Shooting Outdoor Sessions In Winter
Shooting outdoor sessions in winter can be challenging. But these tips are sure to help!
I live in the wonderful state of Minnesota. Which means that, for six months of the year, I have a pretty good chance of dealing with snow during my outdoor, on-location photo shoots. It’s just something we learn to deal with around here.
If I shot my sessions only in warm, snow-free conditions, my business would be hampered a lot.
And many of my clients would be missing out on something beautiful! I have come to love the feeling of a winter day in my images, and the look of snow in the backgrounds of my client sessions. Snow can actually be a helpful, very desirable thing to have handy during a shoot! As the years have gone by, and I’ve done more wintry outdoor shoots, I’ve started to get more and more requests from clients specifically for snow sessions. It’s been a wonderful thing for my art, AND my business!
Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way to help you make the most of the snowy weather during your winter client shoots. You may even come to love it!
In snow sessions, as in ANY session, the number one ingredient is light. Winter light, in the northern hemisphere, is usually soft and glowy for much of the day. The farther north you are, the more “perpetual sunset” you have all day. The one thing about the light that you will encounter when there is snow everywhere is that FLATNESS. The snow makes a wonderful reflector – it’s almost too good a reflector. It makes the light on your subjects’ faces quite flat and even. It becomes much harder to use directional light and shadow to define features and lend depth to your images. So to give my photographs, and my subjects, more dimension, I love backlighting in the winter snow. The rim light gives interest, and the snow reflects light back onto people’s faces – it’s a perfect, easy combination!
You can also use buildings or rows of trees to create some directional light and shadow on your subjects. In the wintertime, most of the trees have lost their leaves and, as a result, they don’t filter the light the way they do in the summer. In a more natural area, finding buildings or rows of trees is more of a challenge, of course. Urban environments, however, make it easier for me to block light and create shadows.
I love playing with color and tones in a snowy setting. Most of the time, I love when my clients dress in soft neutrals, like creams, grays, natural colors and pastels. I love that tonal harmony and softness, especially combined with the warm light of sunset. This is something you just can’t do in the summer!
Sometimes, though, it’s nice to have a bright, cheery color to create a sunny, happy mood.
I also love finding pops of rich color in the environment wherever I can, like the red of a structure, or the fruit still clinging to a tree.
Shooting in the cold weather does have its challenges.
Firstly, there’s your gear to think about. Most modern DSLR cameras can handle the cold just fine, but be prepared for your battery to drain more quickly, and also give your lens a chance to get used to the cold outside – it may fog up like your glasses did when you hit the playground during fourth grade recess!
Most of my clients don’t want to be dressed in bulky coats and hats and boots in their pictures – though I think that cute winter wear can be really fun in an outdoor shoot! But much of the time, we don’t do it that way. So how do you keep a client comfy and smiling during the frigid temps? I have learned some tricks for doing it with no pain, no frostbite, and very little complaining.
Firstly, do your session where there is a warm building nearby. I do a lot of sessions near my studio, so we can do a combo session – half studio, have outdoors. Then they get a lot of variety, but don’t have to be outside for an entire session. Before heading outside, explain to your clients exactly where they are going to stand, and how you want them to pose. Then take them outside, with coats on, and get them into position. Meter, choose your settings, and take a test shot if necessary. Then have your subjects throw off their coats (out of the frame), and shoot for a few minutes, quickly, calling out your directions. Then, coats go back on, and you can move to the next spot, or back indoors. Fast, fun, and painless. I usually leave my own coat off, too – as a gesture of solidarity, and also a way to measure how my clients are feeling. If I’m cold, I know they are cold, and it’s time to quit!
This shot was taken on a very cold day, and it took me about 30 seconds to get it.
(This is where I need to add my disclaimer: never put your client or your own kids in a situation where the cold could seriously hurt them. Cold temperatures and windchill below zero can lead to frostbite in a very short time, so be sensible about what you are doing in cold conditions. Don’t force clients to do anything that makes them miserable. Or puts them in danger. Or even makes them unhappy.)
Another thing that’s nice about the cold is that it forces people to snuggle up together, which always looks so wonderful and emotive in portraits!
I sometimes bring along a cute blanket or a quilt for my clients to wrap themselves in, too.
With all that white around, especially if it’s sunny out, metering and exposing can sometimes be a little tricky.
Generally speaking, you want to underexpose if necessary to avoid blowing out the whites, and then bring back up your subjects only in your edits. Because all that brightness can be tricky, I prefer to shoot closer to sunset – and hey, in Minnesota that’s at about 3:00 p.m. right now!
White, white and more white. Why is it that white so seldom LOOKS white in photographs? If you want beautiful white snow in your pictures, sometimes you have to work at it in your edits.
There are a few things I do in almost every snow session to ensure good exposure and color.
Firstly, in either ACR or Lightroom, I find that moving the “whites” slider down will initially minimize some of the blowouts and blinding whiteness. Most people immediately think of the “highlights” slider but for snow, give the “whites” slider a try. And in photoshop, if your white snow is looking blueish, try using a hue/saturation layer, select the cyan channel, and use the saturation slider to bring down those casts in the snow and leave it clean and white-looking. Do the same in the blue channel. Invert your layer mask and paint over the snow only. This is one instance where you really do want to desaturate, rather than add the opposite color. Don’t balance the blue with yellow – because you know what they say about yellow snow! (Ew!)
Sometimes when your subjects are cold, their noses and hands will look very red. There are a few ways to deal with that in photoshop. Here are some of the things I do:
1) Create a selective color layer and choose the red channel. Add cyan, anywhere from around +12 to +15, then reduce magenta to between -10 and -12, add yellow to somewhere between +12 and +15, and then raise the blacks as much as necessary. Invert the layer mask and use a soft brush to paint over that over the rosy skin to tame it a little. Adjust the opacity of that layer as much as necessary.
2) You can use hue/saturation layer to do something similar. Move the hue slider up a little (3 to 5) to get a more cyan/green color, and the saturation slider down a little (8 to 10), invert your layer mask and paint over the red areas of skin and adjust the opacity of that layer as necessary.
3) You can also use a soft brush with the blending mode set to “color” and the flow set to about 20%, select a color of skin that’s not so red, and paint that over the neon red skin.
Now you have nice, warm-looking subjects!
I hope this inspires you to get out there in the snow with your camera, and take your clients along!
My name is Leslie Crane and I am an on-location and studio portrait photographer in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota area. I specialize in portraiture of children, families, high school seniors, musicians and creative professionals.
My style, which is inspired by my subjects, has been described as fresh, sweet, simple, clean, classic, uncluttered, natural, and heartfelt. My photographs are known for their rich color, lovely light, elegance, and clarity. I love working with all people – adults, teens, children and babies alike.
I live with my husband and our two boys in the Minneapolis suburbs. See my website here.
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