Guest Article by Alister Benn

7 Essential Tips for Winter PhotographyFire and Ice, Scotland

Making the Most of Winter

If we look at seasonal advertising, TV marketing and movies as an indicator – the world is crazy about snow. As kids we pressed our faces up against the windows, watching as the giant fluffy flakes drifted down and transformed our mundane reality into a winter wonderland – the home of Jack Frost, Snowmen and adventures of our imagination.

One of the eternal joys of making a living as a photographer, is I can continue to explore the world with that sense of wonder and express those emotions in my images.

With a few straightforward tips and techniques we can make sure we max out our opportunities in these snowy months and make some images that really capture the magic of the winter landscape.

1: Camera Confusion

The human eye is brilliant – we know that snow is white and when we look at it, in any light, our brain tells us it’s white. Our camera, regardless of how much it cost, does not.Exposure1

The way a camera sees the world is not the same as the human eye – instead of seeing the world as a selection of identifiable objects; snow, rocks, trees – all it sees is tone.

In an attempt to normalize exposures, it will always try to average out exposures towards 18% gray. The doors in my office are white.

If I put my camera in AV mode and use any metering mode, evaluative or spot, and make an exposure, I end up with a midtone image of my white door.

The histogram associated with this image is shown as well – a gray image of a white wall and a midtone histogram.

Undeniable proof – the camera does not see the world as you do.

2: Shoot for accuracy, shoot for quality

Not only does your camera not see the world as you do, the super smart sensor in it is not linear – in English: It does not capture data evenly across the exposure. It is far more sensitive in the highlights than it is in the shadows – that’s all you need to know!Exposure2

In order for your camera to record white as white, you need to dial in Exposure Compensation. For white subjects you typically need to add around 2 stops to the exposure – as shown here.

The image to the right shows another image taken of the white door in my office, but with two stops of exposure compensation added manually in camera.

Each brand of camera has a different dial to add exposure compensation – check your manual if you do not know how to do it with yours.

In this case I could probably have added three stops to make it truly white, but it’s a lot better than the first attempt. The histogram also demonstrates a far brighter exposure.

In the real world, with real snow (or white sand in the summer) you kill two birds with one stone by adding exposure compensation.

  • Your images of beautiful white snow will not be dull flat gray
  • You harvest more useful data with your sensor

Better data means better image quality, less noise and better prospects for post-processing. Of course, shooting RAW should always be encouraged.

Unless you are comfortable shooting in Manual (M) mode, the best bet for accuracy is AV mode with Exposure Compensation.

3: White balance is a creative variable

In many fields of photography color accuracy is critical – portraiture, wedding and commercial for example. In landscape photography we have a little more creative license and White Balance is one of our primary tools to determine the overall mood and feel of our images.

White-BalanceGlencoe, Scotland

In the above example from a shoot a couple of weeks ago here in Scotland, the image on the left has a completely neutral white balance. The image on the right is what came out of the camera with an in camera white balance set to shade.

As the image was taken before sunrise and the light was incredibly soft and lavender, the image on the right is actually more accurate than the technically “perfect” color rendition on the left.

4: Use Creative Capture Techniques

7 Essential Tips for Winter PhotographyTorridon, Scotland

Our experience of an event is rarely captured accurately by a camera, the viewer is mostly left with a few hints, but stripped of the 3 dimensionality and other 4 senses – images can appear flat and lifeless.

In this image of a Scot’s Pine tree in a blizzard, a normal shot failed to capture the feeling of the snow at all. In an attempt to capture some more energy I used the pop up flash in my camera to highlight some of the closer flakes.

After just a couple of shots I captured this frame and ran back the car soaked and frozen, but happy!

Even though this image is taken with a zoom lens, the combination of layers, snow, the big Pine tree and the third smaller tree on the top right, create a lot of depth.

5:  Moonlit Snow

Protected by International CopyrightRannoch Moor, Scotland

There is no need to stay up all night, but lingering for half an hour after sunset with a full moon rising and you can use that combination of warm and cool colors to create images rich in atmosphere and contrast.

The image above from the west of Scotland is a complex landscape, but the snow helps to strip it down to far more simple lines. Always attempt to capture the mood of the moment – cold, dark, mysterious. Two sliders in processing do that for you – Exposure and Temperature.

 6: Textures and Details

Ice is wonderful stuff – as water freezes it often creates superbly complex crystals and patterns. These make excellent subjects for abstract images.

7 Essential Tips for Winter PhotographyScottish Ice Abstracts

50mm is an ideal focal length for these images, as it prevents distortion. Make sure to keep the camera flat to the surface of the ice to avoid depth of field issues and areas that are soft and out of focus.

Again, in processing, be sure to convey the feeling of cold and contrast. A warm white balance in the above image would lose a huge amount of the expressive capability.

7: Location, Location, Location

Of course, if you live in Dubai, you’re going to struggle to get much out of this (although, as I stated above, the same rules apply to white sand!)

7 Essential Tips for Winter PhotographyIceland in Winter

I always recommend people to shoot what they know – exploring your local area under a blanket of snow will reveal hidden treasures.

The key is to find contrasts – light to dark, cool to warm, high contrast to low contrast. These contrasts create visual interest for the viewer and will hold their attention.


This short article is intended to highlight some of the key considerations when shooting snow and ice. Temperature and exposure are technical things that once learned can run in autopilot, freeing you up to think creatively about your visual design and composition.

Whether you get out today in the snow, or are hanging on for the arrival of spring – shoot what you love.


Alister Benn is a full-time professional photographer and the author of many eBooks and videos covering such topics as Night Photography, Seascape Photography and Lightroom Processing.

He is also a respected educator and each year leads groups of 2-4 on Photo Tours and Workshops in Scotland and Iceland.

Website –

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