How to Shoot Snow on Film: Everything You Need to Know by Jen Golay

35mm film image of branches covered in snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
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Written by Jen Golay

Spring may be on the horizon, but I think it’s safe to say that most of us here in the U.S. have experienced a bit more snow this year than usual.

And I would bet a lot of people wanted to go out and capture some of that beautiful snow on film. I would also bet that they ran into a few problems along the way, whether it was with their gear, film choice, or exposure.

I want to assure them that they are not alone! Shooting film in winter and shooting snow on film is fairly simple, but there are a few important things to know before you take your camera out into the cold.

How to Shoot Film in the Snow
How to Shoot Film in the Snow
How to Shoot Film in the Snow
Medium format film image of the woods in snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

What Camera Should You Use?

Winter weather, even if it’s only a little bit chilly, can be extreme weather for your delicate camera gear. Cameras of all types and ages don’t do well in cold or damp weather.

Because the cold temperatures can really do a number on your gear, don’t bring your favorite, most expensive, or most used camera.

While you might take every precaution possible, there is still a risk to your equipment when taking it out in extreme conditions—this includes rain and/or snow as well as heat.

Batteries die quickly in the cold temperatures, so a completely mechanical camera is your best bet. For me, that would be my Rolleiflex, Hasselblad, Nikon FM, Olympus Pen F, or toy camera like a Sprocket Rocket or a Holga.

One camera I would NEVER take out in the snow (although I did it once for a short period of time before I knew better) is a Contax 645. That camera is very temperamental and does not like any variations in temperature or humidity.

35mm film image of a camera in the snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
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What Film Should You Use?

Film choice for many people usually depends on how much light is available, but, for the discerning photographer, film choice should also include color and saturation.

That may not seem like an issue when you are shooting the colorless snow, but it is when you include other things in the image.

I have used most of the current Kodak lineup (Portra 160, Portra 400, Portra 800, Ektar 100, and Tri-X 400) along with Fuji Superia 400, and my favorite films for shooting in the snow are Kodak Ektar 100 and Kodak Portra 160 with a few caveats.

35mm film image of a tree covered in snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Kodak Ektar 100

If it’s a bright, sunny day after a fresh snowfall, I will choose Kodak Ektar 100.

The colors of Ektar are punchy and saturated, and a blue sky or a red barn next to crisp white snow looks fantastic on Ektar.

Medium format film image of a river in winter - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Kodak Portra 160

For overcast days or days shooting while it is actually snowing, I like Kodak Portra 160.

It’s a fairly neutrally based film, but it can also have punchy colors that contrast nicely with the white snow.

And don’t forget to shoot black and white film on snowy days for a classic, timeless look. I like Kodak Tri-X 400 for great contrast.

35mm film image of a bench in the snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Kodak Tri-X 400

What Should You Bring to Shoot Film in the Snow?

Extra Batteries

If you don’t have a mechanical camera to shoot with in the cold weather, the first thing you should bring besides your camera and film is plenty of extra batteries.

You’ll be surprised at how the cold drains the batteries and slows down your camera.

Warm Clothing

Be sure to dress appropriately. Bring gloves or even fingerless gloves to make operating your camera a bit easier.

To keep your fingers from freezing, throw some hand warmer packs in your pockets.

Ziploc Freezer Bag

Bring a Ziploc freezer bag that seals tightly.

When you’ve finished shooting in the cold, put your camera in the bag and seal it completely before you return to the warm indoors.

This will prevent condensation from forming on the lens and inside the camera body.

If you forget to put your camera into the Ziploc bag and seal it before coming inside, DO NOT put your camera into a sealed Ziploc bag after returning to the indoors! This will only exacerbate the moisture problem.

35mm film image of branches covered in snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

Camera Cover

Bring another Ziploc bag, shower cap, or dedicated camera cover for shooting during snowfall.

Many professional level cameras are weather sealed, but it never hurts to take this extra precaution.

Lens Hood

Bring your lens hood to avoid lens flare on the highly reflective snow—especially on a sunny day.

Polarizing Filter

Bring a polarizing filter to create a deep blue, dramatic sky and increased saturation.

UV Filter

If you don’t already have a UV filter on the front element of your lens, you might consider using one to keep moisture either from snow or condensation off the front element of your lens.

Two medium format film images of winter - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

How to Meter Film in the Snow

If you’re using a camera with a built-in reflective light meter, and you use it to choose your exposure, you might be disappointed when you get your scans back.

The snow probably looks dingy, dirty, or gray.

Medium format film image of a river in winter - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
According to my in-camera light meter, this image is correctly exposed.

That’s because your meter did its job properly. When your camera meter looks at a scene, it wants to expose it at 18% gray.

So, when it sees that white snow, it thinks the scene is too bright and brings the exposure down to compensate for it.

So, you need to compensate for your camera’s compensation!

If the scene is primarily white snow, you can simply change your exposure to be two stops brighter.

Medium format film image of the woods in snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

If there is detail in the snow that you want to capture such as a frozen branch or footprints or something in shadow, brighten your exposure by 2 or 3 stops.

35mm film image of winter scenes - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

If you’re shooting on an overcast day or during a snow shower, the clouds and the world will naturally have a gray tinge to them, so you will want to overexpose by at least 1 stop.

Medium format film image of a river in winter - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Medium format film image of a pier in winter - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

Keep in mind that these are just a general rule of thumb. There may be other variables that will determine your exposure as well, such as people, buildings, wildlife, or other parts of the landscape.

I almost always overexpose by at least one stop.

If you don’t want to be doing the adjustments in your head, you can set your exposure compensation to +1 or +2 and shoot as usual.

Some general guidelines for metering in the snow according to slrlounge.com:

Snow with clear sunny skies: +2 to +3 Exposure Value Compensation
Snow with slight overcast: +1 to +2 Exposure Value Compensation
Snow with overcast or in open shade: +2/3 to +1 Exposure Value Compensation

35mm film image of a flower covered in snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

Metering for the Snow with a Handheld Light Meter

If you are using a completely manual camera, you will need a handheld light meter.

If you want to meter for light shadows, use the meter with the bulb retracted, if your meter has this feature, and shade the meter with your hand.

Avoid angling it toward the snowy ground or even block the light reflecting from the snow to get a more accurate reading.

By metering in the shadows, your exposure reading will be one or two stops overexposed.

If you’re shooting landscapes of the snow, you will still want to overexpose what your meter reads by 1 to 3 stops according to the scenarios mentioned above.

Remember that with color negative film, it’s better to overexpose than underexpose, and this is especially true when shooting in the snow.

35mm film image of a field covered in snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

Communicating with Your Lab

Be sure to communicate with your lab when you send in your film filled with snow images.

Let them know that you want your highlights bright and your snow white.

The images below were some of my first film frames of snow and were shot at twilight and with the meter zeroed out. Note the blue tint.

These problems could have been avoided by metering properly and communicating with my lab.

Thankfully, gray snow can be fixed in Lightroom or Photoshop, but one of the reasons I love shooting film is so I don’t have to spend time in Lightroom or Photoshop

Medium format film image of a bench in the snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
3mm film image of a river covered in snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Medium format film image of a bench in the snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

What Precautions Should You Take when Shooting in the Snow?

Pay Attention to the Terrain

Avoid ice. The last thing you want to happen is to fall and injure yourself or your gear.

Give Your Camera Time to Acclimate

Be sure to give your camera time to acclimate to the colder temperatures when you first take it outside and when you bring it back indoors.

Changes in temperature and humidity will cause condensation on your lens and possibly on your film and the inner workings of your camera.

Don’t try to “dry” it off, just give it time to clear naturally.

Be sure to warm your camera up gradually or in a Ziploc bag to avoid condensation.

You can also warm your gear up gradually by putting it in the trunk rather than the interior of the car, then moving it to the garage, and then the house.

If the temperatures aren’t that extreme, keeping your camera in its well-padded camera bag for several minutes after returning indoors may be enough protection to let the camera warm up gradually.

Medium format film image of a bench covered in snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

Handle Your Film with Care

The cold can make film brittle and susceptible to break.

Load your film before going out in the cold. If you need to reload out in the cold, be sure to load it with care and advance your film slowly.

Conversely, when you have finished a roll, rewind it slowly. During the winter months, the air is often dry, and rewinding your film quickly can cause static inside your camera. Static charges create light, and this could leave random light marks on your film.

This is another reason a mechanical camera is a better choice over a battery-powered camera where film advancement and rewind are automatic.

Winterizing Your Camera

If you plan to be a regular winter photographer, shooting frequently in cold temperatures, you can have your camera “winterized.”

This entails taking your camera to a professional who will service it by removing the camera’s regular mechanism lubricants or oils and replacing them with lubricants that perform better in cold weather.

35mm film image of icicles in the snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

Other Tips and Tricks for Shooting Film in the Snow

Realize that the snow on the ground creates a giant reflector. Use it to your advantage.

Medium format film image of people at a picnic table - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

Look for interesting things to photograph.

Snowy scenes are most interesting when there is something to contrast with the white—maybe dark branches and tree trunks or a red coat or berry, or a bright blue, sunny sky.

35mm film image of the blue sky in winter - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
35mm film image of a kid in the snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
35mm film image of plants in the snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Medium format film image of a bench in the snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film
Medium format film image of a kid playing in the snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

Try to get out when the snow is fresh or still falling to get clean, crisp whites. It doesn’t take long before the snow is plowed, or it starts melting.

Medium format film image of the woods in snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

Don’t be afraid to shoot on cloudy, overcast days. Sometimes those clouds produce more color than you realize.

Medium format film image of the woods in snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

Try a slow shutter speed to capture the motion of the snow falling.

Medium format film image of leaves in snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

Shoot from different perspectives.

Get low. Look up.

Don’t forget to get up close.

Medium format film image of leaves in snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

Try using a toy camera. You can get some fun images and you don’t have to worry about your gear.

35mm film image of the snow - How to Shoot Film in the Snow by Jen Golay on Shoot It With Film

Thank you so much, Jen! Jen is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out her other articles here, including How to Shoot Kodak Gold 200 and a review of the Rolleiflex 2.8F. You can also check out more of Jen’s work on her website and Instagram.

If you have questions about shooting film in the snow or in winter, leave them below in the comments!

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Jen Golay

Jen Golay is a regular contributor for Shoot It With Film. Find her other articles here, such as How To Shoot Kodak Gold 200 and Olympus Pen F Half-Frame Film Camera Review.

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Blog Comments

Hy!
Great articel!
Ektar is nice, but as you mentioned, only in good conditions. Portra worked great, but is really soft.
In my experience, the best films for shooting in snow are E100 and Provia. Velvia 50 on the other side didn’t work out well. Velvia 100 was nice in spring when there is still some snow left, but flowers start to bloom. I also had great results using Kodak Gold.
Greetings from Austria!

Hi Martin! Thanks so much for your comment! I am sure that slide film would look great for snow and spring images! I don’t use slide film that often just because one has to be so precise with metering, but the rewards are worth it when I do!

Does kodak make 18% grey cards if so buy the grey card and meter in the same light you are shooting the snow photos in and your photos will be fine. When taking photo classes at fresno city college i used the card or i metered my hand and opened up 1 stop of light because i am light skinned but to really learn exposure get the grey card if tthe still have them. They work.

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Mike! I carry a gray card in every camera bag I have, and I use them frequently for tricky light situations. I chose not to include using them in the article since most people don’t use them or find using them burdensome. But you are absolutely correct that metering from a gray card is an excellent and accurate way to get perfect exposures every time!

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