Shooting In Snow & Ice

Instead of letting your cameras hibernate, get out and take advantage of the best of winter

Image at dawn along the coast of Casco Bay, Maine. The ice here is reflecting so many nice colors of the environment, including the warmth of the area around the sun, as well as the blue of the sky. This morning was very cold, so the warmth of the sun was very limited in area, which meant a lot of blue in the ice.

Growing up as a photographer in Minnesota meant dealing with winter. You may have heard the old joke that Minnesota has four seasons: pre-winter, winter, post-winter and springsummerfall (sic). Regardless of the truth or exaggeration of that idea, Minnesota has a long winter, and if you were going to be a nature photographer there, you had to deal with winter photography. No hibernating cameras allowed!

I no longer live in Minnesota and now enjoy the gentle winters of Southern California, but I still love to photograph in ice and snow. In fact, I have some great opportunities to do just that, even in Southern California, with local mountains that reach 10,000 feet and can have six feet of snow.

These two photos of central Minnesota woods show the big challenge of using your camera's systems totally automatically without making deliberate choices for the conditions. The first is underexposed and shows the blue cast of AWB; the snow is gray, not white, and the image looks dingy and dull. In the second image, the right exposure and WB make a big difference.

My earlier years in Minnesota taught me the hard way how to photograph in the snow and cold. You learn quickly how to deal with cold cameras at 20 below while standing beside Lake Superior or how to deal with blowing snow when kneeling at the edge of a snowdrift with 40 mph winds blowing the snow right at your face.

Light changes in winter. When the sun is out, light can be great through the whole day because the sun is always low! Even at noon, you can get great shadows, dimensional shapes and strong textures to work with.

When the sun is out, light can be wonderfully dramatic, but it can be very harsh, as well. Cloudy days can also be beneficial because they cut the contrast of the light so you can see detail throughout a scene, from snow to tree trunks. Which light is best all depends on your subject and your intention for the image.

I also love when it snows. This totally changes the feeling of a location, giving it layers of tonality as things disappear into the distant snowy atmosphere. Find a dark tree for contrast, and you can capture trails of snowflakes as they fall; use shutter speeds of 1⁄60 sec. or slower (this depends on the wind and size of the snowflakes, so experiment).

Sky color changes rapidly at the edges of the day. These two photos were taken minutes apart in Sandstone River State Park, Minnesota. You can see the dramatic difference in the look and mood of the photos as the scene transforms from reflecting the sunlight (below) to reflecting the blue sky (above).

Snow and ice can be challenging for exposure. Remember that a camera meter doesn't know the difference between snow and a dark pine tree; it's programmed to give an exposure that will make whatever it sees a middle gray, an average tone that fits most scenes outside of winter. For winter, though, that results in underexposed snow, making it gray rather than white (modern cameras include intelligent computing power to try to deal with this, but they're not intelligent enough to give the best exposure for snow consistently).

Here, in a coastal Maine scene that's not backlit, the snow's ability to reflect the colors in the sky are more subtle. Think of the snow like a mirror. It reflects the colors that are at an equivalent angle to the viewer. With the sun behind the camera and to the left, the surface of the snow is reflecting the blue of the sky at a 90º angle in front of the camera. Think this way to predict and previsualize your winter photos.

The key to exposing snow (and bright ice) is to expose your scene so the snow is bright, not gray. If the snow is underexposed, so is everything else, even if you shoot RAW. That can mean big problems if you want to brighten dark trees, as they can be so dark, there isn't enough detail to work with. If your scene has half or more of it as snow or white ice, add exposure by at least 1 to 2 ƒ-stops.

Take advantage of low-light situations to boost the saturation of subtle colors. In this scene near Mammoth Lakes, California, the late-afternoon low light helps to bring out the very subtle colors.

Check your histogram's right side. There should be no large gap there; that would be underexposure, and you wouldn't be using your sensor at its best (nor should it be cut off; that's overexposure, something you don't want with snow and ice, either). If you aren't sure, take additional shots and bracket your exposure so you have the best exposure to work with later.

Snow and ice are highly reflective. They reflect the colors around them, including the sky. On a sunny day, this can mean warm colors where the sun hits the snow and blue colors from the sky where there's shade. This will vary greatly, depending on clouds in the sky (they will reflect warmth from the sun into shadows) and time of day (early and late often have extensive areas of deep blue sky to reflect into shadows).

Sunrise and sunset, dawn and dusk, can offer some amazing images because of the way the colors reflect throughout a scene. Now you can have very warm colors showing on snow and ice from the sky where the sun is at the horizon and often very blue colors elsewhere (again, this depends on how clear the sky is).

Falling snow can have very distinct looks. By using a moderately slow shutter speed and a contrasting background, the large Maine snowflakes are rendered as distinct streaks.

In the high altitude of the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California, the snowflakes were very fine, and a slow shutter speed makes the scene look more foggy than snowy.

Don't leave the scene just because the sun goes down! Spectacular color often appears in the sky after sunset (and sometimes before sunrise). That color is important to the scene for more than just the sky because of the way it will reflect on snow and ice. Anyway, sunrise is late and sunset is early in winter, so you can still find time for a normal dinner. That's true! I've photographed a sunset in January in Minnesota's North Shore area of Lake Superior, shot until well after the sun went down and still had dinner at My Sister's Place, a restaurant in Grand Marais, by 6 p.m.If you want good color doing all of this, shoot with a specific white balance and never use AWB (auto white balance). Think about it, AWB is designed to get rid of color casts, exactly what you want for this type of photography.

Actually, I can't recommend AWB for any outdoor photography if you care about color because of two things: It consistently adds a slight blue cast to neutral colors and tones, especially on cloudy days (this also weakens warm colors), and it's inconsistent in dealing with colors from shot to shot. The first can be really bad if you're in the mountains, too. The latter means that if you shoot a wide-angle view of a snowy scene, then zoom in to some snowy details, the color of the snow often will change.

We talk a lot about white balance in winter. It's an incredibly useful tool, and by really paying attention, you can alter the mood of a scene dramatically. Auto White Balance evaluated the scene and created a blue cast in the snow on an overcast day.

By manually setting White Balance, the snow can be brought back to white and the overall scene has a lot more warmth.

I don't care if you shoot RAW or not, the result is a workflow challenge that all too often results in compromised color. When you shoot a specific white balance, you lock in the white balance for the conditions and avoid that blue color cast that can be easy to miss as you're adjusting images in the computer (our eyes adapt to the colors on the screen, so it's easy to miss the color problems).

I'll make it simple, with choices easier than choosing a lens or an ƒ-stop. Use Daylight WB when the sun is out during the day, Shade if you're totally in the shade, and Cloudy when it's cloudy or at sunrise and sunset. That's right, I'm suggesting Cloudy at sunrise and sunset times. Your colors will be much better. If you doubt me, turn on Live View and change the WB as you look at the scene, and you'll find that Cloudy actually shows off sunrise and sunset colors much closer to the way we see them.

None of this matters if you don't get out and photograph this winter! Don't let your camera hibernate. If there's snow and ice nearby, check it out! You don't have to be as crazy as Minnesotans (hey, I regularly shot in conditions well below zero, so I know the type—people like me!), so you can avoid the really severe weather. But do give winter photography a shot! Lots of shots!

Working In The Cold
Years ago, cameras had to be taken apart and prepared for cold weather or they would fail. That's no longer true. All cameras today can function just fine to temperatures well below zero, except...

Batteries quit working as the temperatures drop. They will work fine again once they warm up. I keep extra batteries in a pocket in my jacket with a handwarmer. You could keep an extra battery in a pocket next to your body, but exchanging batteries will be painful.

Condensation is a big problem with cameras, so never keep the camera next to your body. Even in winter, your body puts off a lot of moisture, which will condense on a cold camera body. Also, never bring an exposed cold camera inside a house or a warm car because serious condensation can occur, which can mean camera failure and shipment to a repair location. Put your camera away inside a sealed camera bag or a plastic garbage bag until it warms up.

A cold camera is a good thing when it's snowing because the snow can be brushed off without it melting. But never blow off snow with your breath or you'll add a layer of condensation, which is really a problem if that happens to be on your lens.

Warm clothes in layers are key, along with good, insulated boots, flexible gloves and a warm hat. Warm, insulated boots are very important because, as a photographer, you'll be standing a lot as you set up shots and wait for the light. Cold feet will send you home quickly.

For gloves, check out hunting stores. Think about it, a hunter needs gloves that are both warm and flexible, plus they usually have some sort of gripping material to allow you to grip things (such as a camera and its controls). Growing up in Minnesota, I never found "half" gloves or mittens that exposed fingers useful. Cold camera bodies and tripods were way too brutal for bare skin.

See more winter gear tips in the "Gear Up For Winter Shooting" article in this issue of OP.

Rob Sheppard has a short video course on winter photography at Learn about Rob's new podcast at


    You can also include a gray card in some unobtrusive part of the shot, or take two shots, the scene you want and a second one of the gray card. In Camera Raw, use the auto white balance tool, either on the gray card, or sync the color balance if you took two. Whatever you do, I think you’re likely to need to tweak it, at least a bit, to your preference by eye.

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