fresh and light. Images are cleaner when the snowy landscapes aren’t full of footprints or downfall from trees. If you want to capture the dreamy winter landscapes, you have to get out there before everyone else does. Also the freezing cold gives a certain feel to your images. Personally I love the cold blue hues I can capture on the coldest of days, not to mention how the hoarfrost totally changes a scene. Getting out in snowstorms or other challenging winter conditions will often give you the most interesting images. Don’t wait until everyone else gets out as well.

2. Know how your gear is challenged – and how to work around it

Camera gear don’t necessarily love winter conditions. Cold temperatures can make your camera or lens react slower or your battery not last as long as you’re used to. When I shoot winter landscapes in the cold, I make sure to roughly scout out my composition before I get my gear out.

My batteries stays inside my jacket, close to my body up until I have framed my shot. That way I only have to make small adjustments with the battery in the cold and I have longer battery lifetime before I have to charge or change batteries. If I’m run and gun shooting, I tend to just bring as many batteries as possible and keep the ones I’m not using warm until I need to change batteries.

My gear goes back into the camera bag before I go inside a car or somewhere else warmer than outside. I keep my camera bag shut close in the coldest room in the house for a few hours before I open it to take out the gear. That way I avoid the gear getting fogged down when I bring it inside. Also I always make sure to get rid of any frost on the camera bag before I go inside, trying to keep the risk of moisture getting to my camera gear at a minimum.

3. Keep warm and toasty

Getting cold is my worst enemy whenever I’m out shooting in winter. Photography is a game of patience and endurance. In winter even more so than in more accommodating conditions. It’s so easy to be content with a semi nice image because you are freezing cold. If you make sure to dress in warm layers, have a good pair of mittens to keep you fingers toasty and bring a cup of coffee or cocoa, it’s much more likely that you put in that extra amount of work. When the reward is a perfect keeper of an image, you will be glad you put in the effort.

4. Exposure compensation is key

Cameras aren’t to be relied on when it comes to exposure of snow. More often than not you will need to use the exposure compensation, setting it around +1 to +2. All the white snow in your winter image will most likely trick your camera to underexpose. So be aware of your exposure to avoid having to do a lot in post. Also make sure you don’t overdo the exposure compensation, as this may make you blow out parts of your image where you would like detail.

5. Manual focus is your friend

Winter photography may pose a challenge to hitting the focus right. Scenes often have low contrast, for instance on overcast, foggy or snowy days. In conditions like this you may find your lens hunting for focus, leading to you missing the shot you wanted. A simple, or really not that simple, solution to this problem is switching to manual focus. Just make sure you have practice in focusing manually before you find yourself in front of the dream winter composition, so you don’t miss the shot due to your own shortcomings instead.

6. Choose shutter speed intentionally

The shutter speed you choose in snowy conditions can vastly change the mood in your image. Decide if you want to see the blurred motion of the falling snow, or if freezing the white dots suits your idea better. Slow shutter speed will blur motion, fast shutter speed will freeze it. You will have to experiment with what’s the right shutter speed in the exact conditions you are in, also taking into consideration if your main subject is moving or standing still.

7. Use spot metering for portraits

Spot metering will make sure you get the exposure of your model right, as it measures only the light on the specific spot you select. Since the snowy conditions often trick your exposure, it’s important to make sure you read the scene as correctly as possible. Also, don’t be afraid of using exposure compensation on portraits as well if you find that the exposure still isn’t on point even if you’re using spot metering.

Get out and shoot some winter images

I really hope you found these tips helpful and that you get out there to capture some of that winter magic! Also if you liked this post I would really appreciate it if you gave it a thumbs up, left a comment down below and considered subscribing to my blog. It would really make me happy! And if you want to see more of what I do, please check out my Instagram and my YouTube.

Lastly remember; there’s always more to explore locally!


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