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Tips on shooting snow and ice

A complete guide to photographing snow and ice by ePHOTozine's Peter Bargh. Learn how to expose and compose in our winter months.

|  Landscape and Travel
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Winter brings a new range of photo opportunities where familiar colourful scenes are suddenly covered in a blanket of snow. Bare trees become stark outlined silhouettes against a brilliant white backdrop, grasses poke out from below white canopies and old barns look like sets from pantomimes.

As the snow falls, if you're like me, you'll probably be itching to venture out and capture the scenic delights, but beware, Jack Frost has a few tricks up his sleeve to prevent you getting good pictures.

The first is the temperature. Cameras are built to work within a specific temperature range and batteries have similar needs.

Most UK weather won't cause any problems, but be aware that the batteries may not perform as well as they could. Several pro-spec SLRs and medium format cameras have a special battery pack that you keep in your pocket and have a cord running up to the camera. This allows the batteries to be kept warm in your pocket while you operate the camera. If you have a model that doesn't do this try removing the batteries from the camera and warming them up before taking pictures. This is fiddly, but it may get you the extra shot or two. 

Also don't try and take pictures as soon as you come out of the cold into the warmth. The camera needs to acclimatise, and if pulled straight out you'll see the lens mist up. Leave the camera a few minutes before attempting to take pictures.

snow scene with fence posts
When most of the scene is snow you must allow about 1.5 to two stops extra exposure to ensure the snow appears pure white. But even then you may find blue in the shadow areas because snow reflects a lot of UV light that has gives the blue colour.

The main problem with snow is that its brilliant white and highly reflective tones fool the camera's metering system. All cameras have built in metering systems that are designed to deliver a perfect picture assuming the contrast range is normal. They do this by scrambling the tones and then adjust so the scrambled colour brightness is mid grey or average. This is fine when the subject has a wide tonal range with everything from black to white being present, but when the subject is predominantly white, such as snow, the camera underexposes so that the white becomes grey. This also happens, to a lesser extent, on beach scenes where the sand is the main part of the subject.

All you need to do is override the camera's automatic setting using the exposure compensation setting on a full auto camera or by going to manual on one of the more advanced models. If you set the exposure compensation to either plus 1 and 2 stops depending on the amount of snow in the picture your results will be much better. If your camera has an exposure lock, usually set be half pressure on the shutter button, point it at a mid tone to lock the exposure before recomposing and taking the photograph.

Many digital compact cameras now have a snow scene mode. Set the camera to this if it has one.

If you have an old film camera without any options set the film speed to ISO25 when using ISO100 film. This makes the camera allow more exposure to ensure what it thinks is a slower film receive the correct amount of exposure. Remember to set it back when you finish taking snow pictures.

One final problem when you have your pictures commercially printed is that the lab can also become fooled by the tones and once again adjust to make them mid grey. Here the snow will have a brown, blue or grey hue. If so ask the lab to reprint or, better still, inform them when the films are handed in that the prints may need special attention because of the snow content.

Now we have the technical details out of the way let's look at the subject.

With snow pics you should try to include some areas of detail to avoid a complete wash of white. Use a telephoto lens to crop in on branches laden with snow to create lovely abstract patterns. Similarly frost or ice on leaves can pull out nature's patterns producing detail that's almost etched. Move in close and avoid flash, which will reflect off the ice and cause hard to avoid, distracting highlights.

Winter mornings can provide great images. Go out before the sun melts the frozen dew. Spiders webs, icy blades of grass and frost covered berries are all great subjects to catch early in the morning.

ivy with frost   metal fence post with frost
Ivy leaves with a frosty etched outline   A metal fence tightener with its frosty edge making interesting subject.

It's also worth going out as soon as the snow falls to capture virgin snow. It doesn't take long for the sledges and snowmen to eat into the freshness, making the snow a mush of brown.

Look for tracks in the snow. Bird prints, paw prints and boots provide interesting detail. Shoot from an angle to ensure the print has shadows so you see the 3D shape, otherwise the impressions will be hard to see.

Also try shooting while the snow is falling, but avoid flash. The light levels will be low and an automatic camera will think flash is needed. Switch it off because the flash will reflect off the nearby flakes making the picture full of large blurry blobs that distract.

If you mount the camera on a tripod you can shoot at a low shutter speed and gain a real blizzard like effect as the falling snow is recorded as a blurred streak down the photo.

But watch the camera! Snow will quickly melt and the water could damage the electronics. Cover the camera with a clear plastic bag with a hole at the front for the lens to shoot through and wrap an elastic band around the bag on the lens barrel to hold it in place. Screw a filter on the front of the lens if you're using an SLR to protect the element from drifting snow.

Wrap up warm and head for the fields there are some great pictures waiting.

snow scene using graduated grey filter
Here a Graduated grey filter has been added to darken the light sky and make the scene look more moody

Winter scenes don't have to be covered in snow to affect the camera's meter. Here half a stop extra light was required to prevent the white looking blue. Frosty winter mornings produce crisp looking landscapes with dramatic skies.

When shooting scenes make sure there's details such as trees or walls as well as the snow or it would be a bland wash of white. Here we show a dull version that would appear if you didn't compensate by at least one stop.


Spiders' webs look great in winter, but make sure you photograph them with a dark background to pick out the detail.

Whether you're a beginner looking for a compact camera or a pro in the market for a high-end DSLR visit Nikon – the company who has photographic gear to suit everyone.


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A very useful guide to snow photography. I picked up a couple of things that I hadn't given much thought about before.

Jeff Thomas

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