Winter White Photography: How to Get Amazing Portraits in the Snow

Winter White Photography: How to Get Amazing Portraits in the Snow

Early on in my career as a photographer I focused primarily on studio shooting.  It was a great fit for a long time, and I learned a lot about lighting.  However, I often found myself frustrated trying to photograph larger groups or small, busy children in a limited space.  Eventually I started shooting outdoors and quickly found my groove.  Clients started responding more strongly to my work, and I was thrilled with the freedom to explore new places.   I could see immediately that children AND parents felt much more comfortable outdoors.  My shooting style and work changed immensely.

Then winter came.  Here in Minnesota, one of the coldest and snowiest states in the U.S., winter can mean temperatures well below zero for more than a month out of the year, and snow on the ground stays FOREVER.  I would stop shooting outside after the fall color was gone and head back indoors for the holiday season but really wanted to be outside.  I realized that we Minnesotans are a pretty hearty bunch, so if I could figure out how to make snow work for portraits than I was pretty sure clients would enjoy having portraits during such a beautiful time of the year.  Additionally, not many photographers are outside during the coldest months which meant a new business opportunity.

The learning curve was a little steeper when shooting outdoors in winter, so it did take me a little longer to figure out what works and how to take great pictures outside in the midst of all that WHITE.  I’m excited to be writing a series of articles for MCP Actions about shooting in the snow.  In all, we’ll cover topics like exposure, white balance, lighting and caring for your equipment in the elements, but in this first post I’m going to focus on creative ways to use snow (and winter in general) for great portraits.  I hope that you both learn some new tips and get inspired to put on your boots on and get out there and start shooting!


1. Forget the white seamless paper – use snow to create an amazing high key portrait.  Snow can serve as a great backdrop for this, but it must be evenly lit and most importantly, WHITE.     We’ll talk about how to properly expose for snow and some easy lighting tips in the second article of this series.Winter Smiles

2. Couples get married all year round.  If you have an adventurous bride and groom who will get out in it on their big day, you can create truly one of a kind images that will draw people in.  Add some unexpected elements like snow boots with a bridal gown or a stocking hat on a groom and have some fun with it.   I shot a wedding last month during Minnesota’s first snowfall of the year (which also happened to be a blizzard).  We couldn’t spend much time outside, but the time we did resulted in some wonderful photographs that they will cherish for a very long time.

3. With such a simple background (mostly white) focus on using vibrant colors in clothing and props.  When shooting with lush foliage you don’t want the client’s clothing to overwhelm the scenery or the portrait can be too busy.  Think just the opposite when photographing people outside in the snow.  The white canvas can be a great backdrop for some beautiful winter coats, hats and boots.  Hats are a great way to frame faces and showcase eyes as well, especially in children.

4. Photographing snowmen, snow ball fights, children playing or sledding are great ways to capture memories during this time of year.  Shooting in the late afternoon sun will result in warmer images with a color cast on the snow.  While not always ideal, when used correctly it can help tell the story.  Here is my son on a late snowy afternoon going sledding on a “steep” hill for the very first time.

5. Create the unexpected.  Find ways to incorporate something that is unexpected in your winter portraits to create something meaningful for your clients or family.  I have many clients who return year after year, and it’s my job to continue to create unique settings for them so that each time they come they feel like their images are special and don’t have the same “look” to them or soon they will be able to justify skipping a year or two, or going somewhere else.  I’ve been photographing this family in particular for a couple of years.  Last year, when their youngest was born, we did a lovely family session in their home, but this year I wanted to do something different that they would love.  So, we created a session around the family getting their Christmas tree, which turned into a great card!

In general, think of snow as an extension of your existing outdoor palettes, recognizing that you have to treat it a little bit differently than you do the other seasons.  Here are a few other tricks of the trade to use to ensure successful sessions:

1. Prepare your clients!  There’s nothing that will prematurely end a winter session faster than a cold child.  Make sure parents understand that when it’s 15 degrees outside, it’s unlikely that you can shoot a session without jackets.  Mittens and hats are always a plus, too!

2. Try to help them use their coats as their “wardrobe”.  Most moms, for example, have a nice dress or wool coat (typically in a solid color).  Work around her outfit first, as usual.  Encourage her to tie in a fun pair of boots and then plan the rest of the family around her.

3. Your reaction time will slow as you get cold.  I use the fingerless mittens with the flap that I can pull over the tops so that my hands and fingers stay nimble.  You’d be surprised at how slow your hands get when they are cold.  You don’t want to miss the shot!

4. Overcast days are great for shooting in the snow, mostly because of the light reflecting off of the surface.  That can be really harsh on people’s eyes, causing a lot of squinting.  Use a reflector or diffuser if need be to control the light and get it where you want it (and get it away from where you don’t).

    Maris is a professional photographer located in the Twin Cities area.  Specializing in outdoor portraiture, Maris is known for her intimate style and timeless images. If you have any questions about this post, please leave a comment in the blog post. You can visit her website and find her on Facebook.

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    1. 1


      Great article and GORGEOUS pictures!!!! Thanks so much! As a Wisconsinite I face the same issue. I’m all for taking an outdoor session but don’t find many families up for it….I’d love suggestions for building up receptiveness of the off-season sessions (did you offer discounts at all?) and also if you have any restrictions on ages that really don’t do well in the cold, cold north (minimum age)? THANKS! I’m off to become a FB fan…

      Kelly @ Illustrations Photograpraphy

    2. 4


      Love this article! I did my first winter outdoor session not too long ago and it was a blast! It was actually so much easier to get a reaction from the hubby (a man who does not like to smile) by ohhh you WANT to stay in the cold, ok we can do that… and so on! The image I’ve attached is one of the ‘bloopers’ just to show how snowy it was!! One last thing that I’d like to mention is the importance of the photographers apparel too, this was a last minute already out of town session for me so I was not prepare to go out into the cold. Things I would have like to have had- snow boots or at least high top shoes, a second layer of pants (not jeans they get wet and cold), hand warmers to go into coat pockets, hot cocoa waiting in the car!

    3. 5


      Can I ask your advise? How do I go about getting more “life” (color) (brightness without blowing out the snow) (depth) in my snow photos??? Being in MN myself it is awfully cold, so I want my time outside to really give me great results! Thank you!

    4. 8


      Kelly @ Illustrations writes: “…I’d love suggestions for building up receptiveness of the off-season sessions (did you offer discounts at all?) and also if you have any restrictions on ages that really don’t do well in the cold, cold north (minimum age)? THANKS!…”

      Hi, Kelly: These are great questions! I’m glad you asked. I shot my first full family “Snow Session” a couple of years ago right after the first of the year. I loved the look of the images, and shared highlights on my site, blog and facebook. Believe it or not, it prompted other families who hadn’t quite gotten around to a family portrait session in time for holiday cards to go ahead and book a family session in the snow. From then on, I’ve always just included Snow Sessions as a seasonal offering, but I keep it on my list of services all year long (with dates included) so people are aware that I offer sessions… in the snow. The funny thing is, lots of women LOVE dress coats and boots, so they love the idea of having portraits out in the snow. Also, quite a few of my spring and early summer weddings choose Snow Sessions for their engagement pictures, and they are always so well-received (not to mention romantic and snuggly).

      I don’t have any restrictions on ages, but I probably wouldn’t want to photograph a child under one unless the weather was very mild. I cannot overemphasize enough, however, the importance of having your clients prepare ahead of time by bringing warm coats and even blankets for kids to Snow Sessions. Once kids get cold and fussy, it’s all over! We have fun with it as much as we can, but I really try to keep everyone warm while I’m shooting with smaller groups in the family. The overall sessions are typically shorter as well, and I make sure the client knows that ahead of time as well.

      I’ll expect you to post some pictures!


    5. 9


      From Amy: “How do I go about getting more “life” (color) (brightness without blowing out the snow) (depth) in my snow photos??? Being in MN myself it is awfully cold, so I want my time outside to really give me great results! Thank you!”

      Hi Amy:

      There are lots of things you can focus on to improve the pop of color in your snow images and to give them a more vivid feel. I talk about a variety of them in my next post, which should be published in the next few days, I think. Stay tuned! If you have any questions after that, please be sure to post them.


    6. 10


      “Any suggestions on photographing black kids in the snow – I try on my son but the whiteness is too powerful – I have to cut out most of the background in order to see his features?”

      Hi, Patricia: My next post on this topic, which should go live in a few days, will help you out in this regard. It sounds like you are exposing your shots for the snow, and not your son’s skin. I explain how to meter for the skin instead, and this should give you some great results. Let me know what you think after you read the next installment of this series.



    7. 11

      Pam L. says

      What a wonderful article and so very well timed for me. Maris’ photography is beautiful. I took note of all her tips too.
      Thanks so much for sharing this and I’m looking forward to part 2.

    8. 12


      Thank you so much for the reply, Maris. Great tips! I’m running a contest now to give away a snow session this year in hopes the images will spark more interest in future years! So far my only ones are of my own kids and not in great clothes, etc…just a fun sledding outing. (I linked to it as my website, fyi…if you have nothing better to do! :-) I’d love feedback. Thanks again…I’m a new fan and happy to have your work as inspiration!


    9. 13


      I live in Texas, we don’t get many opportunities for snow pics. I love reading about this. The Christmas tree shoot is fantastic! Thanks for the great advice.


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