Winter Photo Tips

I always look forward to the holiday season. Everyone has time off from work, the mood is festive and snow is falling through the air. The holidays are also a great time for photography. Beautiful winter scenes are plentiful, parties provide portrait opportunities and holiday lights produce colorful twilight images. This winter season, make sure to get your camera out and start shooting. Just follow the tips below for better images and new creative ideas.

1. Make the snow white. Depending on where you live, most places have snow in the winter. The biggest mistake you can make photographing snowy scenes or white-sand beaches is having them come out gray in the final photograph. Why does this happen? Camera meters average out exposures to middle tonality, turning white into gray in color. But the good news is that digital photography has many tools to correct this mistake, both at capture and in editing.

The easiest way to make snow white is to check your histogram after you take the shot. The histogram represents the amount of specific tonalities in a scene, with the right side representing the bright tones and the left side showing dark tones. When reviewing your histogram, make sure it’s pushed to the right side so the snow is white. Do this in manual mode by opening up (choosing a wider aperture) or slowing your shutter speed, both of which let in more light in the exposure. In program, shutter and aperture modes, add light by going +1 stop or more with the exposure compensation button. Your histogram should push right up against the right side to make the snow white.

If you open the image in an editing program, use the exposure slider and move it toward the right to make the image brighter. You also can use a Levels adjustment layer to do the same thing. Remember, it’s better to get the exposure right in the camera so you’re capturing more data in the highlights rather than trying to correct your exposure in the computer.

2. Use bounce flash indoors. Remember the last time you went to a party, broke out your camera and started shooting candid shots of friends and family, confident that you were creating some fantastic images? But when you browsed the images on the computer, you had overexposed faces, black backgrounds and red-eye reflections in grandma’s eyes that reminded you of a horror movie. Next time, try using bounce flash to eliminate these problems.

Bounce flash works by aiming your TTL flash head toward the ceiling or other reflective surface and bouncing the light back onto your subject. Many rooms and buildings have white ceilings, perfect for bounce flash. Just remember, your flash will pick up the color of the surface it’s bouncing off of.

TTL speedlight flashes still read bounced flash output via TTL, so your exposures should be about right. But the quality and direction of light from bounced flash will create softer light and eliminate red-eye reflections. Bouncing flash off ceilings also brightens up big rooms, reducing dark backgrounds. Next time you’re at a party, try a test bounce-flash shot and see what you get; you might be surprised.

3. Shoot holiday lights at twilight. One of the best things about winter is that many people adorn their houses and trees with holiday lights, which are great subject matter to photograph during the season.

My favorite time to shoot is at twilight. The perfect time is when your exposure renders the lights bright against a deep-purple sky. Wait too long, and the sky goes dark; shoot too early, and the lights don’t show well. Don’t limit yourself to shooting houses with lights—create your own scene to shoot. I like to add holiday lights to glowing tents, skis, snowshoes or anything else that will be interesting. If you don’t have an extension cord to reach your string of lights, try using a portable generator to give you power.

Another fun activity photographing holiday lights is using long exposures and zooming during the exposure. Also try rotating your camera during the exposure. You can produce an endless kaleidoscope of colors and motion blurs.

4. Practice macro shooting on ice crystals. Each winter we get a cold snap that keeps the environment in a deep freeze. One by-product of these cold temperatures are elaborate, feather-shaped ice crystals on the windows. These patterns can be very intricate and graphic, a perfect subject for macro photography.

To get really close, you need a macro lens. Macro lenses allow you to focus very close to the subject, resulting in life-size reproduction of the subject. If you don’t have a macro lens, try an extension tube or a diopter lens. These accessories allow you to focus closer using your existing lenses and get 1:1 reproduction of the subject. Keep your lens flat against the window to maximize depth of field. A tripod is critical to keep things steady and sharp. The best part about photographing ice crystals in windows is you’re warm and cozy shooting from inside. Break out the cocoa!

5. Dial up your ISO for indoor shots. Today’s cameras offer improved technology that even a few years ago would seem impossible to accomplish. One area that has seen incredible improvement is the high-ISO performance of digital cameras. Today, we can easily shoot at ISO speeds of 800, 1600 and even 3200 with minimal noise in the final image. Use this to your advantage next time you’re shooting indoors and don’t have a flash. Dial up your ISO and shoot away. I recently photographed an ice skater in an indoor rink for a magazine story. The light was low, so I set my ISO at 3200 and produced handheld tack-sharp images.

One subject for which I like to use high ISO is photographing candles and candlelit scenes. A flash would ruin the mood of these shots, but by using a high ISO I can capture church scenes and candlelit faces using only the available light.

6. Use pocket hand warmers. Shooting outside during winter often requires shooting in the cold. If it’s really cold, you start to lose dexterity in your fingers, and your batteries quickly lose power. After living in Alaska for years and shooting in extreme cold, I learned a few tricks to help deal with the cold.

One item I always carry are small chemical hand-warmer packs. Once these packs are opened and exposed to the air, they heat up. I place them in my pockets, and if it’s really cold, I’ll put a couple in my boots. These packs will stay warm for hours and help keep your hands and feet warm.

I also carry a spare battery and put this in one of my coat pockets with a hand warmer. This way when one battery starts to lose power in the cold, I’ll replace it with the one in my pocket. As the cold battery warms up, it regains power and is ready to go the next time I need to switch batteries.

7. Record memorable moments. One of the joys of the holidays is reconnecting with family and friends. No matter how busy people are, the holiday season is when e
veryone makes time to get together. Don’t let this rare opportunity pass you by—photograph some family portraits and record these moments.

If you’re shooting inside, try using the bounce-flash technique mentioned earlier. Adding just a little pop of flash will bring life to your portrait. You achieve better separation from the background when you use flash and colors come to life. If you’re shooting outside, try using an inexpensive reflector to add some snap to your portrait. Try placing your subjects in front of a shaded area. Reflect the light from the sunny area back at your subjects. This way, the shaded background will be darker than your subjects, creating nice separation.

Mix up your poses. After shooting the mandatory classic group shot (guys in back, ladies in front, smile!), try some new poses to make the shot more interesting. How about photographing three generations of hands on a rail? Or maybe use a step ladder to get above your subjects and have them lie in a circle below you. You have willing subjects—your family—so be creative!

8. Try light painting. During the winter, there are a lot less hours of daylight. Where I lived in Alaska, the sun rose around 10 a.m. and set around 3 p.m. What to do with all this darkness? Try light painting.

To light paint, you need a tripod and a small flashlight; a locking cable release also will help. Find a scene that looks interesting—maybe a holiday wreath on your front door. Set up your tripod and camera, turn off the outside lights and you’re ready to go. Use your small flashlight to illuminate certain parts of the wreath, like an ornament or red bow. The trick with light painting is that you don’t want to illuminate the entire scene, only areas to which you want to direct the viewer’s attention. Also try light painting at perpendicular angles to your subject. This produces side lighting and looks more interesting than direct frontal light.

To take your light painting to the next level, try adding color to your light by placing a colored gel over the front. Rosco makes sets of gels that work perfectly for light painting.

9. Create a photo essay of your holiday. When I teach photo workshops, I often see participants creating nice images, but they don’t know where to go from the standalone shot. A great solution to this dilemma is creating a photo essay of your holiday gathering or vacation.

Photo essays require taking a journalistic storytelling approach to your photography. Not only are you going to shoot the holiday portrait and scenic landscape, but you’re also going to photograph the turkey cooking in the oven, dad sleeping on the couch, boots thawing out, the fire burning in the fireplace—anything is fair game.

Why try this journalistic approach? Because it fosters creativity and encourages you to try new things. You’ll find scenes you would have never photographed before, and you may try new shooting angles and perspectives to photograph these scenes. Now your blinders are off, and all those household items you’ve seen for years take on a new meaning. Remember this quote by Monet: “In order to see, we must forget the name of everything. By labeling we recognize everything, but no longer see anything.”

10. Make a holiday book. Now that you‘ve created this amazing photo essay of your holiday, what are you going to do with all these holiday images? Don’t just put them in a photo album that will be stacked on a bookshelf somewhere; try making a coffee-table book that you can share with everyone.

Creating your own photo book is easy to do. There are a variety of options, from inexpensive small paperback books to fancy hardcover coffee-table books. There are many online services that offer a variety of book styles and prices. Better yet, these online publishers have simple templates to use in designing your book. Once you have your images ready, it takes less than an hour to create a quality book. Make multiple copies and share with other family members.

As the holiday season comes upon us this year, start charging your camera batteries and clearing your memory cards. The holidays are a perfect time to try new photo techniques with your camera!

Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. You can see more of his photography at

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