Mastering winter photography with Jo Bradford

Smartphone photography aficionado, Jo Bradford, shares her top tips for mastering winter photography—from what to look out for when shooting mist and snow, to advice on correcting common problems and adding quality of light and composition.

Living on Dartmoor I am used to shooting in inclement weather. Wind, rain and mist are all the norm up here, and I’ve come to learn that moody days are when the light is at its best. Low-key landscapes, where most of the tones in the picture are at the darker end of the scale, are in abundance in bad weather, giving plenty of photo opportunities of dramatic clouds, shafts of light, rainbows and storm fronts passing across the landscape.

I couldn’t write this article without thinking about snow. I think when most people picture winter photographs they picture snow and capturing a good photo of a snowy landscape is perhaps more reliant on the edit than any other type of photography.

I love the challenge of looking at a snowy scene and knowing what picture I need to take to give myself the best chance in the edit. I also love the way that snow changes a familiar landscape into a blank canvas and the way that the colours pop against the white—the black of a bird or russet browns of grasses and reeds in the winter.

“I love the way that snow changes a familiar landscape into a blank canvas and the way that the colours pop against the white—the black of a bird or russet browns of grasses and reeds in the winter.”

Some of the key things to think about when taking snowy photographs are:

  • Look for leading lines and pops of colour to add contrast and break up the monotony.

  • Shooting in the snow is tricky when the sun is out because it will be hard to avoid over-exposing with so much white and brightness in the scene. To counteract this wait for the sun to be diffused by cloud or move so that it is partially or fully blocked by trees.

  • Snow and mist are great for minimalist photos with a negative space aesthetic. Less is more so rather than including lots of information in your picture, try to pare it down to include just the essential elements. Make use of a tight crop to reduce clutter.

  • Try using a macro lens to see if you can capture individual snowflakes and close-ups of icicles.

When it comes to the edit, you need to think about white balancing. Blue colour casts (a kind of blue filter effect caused by your camera underexposing and seeing the snow as mid-tone) are a common problem in snow photos, but they are easily fixed! To help you in the edit, take photos where you have exposed for the different parts of the scene so that you have the best chance of having the perfect shot in your bag. Use editing to reduce blueness.

You can also use the editing process to ‘clean up’ snow; remove footprints and dirty patches.

Enhancing snowy landscapes

In the following two sets of before and after photos you can see how I have edited two different types of snow picture using Affinity Photo.

Example 1

I always start by assessing the photo; deciding what I like and what doesn’t work so well. For this image, I liked the trees but not the fence or the tree on the left-hand side, and I thought the clouds would look better if there was a cleaner sky. There was something about this one that looked almost monochrome, and I wanted to build on that.

With all this in mind, I took only the three following steps to edit the photo:

  1. First I cleaned it with the Inpainting and Clone brushes. I cleaned away the fence, branches and detail in the top of the sky.
  2. Next, I used a Split Toning adjustment setting the highlights hue to blue and shadows hue to green.
  3. Finally, I applied a Brightness and Contrast adjustment layer.
After editing

Example 2

The second before and after image shows a dawn sunrise over snow. I always think dawn skies look particularly striking over a snowy landscape.

In this image, I decided that the low light of the new day made the snow look a bit murky and because the snow is shallow there was a lot of plant material coming through which was brown and ruined the aesthetic. There were also lots of footprints to clear up. On the plus side, the sky was already dramatic and didn’t need any attention.

My editing steps were:

  1. Cleaning up the footprints and biggest clumps of grass with the Inpainting Brush Tool.
  2. Adding a Brightness and Contrast adjustment layer masked to the snow to brighten it but leave the sky as it is.
  3. I created a new layer and used the Develop Persona to reduce clarity, masked for just snow layer. This took some of the detail and features out of the snow and made it look cleaner and smoother.
  4. Then I added a second Brightness and Contrast adjustment layer to the overall image.
  5. Finally, I added another develop layer to increase contrast and clarity, masked to just show the sky to make clouds pop.
After editing

Photographing and editing mist

As much as I love photographing snow, I am a fan of some of the other winter weather types too. Mist is in abundance on Dartmoor and is one of the things I photograph more than anything else. It is one of those great occasions where the weather gives you a light diffuser and creates so much atmosphere. A bonus is that in the winter, without the hot sun to burn it off, mist hangs around for much longer. I love how misty mornings render an otherwise familiar landscape as mysterious and otherworldly.

“I love how misty mornings render an otherwise familiar landscape as mysterious and otherworldly.”

Even on the darkest and gloomiest of days, the moody grey skies can work as a backdrop for images that are almost silhouette.

Tips for shooting in the mist:

  • The things I love about shooting in mist apply to urban photography as much as landscapes. Look for urban lights that pierce through the gloom.

  • Hang around long enough to watch the mist dissipate as the day heats up. Often the most dramatic scenes happen as a sunbeam pierces through the clearing mist and casts a glow across a partially shrouded landscape.

  • A misty sunrise is ethereal and otherworldly. At certain times of the year, you will be able to photograph valley mist at dawn too. Go up to a local high point and see if the sky clears as you rise, when the mist sits below you get the effect of a white ocean, often affording you tantalising glimpses of hills, trees or buildings poking through.

Example 3

In this final, before and after image you can see how I edited the photo to compensate for the fact that mist can make images look grey and murky. Smartphone devices also have a tendency to over saturate images so I reduced this to make it look more natural.

Before editing

My assessment of this image pre-editing was that I hadn’t captured the angle of the body line of the grey horse as well as the black one so I wanted to see what it looked like removed. I also wanted to remove the magenta tones from ferns in the foreground and brighten the whole image. Finally, I wanted to make sure the detail in the black horse’s eyes wasn’t lost in the editing process.

The editing steps I took here were:

  1. Cleaning it with the Inpainting Brush Tool and removing the grey horse with the Clone Brush Tool.
  2. Adding a Brightness and Contrast adjustment layer; a Vibrance adjustment layer; a Split Toning adjustment layer and an HSL adjustment layer.
  3. Then applying a mask to the foreground to enhance the copper coloured ferns.
  4. Next, I did some sharpening around the horse’s eyes using a High Pass filter and masking it for just the eye area.
  5. Finally, I added a White Balance adjustment layer to correct the colour of the mist.
After editing

Always remember this…

‘Do less, in order to do more’ is the motto I apply in the photo-editing phase. Edit sparingly to reveal the beauty in an image and to enhance a great shot. Don’t let your photos be defined by the filters you choose, use them with a light touch and let the pictures inner beauty sing out.

Expose for the brightest part of the sky in your landscape photos, then use Affinity Photo to lighten the foreground which will look dark when you take the picture this way but is easily recovered to good lighting during the editing phase.


About the contributor

Jo Bradford is a professional photographer and author of the best-selling book Smart Phone, Smart Photography.

She owns Green Island Studios, a photography studio and bespoke analogue darkroom in Dartmoor National Park, UK, where she offers a range of photo-walks, guided tours and workshops in smartphone photography and image editing.

Visit greenislandstudios.co.uk and @greenislandstudios on Instagram for more information about her studio, workshops and tours.

To see Jo’s award-winning fine art photography, visit jobradford.com.