Like any season, winter presents its own challenges and opportunities for the photographer. Grey skies and shorter daylight hours can be off-putting, not to mention the cold! But, with a bit of lateral thinking, you can normally find something to photograph. Snow is one of the obvious features of winter. Some of us get more than others, of course. It can also make it hard to get around. However, as a landscape photographer, I find snowy landscapes irresistible. I also find it great for smaller scenes and macro work. Snow photography can yield some great results and images that would be impossible to get otherwise.
One of the advantages of snow is that it can simplify a scene. Photographing landscapes can sometimes be difficult because there is too much going on. It can be hard to find clear centres of interest for your compositions. Snow covers up parts of the landscape and so simplifies things for you. It can result in more obvious contrasts between fields and trees, for example. You may be able to get away with using a scene that would normally simply be too chaotic and cluttered to make a strong composition. If your style is more minimalist, then this is clearly a big advantage.
Converting the final image to black and white can make good use of the available contrast. You can also boost the contrast and clarity further. One of the useful things about monochrome photography is the ability to push the contrast more than you can with colour images. In fact, black and white landscapes often look better with a wide range of contrast from black to white and not just similar shades of grey. A split-tone finish can also help to enhance the mood of your image. This image uses blues to give a cooler look:
Although you can use automatic settings for snow photography, I would recommend that you check your exposure is how you want it to be. If your frame is mainly full of white snow, then your camera’s metering sensor may underexpose your scene. This is because most metering is done to approximately 18% grey as the average. So, if you are metering for the whole scene and most of it is very white, then the camera will render it a light grey. You may want this, which is fine. However, if you want it to be whiter then you can use exposure compensation in Aperture Priority mode (A or Av) or use Manual Mode. With exposure compensation, try adding about 1 stop extra. This will cause the camera to change the settings to over-expose the scene as it reads it. Be careful you do not over-expose too far. You do not want to clip your highlights by having them pure white with no detail left to recover. There should be a tiny gap on the right hand side of your histogram so that it isn’t hitting pure white (or at least only a small amount is). Ideally shoot RAW files to give you more processing options afterwards.
If you are not keen on wide landscape photography, or just want to try something different, then there are plenty of other options as well. For example, snow can help with minimalist fine art composition, leaving you with a clearly isolated subject or the option of emphasising patterns:
As you can see, snow photography can be quite varied. You can explore even more by doing close-up macro shots of snow-covered plants, for example. Also, try taking pictures whilst it is still snowing and once it has stopped. You will need to keep the snow off your lens or it will ruin the images. But, it can add an extra layer of interest to a picture to see the falling snow. You can choose whether you want to freeze the snow in the air with a fast shutter speed, or if you want it blurred, giving a sense of motion and speed.
Roads, fences and lines of trees can all make useful leading lines, drawing your eye into the photo. Even tyre tracks can suddenly prove useful and interesting! You can create your own leading lines with your footprints in the snow. Or, you can look for fresh, unspoilt sheets of white. When processing you can smooth the snow into white blankets. Alternatively, you can bring out the textures and details. There are so many options to play around with. Finally, try shooting a winter sunset or sunrise landscape. Any colour in the sky contrasts strongly with the snow. You may also find that sometimes the warm colours of sunrise or sunset are reflected back up off the snowy landscape, almost making the snow glow.
Snow photography and winter photography in general is not a poor relative of the other seasons. Yes, autumn, spring and summer may be more colourful, but that doesn’t mean that winter scenes are without character or interest. So, if you get some snow this year, do get out there and try your hand at some snow photography. See what winter landscapes you can find or what fine art minimalist images you can create. Even if you don’t get snow, you can get some interesting effects from frost as well. Get creative and brave the cold!
© Joe Lenton, January 2015