Look for Color
When snow covers the landscape everything turns—obviously—white. The bits of trees and foliage that do poke through are too often muted shades of brown and gray. Together, that means anything of color really jumps off the page. If you can find elements of color—blue skies, bright structures, whatever it may be—that’s a great way to make interesting photos in snow. A good way to make a sky more vibrant is to use a polarizer. A polarizing filter on the lens will also help to minimize stray reflections and glare that sap color and contrast from pictures. These are two good reasons to use polarizers when it’s snowy outside.
Be Cognizant of Contrast
That white blanket over everything really makes for a low-contrast scenario. And that means you want to do one of two things: either go with it and make high-key, low contrast photos full of light, bright tones in which any small element that differs will really stand out or take the opposite approach and look for ways to make high-contrast shots by focusing in on anything that stands out from the white. Bright sunlight is very helpful for this as it creates shadows, and shadows, of course, are dark, and darkness, of course, contrasts with light. Simple! One great technique to create a high-contrast shot in snow is to look for areas of shadow that can be used as a dark background with a brightly sunlit subject standing out against it in the foreground.
Look for Edges of Light
The scenario just described—shadowed background with sunlit foreground—is a good example of an “edge of light.” These transition areas where sunlight and shadow meet not only work well for this high-contrast purpose, but they can also create subjects in and of themselves. For instance, a patterned shadow against a snowy background typically makes for a strong composition. A different type of “edge” to look for is the light at the edges of the day—sunrise and sunset. These magic hours with low-angled, warm-colored light are a great way to fight the bland flatness that can prevail in snowy scenes, particularly on lightly overcast days.
Compensate for Sun and Snow
Whether you’re photographing a downhill skier or a sunrise landscape, remember that your camera’s TTL exposure meter is going to get it wrong. Why? Because you’re photographing a bright white scene and your camera is going to try to turn it gray. To compensate, program or auto mode shooters should consider using exposure compensation at +1 or even +1.5 stops (depending on how bright the scene is) to tell the camera you want the snow lighter than middle gray.
Manual shooters should consider shooting somewhere in the neighborhood of ƒ/22 at 1/125th at ISO 100 or its equivalent. This is a full stop darker than a basic daylight exposure under normal conditions, which should ensure you won’t make a terrible over- or underexposure in a snowy scene on a sunny day. (One benefit of shooting at a small aperture like ƒ/22 is you’ll create star effects with any specular light source in the scene, such as the sun!) By the way, this is another opportunity to capitalize on the benefits of RAW image files. They provide notably more exposure latitude, so if you do blow out or underexpose a bright snowy scene you have a better chance of bringing it back in post.
Think like a snow skier. There’s nothing better than fresh powder, right? The same is true for photographers. If you’re looking to make a truly beautiful image of snow, you simply cannot wait. Time is of the essence. Not only do you run the risk of the snow beginning to melt as the sun gets high in the sky and the temperature warms, but you also run the risk of other people stomping through your scene and ruining the clean snow.
There’s nothing prettier than fresh, unblemished snow, but if you are faced with tracks—maybe even the ones you made—consider using them as a compositional element. They can make for great leading lines to draw the viewer to the center of interest, and they can become a very strong compositional element leading the viewer’s eyes through the scene. To exaggerate the effect, get down low to get close to the tracks and make them appear more pronounced in the scene. The point is if you want to take advantage of beautiful snow, you’ve got to get out while it’s fresh. It may be warm and cozy in your bed, but the prettiest pictures are happening out there when the sun is coming up to reveal a landscape blanketed with newly fallen snow.