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3 Ways to Capture Compelling Images of Monochromatic Winter Scenes

Winter makes for beautiful scenery, but when everything around you is white and snow-covered, how do you unlock your creativity to capture the scene in a different way from the usual? Here are three ideas to try. (Reported by: Yuki Imaura, Rika Takemoto, Digital Camera Magazine)

Trees in snow with shadows

EOS 5D Mark II/ EF70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM/ FL: 300mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/10, 1/1,000 sec, EV+1.0)/ ISO 200/ WB: 4,600K
Photo by: Yuki Imaura 


1. Make the shot more three-dimensional: Play up the light and shadows 

When I took the shot above, I was mesmerised by the fine, velvety white snow on this distant slope, which reminded me of the silky, fair skin that some women have. To preserve this texture, I paid particular attention to the exposure, keeping the brightness as close as possible to what I saw with my eyes. Here are the two factors that helped to make the shot successful.


i)  Place shadows in appropriate places to make the scene more expressive

When it comes to shooting snowy surfaces, it’s really all about the shadows. Think about it: Without the shadow areas, your entire frame would be nothing but white. 

This applies in the main image, where the shadows of the trees that are cast on the snow surface are the main interest. The five trees to the centre-right are the main subject, but the lines formed by the shadows of the trees on the left help to balance out the composition.


ii) Use exposure compensation so that the snow does not appear too dark

As snow is very reflective, it can “fool” the camera’s light meter into underexposing the shot if you are using one of the automatic/semi-automatic exposure modes without any exposure compensation.

From my experience, an exposure compensation value of around EV+1.0 is usually enough when shooting snow on a clear day. 

Caution: Don’t just set exposure compensation blindly. Before you press the shutter, always make sure that your highlight areas are not blown out! 

Find out how your histogram can help you check in this article.

When you shoot snow without exposure compensation, the snow’s high reflectivity makes the camera’s light meter think the scene is brighter than it really is. As a result, the shot becomes underexposed and looks dark.


2. Make use of the contrast between stillness and movement 

Icicles with fast-moving stream below

EOS 5D Mark II/ EF70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM/ FL: 300mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/18, 1.6 sec, EV+0.7)/ ISO 100/ WB: 3,200K
Photo by: Yuki Imaura

These icicles, the main subject of this shot, were formed when water spraying from the gushing stream below froze in the harsh cold. 

Shots of winter scenes like this tend to end up with both the main subject and the background in shades of white, which can look very monotonous. To make the image more interesting, I decided to shoot with a slower shutter speed to capture the motion of the turbulent, fast-flowing stream below. The dynamism of the stream creates an interesting contrast with the stillness of the icicles.

Tip: To use a slower shutter speed when shooting snow/ice in daytime, use a darker ND filter

When shooting ice or snow outdoors in the daytime, the high reflectivity can make it hard to slow down the shutter speed as much as you want the shot becoming overexposed. You might have to use a narrow aperture setting, which increases the risk of image quality deteriorating due to diffraction. To avoid that, use a darker ND filter, such as an ND64 or ND400 filter, which will slow shutter speed by around 6 stops or 8.65 stops respectively. If you use an EOS R system camera, the EF-EOS R Drop-in Filter Mount Adapter with the variable ND filter has a filter effect of up to ND500 (9 shutter speed stops).

Learn more about ND filters in:
Lens FAQ #5: What are the Pros and Cons of an ND Filter?

ND400 filter

Know this: Shooting in the shade would allow you to slow down the shutter speed more, but it wouldn’t capture the sheen of ice and snow.


3. Turn falling snow into bokeh circles

Trees in snowscape with bokeh circle snow

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 70mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/4, 1/200 sec, EV-0.7)/ ISO 200/ WB: Daylight
Photo by: Rika Takemoto

The image above is of a park that I frequent, which turned into a winter wonderland overnight. I was drawn to this group of trees and their symmetry. I wanted to take a shot that had a surreal feel with the trees as the main interest.

Key elements of the shot

i)  Composition
I zoomed in onto the tree trunks to take a crop of them that drew attention to their symmetrical positions.

ii) Create bokeh circles from the snow
Falling snow will usually be captured as lines. To capture it as round bokeh circles, I used the maximum lens aperture and fired an external flash to freeze it in place. The snow bokeh circles were the key to creating the fantasy-like feel of this shot.  The white snow stands out against the tree trunks in the background, and zooming in makes the circles appear bigger.

Also see: Built-in Flash Techniques #6: Magical Bokeh Circles on a Rainy Day

iii) Use WB (Daylight)
Changing the white balance to “Daylight” subtly enhances the blue tones, which helps to convey the feeling of cold.

iv) Negative exposure compensation
Foreseeing that the dark colours of the tree trunks would cause the camera to set the exposure too bright, I used negative exposure compensation.

Tip: Factors that change the look of the bokeh circles

The longer the focal length, the larger the bokeh circles.
The larger the aperture (the smaller the f-number), the fluffier the bokeh circles look.
Adjusting the flash intensity also changes how prominently they stand out from the background of the image.

Wide-angle shot of trees in snow

Shot at 24mm
The image above is of the exact same scene, shot at 24mm from slightly further away. The snow bokeh circles appear much smaller: Instead of large bokeh circles floating in the air, they resemble petals fluttering down from the sky. It gives the scene quite a different look.


Can you think of any other ways to liven up a white winterscape? Share your shots with us on My Canon Story for a chance to get featured!

For more tips and techniques on photographing snowy scenes, check out:
2 Mesmerising Winter Photography Spots in Hokkaido
How to Protect Your Camera for Cold Weather Photography
A Photography Adventure in Iceland with Edwin Martinez


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Yuki Imaura

Yuki Imaura

Born in 1986 in Saitama prefecture, Yuki Imaura is a landscape photographer. From editing magazines, he now works freelance, photographing various natural landscapes throughout Japan, and wildlife animals with vigor. He also writes for magazines and is a lecturer in photography.

Rika Takemoto

Rika Takemoto

A landscape photographer, Takemoto started photography as a hobby since 2004. In 2007, she became involved with managing a photo-sharing website. She studied under the natural landscape photographer Yoshiteru Takahashi, and later became a freelance photographer. Since then, she has been shooting landscapes all over Japan (occasionally overseas), covering a wide range of themes.