Photographing snow has its own set of unique rules. The reflective ability of the individual flakes make it an interesting subject to shoot – not to mention all the fun things you can do with your shutter speed. Combine that with the high-contrast scenes snow can provide and you have a subject with unlimited potential.
Adjusting Your Focal Length
The focal length you choose can impact your image greatly depending on the kind of effect you’re going for. Longer focal lengths have the ability to compact a scene, which works great for falling snow as it can give you a very layered look with differently-sized snowflakes. If there are only flurries falling from the sky and you're trying to capture many snowflakes, a long focal length will work well as you can compact a large distance into your image – flakes that are five, ten, or even a hundred feet away can be visible.
This image was taken at f/4 with a focal length of 300mm. There must have been at least 75 feet in between my camera and the background of this image. The snow was falling very lightly, yet I was able to capture a wide array of snowflakes – from those in focus to those many out-of-focus bokeh flakes.
Alternatively, a very wide focal length will exaggerate your distances, which is great when you want to encapsulate more of your surroundings. In terms of snowfall, it will need to be falling rapidly to get a layered look – when executed well, the result is a stunning blanket of white.
Of course, aperture has a role to play here as well. The wider you go, more snowflakes will be out of focus. If you’re going for snowfall bokeh (sno-keh), this is a great way to create a soft and pleasing atmosphere.
Going back to my first image taken at 300mm, if I used a very small aperture (like say f/16), I’d get more snowflakes in focus instead of that out of focus bokeh. However, that means that the tree line in the background would be more in focus as well and I’d lose that softness – my snowflakes wouldn’t stand out as much as they would now be blended into the trees. Also, my shutter speed would slow down which would blur the snowflakes as streaks. So there are certainly a few things to consider, and finding the right balance between your settings is very important to create the image you want.
Also remember that sunlight combined with a wide aperture can create a beautiful bokeh background.
Small apertures work particularly well during blizzards as you can capture near white-out conditions. However, keep your shutter speed in mind as deep depths of field will slow it down and could possibly blur your snowfall, like in the image below. Depending on what you’re going for, you may need to bump up your ISO.
As I touched on briefly in the last section, your shutter speed can greatly affect your snowfall photography – just like with any moving subject. When using a long exposure, you can create an image with streaks rather than flakes, like in the photo below.
However, a fast shutter speed can freeze the action, giving you an image sprinkled with flakes.
Photo by Christopher O'Donnell
Overcast Lighting vs. Sunlight
Sun and snow pose a particularly problematic combination for your light meter as sun can reflect off of snow in an overpowering way. That’s not to say you should never take photos of snow when the sun is out, but rather watch your histogram for blown highlights, or auto-bracket your image and do some HDR work.
Photo by Christopher O'Donnell
This HDR image combined three different exposures. If you’re looking for a high-contrast image, then the white snow combined with a winter sun will give you a stunning photograph.
Alternatively, snow can be captured well during overcast days as the lack of harsh sunlight allows you to photograph a scene without a spastic light meter. Personally I like photographing snow during cloudy days – especially black and white images – as it provides a moody sky to compliment the starkness of winter.
Snow provides you with many options for shooting awe-inspiring images – you don't have to wait for the “right” conditions. Instead, go out and tailor your technique to the environment and come back with something beautiful.