Ahh.. Winter.. brightly burning logs, toasted marsh mellows, hot coco and snow. Really bright snow in the daytime that completely confuses your automatic camera into thinking its about 2 to 3 stops too bright. So many pictures taken in the winter by people end up looking like blown white outs and very dark stick people or serious racoon eyes from the nasty shadows under the eye sockets. Trying to shoot in the snow in unlike anything else other than maybe the Gobi dessert. It’s cold, batteries die an early death, your fingers freeze, it is incredibly bright and people dont want to sit still very long.
So is it impossible to get good natural portraits in the snow? Not at all, it’s very possible so long as you follow some basic rules. You will almost certainly have to use a flash, you will almost certainly need to go manual to override the camera’s non-winterized brain and you need to be able to shoot fast before everyone including you freeze.
It’s does not need to be a fancy flash, the onboard popup flash can really work wonders by staying within it’s working range. You will need to overdrive it, I typically shoot at +1 to +2 stops over flash compensation. I keep the ISO between 200 and 500, I look for shade if possible and I do like to use the sun as a natural backlight. In the image below, I put Sara directly in line with the setting sun. This was while we were out just walking around the neighborhood in the late afternoon. I had my D300, a 17-55 F2.8 lens and that was it.
ISO 200, F3.5 and a shutter of 1/125 using the popup flash at +2. With the D300, the 45mm works out to be almost 70mm on a full frame sensor
To pull this off, you MUST know your equipment and how to set various settings. When your fingers are getting stiff and cold is not the time to fumble around for menus. I set up the shot first to get the background the way I wanted it and then added the flash. It took about 4-5 shots to dial it in completely the way I wanted it. As you can see, I put the sun behind her head so her face was in shadow but her hair was rimlit by the sun. The flash provided the fill light.
On the next shot, it was the same basic settings but I did not like the look of the colors against the white snow but it black and white, I think it works really well. Again, you need to pay attention to the posing as much as you do to the camera settings.
In this shot, there are some apparent tricks. One, the shadow gives away that Sara is backlit again, I do this so I can light the face and not get the blown highlights from the bright sun. The hair looks really nice when backlit and in this case, the snow blows out to almost white. I have just enough texture so you can tell she is on snow but it does not distract. I’m shooting down at her so she can stretch the face and neck up a bit and get that nice curve. This stretch helps her look natural and relaxed. Her bent knee provides a good place for her to put the arm and gives some nice lines.
My final image was taken on the side of the road and in partial shade. I made a point of putting Sara’s face into the shade and letting the sun dapple the rest of her and the ground. The bright patches provide a nice visual interest and works with the fence in the background for some texture. In a perfect world, the bit of ground would be cloned out but I wanted to show portraits with minimal work. I had to start to scoop up some snow with her hands and then asked her to look up. It is a very natural pose and works well. Again the pop up flash was used to fill the face with some light.
I hope you can see that you dont need alot of gear to shoot nice winter portraits with just a bit of thought and knowing your equipment. Many times, your current equipment is more capable than you think and the popup flash is a perfect example of something that is very much maligned by the “pros” but used by those in the “know”.