Top Tips for Nature Photography in Winter

photographing a fox in the snow

As a lover of winter and the adverse weather it brings, the colder months are my favourite of the year.

Snow and frost coupled with warm, winter light can be a truly magical combination for nature photography in winter.

However, as the weather grows colder and the days shorten, it is understandable that the energy and motivation for photography can dwindle.

How to find motivation in winter

If you find yourself in need of some extra motivation, I recommend searching for winter wildlife images by other photographers.

nature photography in winter

Rather than replicating what has been done before, study the type of images that appeal to you. Take ideas and inspiration from them and use that to drive your work.

Another great way to motivate yourself is to try something completely new.

Visit a location that you have never been to before, concentrate on an entirely new subject, or experiment with a new technique.

This approach can help keep things fresh and exciting, and might even steer your photography in a new, exciting direction.

Go for subjects close to home

It’s important to remember that you don’t need to travel to far-flung locations to take great wildlife images. There lies a wealth of subjects on your very own doorstep!

Each winter, I like to spend time photographing the birds that visit my garden. Winter is the perfect time for a project like this.

Photographing garden birds in winter

Driven by the need to find food in harsh weather, birds become bolder and will descend onto garden feeders much more readily, and in greater numbers.

A garden feeding station doesn’t need to be complex, but you should position it carefully and take into consideration the background and the direction of light.

The background should be distant enough to be rendered completely out of focus when using a wide aperture.

Avoid placing it in a dark, shaded area as you will need plenty of light to freeze the quick movements of small birds.

Collect some natural perches and attach these to the feeding pole using a spring clamp.

how to photograph garden birds in winter

During periods of particularly harsh weather, such as snow and frost, you will likely see an extra influx of visitors.

The birds will often sit on the perch to wait their turn on the feeder; this is your chance to capture some compelling images of birds in winter weather.

Keep your shutter speeds high – the movement of small birds is incredibly quick. I like to keep to a minimum of 1/1000th second.

I tend to leave 3 or 4 feeders out, then take down all but one when I’m shooting; this way you will increase the amount of traffic to your perch.

Using different types of food will attract a variety of species. Nuts, sesame seeds, fat balls, and mealworms are all great options.

Read more: Back Garden Wildlife Photography in the Snow

How to photograph in the snow

My favourite of all weather conditions is falling snow. It can look wonderfully atmospheric, imparting on your images a feeling of wild extremity, or stark bleakness. It can also be used to create a painterly effect.

photographing a fox in the snow

Experimenting with different shutter speeds will have a dramatic effect on the appearance of the snow.

Set a fast shutter speed and the snowflakes will appear frozen, with a more defined shape and form. A slow shutter speed will render the snow as long streaks.

There is no right or wrong, it’s entirely up to you as the photographer and your creative vision as to how you would like the snow to appear.

If you have the opportunity, it is always good practice to take a few images with varying shutter speeds to give yourself more options.

hare in the snow photography in winter

Think carefully about your compositions, too. A tight composition can work for a portrait image, but I prefer to leave plenty of space around my subject, which can be especially effective in the snow.

This negative space creates a feeling of isolation, which can tell a powerful story.

For this reason, I prefer to use my 100-400mm lens rather than a long prime when shooting in snowy weather.

Having a flexible focal range will give you far more options when it comes to composition and allows your creativity free rein.

White balance can also play a critical role in winter images, especially when shooting in the snow. I usually set my camera to ‘daylight white balance’ as I find this creates a colder feel.

photographing woods in winter

The increased colour temperature on the ‘cloudy’ setting will add too much warmth, so avoid it unless you are shooting at sunrise or sunset and you aim to enhance the warm tones.

Of course, white balance can be altered at the post-processing stage, but it’s good practice to get all your settings as perfect as possible in-camera.

Read more: 5 Tips for Photographing Wildlife in the Snow

High key photography

High-key images can work beautifully in winter due to the pale tones that snow and frost create.

Shooting in this style will help you to capture pictures that have a clean and simplistic quality that highlights the form of your subject.

Successful high-key images will only work in certain conditions. Snow, frost, ice, or mist can all be used to great effect and will work particularly well when combined with a pale subject.

Exposure is crucial with this technique. You will need to expose to the right, ensuring the highlights are nudging the right-hand side of the histogram.

This will result in completely clean whites, creating a simple, bleached backdrop devoid of colour or detail.

high key wildlife photography in winter

There will naturally be a little shadow or mid-range tonality, but the detail should be there in the file, whether it is visible in the image or not.

Pale-coloured birds such as swans, avocets, gulls, or egrets make ideal subjects.

Why not head to your local park when there is a covering of snow or frost and set yourself the challenge of searching for high-key images?

The more you practice this technique, the easier it will become to visualise potential high-key opportunities in your mind.

Read more: High-key Wildlife – How to Create a White Background

Protecting gear in cold weather

How do you protect your equipment in bad weather? This has to be one of my most frequently asked questions.

The truth is most professional-level cameras now are well equipped to withstand all but the worst weather.

There are still precautions that you should take to ensure that your gear remains in good working order.

landscape photography in winter

When I’m out in heavy snow or rainfall, I use a waterproof camouflage lens jacket which pulls over both the lens and camera body. This keeps any moisture from seeping in.

I also keep a lens hood on my camera at all times. Not only does this prevent flare when shooting contre-jour, but it also helps to stop snow or rain droplets from getting onto the lens.

In very cold weather, battery performance is adversely affected. The worst thing imaginable is to be presented with a golden opportunity, only to run out of battery at a critical moment!

grebes in the snow winter photography ideas

With this in mind, I always take at least one spare battery when shooting in cold weather. I keep one in the inside pocket of my down jacket and swap them if one runs out.

I would also highly recommend investing in a camera bag that is weather protected with a waterproof membrane, which prevents moisture from getting inside. Putting your bag down on snow all day can quickly saturate it!

Read more: How to Use Cameras in Extremely Cold Temperatures

Shooting on overcast days

Overcast light can seem a little uninspiring, but the soft shadows and even lighting can be perfect for picking out intricate details in nature. Interesting patterns, shapes, and forms can be found all over the place in winter.

Top Tips: Use a high magnification to capture abstract details, and always try to keep your compositions simple.

Think carefully about what to exclude from the frame, as well as what to include. Fussy images will distract the eye and offer no resting point.

macro photography ideas for winter

Look for distinct lines that can be used as a compositional aid. Diagonal lines are nearly always more effective as they create a heightened dynamic aesthetic.

A true macro lens will be the best option for close-up details, but a close-up filter can be used on most lenses and will work especially well on tele-zooms such as 70-200mm.

Read more: How to Photograph Wildlife in Extreme Weather

Winter backlighting

Contre-jour is my favourite type of lighting, and winter is the best season for it. The low angle of the sun throughout the day makes backlighting your subject easier than at any other time of year.

Mammals such as deer, foxes, rabbits, and hares all work well backlit. The resulting rim-lighting will highlight all the hairs around their bodies, emphasising their shape and form.

backlighting in winter nature photography

Birds can also look fantastic when backlit. If a bird’s wings are outstretched, the light will burn through the feathers, creating an almost translucent glow.

You will need to use a lens hood to reduce the risk of flare.

Shoot during the golden hour when the light is warm and rich for the most atmospheric results. Keeping your camera set to high-speed drive will increase your chances of capturing the decisive moment.

This is especially important when shooting a bird in flight, as the wing position can make or break a shot.

Read more: Backlighting in Wildlife Photography – Creative Use of Light

Winter nature photography top tips

Here are a few final top tips for wildlife and landscape photography in winter.

Winter wildlife top tips

1. Stick to local areas. Pick two or three local spots to revisit over the winter months. This can be anywhere from a local patch of woodland close by, or even your local park.

Spend time simply observing your subjects, paying attention to the light, and trying to use the winter weather to tell a story.

bird in the snow wildlife photography in winter
2. Keep a close eye on the weather forecast and try to plan your shoots in advance. This is especially important in snowy weather when road closures could prevent you from reaching your location.

3. Wrap up warm! It should go without saying, but wearing clothes that keep you comfortable, warm, and dry is essential when shooting in winter weather.

The more comfortable you feel, the longer you will be prepared to stick it out.

Read more: How to Photograph Winter Wildlife

Winter landscapes top tips

1. Arrive at your location early. Winter sunrises can be spectacular, so make sure that you arrive in plenty of time to set up for the perfect composition.

landscape photography in winter2. Make the most of moody, winter weather. Dark, cloudy skies and the low winter sun can be a magical combination.

3. Take care when exposing snowy or frosty scenes. You will need to apply some positive exposure compensation to prevent the snow from appearing grey.

Check your histogram and expose towards the right to capture maximum detail.

Read more: Ideas for Photographing Winter Landscapes

In conclusion

Venturing out in freezing conditions may not seem like a great idea at the time! However, put in the effort, and the rewards the winter months can bring will make all the discomfort worthwhile.

Plan your shoots well, wrap up warm, and above all, have fun!

Visit Ben's website

Ben Hall is one of the UK’s leading wildlife photographers with many international awards to his name. His images are widely published throughout the world, he has has co-authored two books and runs wildlife photography workshops in the UK and overseas.

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