Tips for Winter Photography

I am excited to share with you my tips for winter photography, based on several years experience of capturing the flat, frozen winter landscape of Canada’s Lake Ontario.

As old man winter is rattling on your front door and windows, howling for attention, and marking his visit by covering your driveway and patio with an “I was here” memento, you may well be inclined to hibernate until the weather is more conducive to photography. The area you live in is flat, and fallen snow renders things even more featureless. After all, what is there to photograph on a flat, snow covered surface? Well, actually, tons. In fact, you may even have the admirers of your photographs believe you traveled to far away places in the deep arctic, capturing gigantic ice and snow formations that don’t exist “back home.” I am excited to share with you my tips for winter photography, based on several years experience of capturing the frozen, flat winter landscape of Canada’s Lake Ontario.

It may be white, flat, virtually featureless and, oh yes, really cold, yet the frozen landscape of Lake Ontario is one of my favourite locations worldwide to photograph and explore. The possibilities are endless, and the beauty of the interplay between ice, snow and light exquisite and unique. In the years I have been photographing this area, I have never seen another photographer and yet this area doubtlessly has proven to be the most fruitful source of powerful, unusual images for me. In this article, through the images I have taken, I hope to encourage you to venture out and capture the beauty that frozen waters have to offer.

Tips for Winter Photography

One particular morning, part of the frozen surface of Lake Ontario was covered in tiny ice crystals, something that I may have appreciated but could have easily looked over as I was searching for a composition. With my camera right down on the ground, and a wide angle perspective, the sea of ice crystals played the starring role it deserved :)


Each Winter is Different

The surface and shores of the great lakes vary greatly within the winter, and, in my experience, even more so between the years. But you don’t have to wait from one winter to the next; the lakes provide an ever changing landscape and it is possible to discover new textures, patterns and ice formations on a weekly, sometimes even daily basis.

One winter, ice fragments piercing though the snow covered surface were particularly common, the result of several pressure ridges which had formed. A low setting or rising sun would illuminate the ice with golden, glowing light, creating a wonderful scene to photograph. I prefer to capture such interplay with the light from a sweeping wide angle perspective, with the camera as low to the ground as possible. In this way, most of the frame is filled with the subject of interest and inclusion of the sun allows for balance and background interest. It also distorts the sense of scale, rendering the ice formations larger than what they actually are. When attempting images of this kind, try to wear water proof clothing (my ski pants and parka do the trick) so that you can roll and crawl on the ice or snow as may be necessary. Please feel free to read my article with tips for powerful wide angle compositions

Winter Photography Tips
Part of a pressure ridge juts out of the surface of Lake Ontario and is illuminated by the warm light of the rising sun.

Often a single exposure may not be enough to capture the dynamic range of the scene, and in the winter correctly reproducing the single, or ranges of, color temperature of the photographed scene can prove to be especially difficult. However, thanks to digital photography and image processing software, one can, with some amount of practice, manually blend different color temperatures, exposures and focal points. This gives the artist almost unlimited creative freedom, ranging from as realistic renditions as possible to whatever the heart may desire. I prefer to render the snow whiter than the blue tones one usually sees in most photographs. This is because, to my eye, the snow usually does look white, even if it is just my eyes adjusting to the blue color cast of the reflected sky. The ability to blend exposures at different focal points allows the photographer to take images with the best aperture setting for maximum sharpness, without compromising depth of field.

In the winter of 2007/2008 a severe storm shattered the entire ice sheet, initially resulting in a sea of beautifully glittering, floating ice fragments. This was a photographic gift, with the morning sun turning the lake into what seemed to be a sea of glittering glass:

How to photograph winter
Following gale force winds, the shattered ice sheet of Lake Ontario glitters as the sun rises.


The ice eventually washed ashore, building embankments and little caves which made for some very interesting subjects. One opportunity that might arise in situations like this is the ability to capture the interplay of icicles with light in a compellingly composed image. The photograph below shows an instance of this. It was difficult to frame my intended subject properly, but after crawling around under several of these caves, I came away with a perspective which I liked. The ability to blend different exposures with careful masking made this image possible. Note how much the sun adds to the otherwise empty and rather bleak background.

Tips for Winter Photography
Icicles hang off an embankment built from fragments of Lake Ontario’s shattered ice sheet that had washed ashore.

Alternatively such embankments can form strong leading, perhaps even dominant, lines in your composition. Always keep in mind how the light will transform the landscape when pre-visualizing your images!

Tips for Winter Photography

An embankment built from ice that had washed ashore glitters in the morning sun and acts as a strong compositional element.

Recent winters have exhibited rather strong temperature fluctuations. Combined with little snow fall this can result in an almost mirror smooth frozen lake surface, interrupted by interlacing pressure cracks. Melting and refreezing of the ice sheet can give rise to beautiful, diverse textures and patterns on the ice sheet.

Winter Photography Tips

Strong temperature fluctuations together with the lack of snow resulted in wondrous patterns and textures on the lake’s surface.


Temperature fluctuations are your friend

Besides the general variation in conditions among the different winters, take advantage of the temperature fluctuations so common at the beginning and end of winter. This will change the textures and patterns, even the colors, of the frozen surface substantially.

Winter Photography Tips

Refrozen melt waters in late winter formed cyan colored pools, complemented by beautiful ice shards. The low, wide angle perspective greatly distorts the sense of scale here.

Instead of filling your frame with ice formations, and including the sun for background interest, you may want to accentuate the emptiness and feeling of desolation. Such images are simple but can be very effective. For images of this kind, I prefer to have some kind of compelling texture or pattern on the lake surface leading the eye to an intriguingly colored or textured sky.

Tips for Winter PhotographyLate winter cracks and cyan colored melt pools function as compelling foreground elements for an intriguing sky.

I hope this short article together with the accompanying images will encourage you to venture out there and embrace the many wonderful photographic opportunities that frozen waters provide!


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Related articles:

Wide Angle Compositions

Composition Tips

Line as a Compositional Element

Shapes in Composition

Chasing the Light