Recently, I made family portraits for my lifelong friend Julie and her family in the snow. During my recent visit to their home in Anderson, IN, we snuck out on a snowy, cloudy, wintery morning for a family mini session. I just adore all of them, and love the dreamy results!
Here are a few tips for shooting portraits in the snow:
- Scout and Plan Shots. This shoot was at Julie and Colin’s home, which provided an easy way to keep them warm while I set up. I knew exactly where I wanted them to stand (about 20 feet in front and to the left of the huge tree) before they went outside, so we didn’t waste any time finding the perfect spot. I framed the shots in camera while they waited indoors, then they walked right to that spot when I was ready.
- Expose Carefully. I exposed the shots for the snow, not the people, to avoid washed out highlights (which is very easy to do in the snow). The snow serves as a natural reflector in every direction, so I was unlikely to lose much shadow detail, if any.
- Practice the Pose Indoors. Self-explanatory. I made sure everyone knew exactly where they would sit/stand before going outside. It helps to have an adult positioned in such a way that they can prevent the smallest child from running away (i.e. held on a lap, like above). Once outside, we started with the whole family (the most important shot), then removed mom and for the shots of the kids, then did individual-kid shots, then did mom and dad once the kids were getting cold and tuckered. This order worked well and kept everyone happy.
- Choose Camera Angles Carefully. For the family shots, I was sitting on the ground to minimize the visibility of their footprints. Obvious footprints would have detracted from the pristine feeling I wanted in these images. However, for the image below, I stood up to shoot from a higher angle, so that the children would be framed entirely by the white snow. This creates more drama and made them seem smaller, more fragile, in the landscape. If I was shooting from a lower angle, they would have appeared larger and/or their heads would have been above the horizon line, creating an entirely different effect.
- Consider the Weather. While it is definitely possible to create successful sunny-day snow images, there is far less squinting on a cloudy day. You’ll also get more “pop” from colorful subjects when they are juxtaposed against an evenly lit white background. When everything is covered with snow, on clear days you’ll have harsh, potentially distracting contrast between sun and shade. Similarly, a bright blue sky would have totally changed the way these portraits feel.
- Choose Wardrobe Carefully. Julie already had most of the elements in these outfits planned, and while I offered a couple of suggestions, I knew her choices would work well, because the bright/dark colors contrast sharply with the snow. The exception, of course, is Julie’s white shirt. However, it works for her, because her darker jeans, skin and hair, combined with the clothing worn by other family members, create definition around the shirt. (In other words, a pale blonde family may want to avoid all wearing white shirts in the snow. 🙂 )
- Create Interest With Lines. Paradoxically to the point above, cloudy days can lead to boring, flat images, if you don’t pay attention to other details. The family’s position in the frame below is very deliberate. The root structure of the large points back to the family; the line of the large branch overhead mirrors the line created by the arrangement of the family; the branches in the left background point back down to the family; the family members’ positions relative to each other create a series of triangles, and so on. All of those details draw your eye back to the main subject, despite the fact that the photo itself is composed primarily of that enormous tree. If I’d posed the family directly in front or at the foot of the tree, or all on the same level, etc. they’d have been lost, and it would have been a boring image.
Similarly, in the image below, their bodies form a triangle with the left branch. Julie’s hands, visible on the right holding her daughter’s and on the left on her shoulder, ensure that her arms and torso didn’t disappear.
- Let Kids Be Kids. Because I carefully thought through the elements above, it didn’t take long to get all of the posed images I needed. No snow shoot would be complete without capturing the kids playing in the snow, so once you are done with formal images, there’s no concern about messing up hair, or getting wet. That’s when you get sweet childhood moments like these for the parents to cherish.
- Choose the Right Gear. In this type of setting with so much highlight area, a full frame camera will capture a broader range of detail for you to work with in post. I used my Nikon D700 with my 70-200 f/2.8 at varying focal lengths. The long lens compressed the background and made that enormous tree seem less dominating, which contributes to the dreamy feel of the images, and ensured that this sweet family remained the focus of these photos. A wide lens would have forced me closer, and changed the relationships/perspectives between foreground, subject, and background.
These images are probably some of my favorite portraits ever! It helps that they are of people I love so much, but in a shoot like this, it feels good to know how quickly I can make assessments and decisions on location now after more years of experience. But I still have a lot to learn, so what did I miss? What would you have done differently?
Many people today (not Julie) question photographers’ pricing. But, hopefully the above points illustrate that there is a lot of thinking and experience that goes into shoots like this. If you are tempted to take your photographer for granted, remember this post, and know that “quick” shoots that result in images you absolutely love are the result of skill and experience – especially when the photographer makes it look and feel “easy.” There’s a lot of value in that. (And that’s all from my soapbox for today!)
Thanks for stopping by. I’d love to hear your additional snow-photo tips in the comments below!