Photographing Falling Snow At Night

For those of you who still have winter weather to deal with (like me), I thought I’d throw out some tips for shooting in falling snow at night. Of course, as with any type of night photography, you need some sort of light to illuminate the scene. If you also wish to show the snowflakes falling, you’ll need another source of light for that. If there’s a lot of snow on the ground, it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of light to illuminate the overall scene because the snow is so reflective. That’s why shooting in cities works so well during snow. All the streetlights and other lights illuminate the scene very well.

Bodie Island Lighthouse in snow at night

Bodie Island Lighthouse in snowstorm. Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35 lens, f/8, 4 minutes, ISO 800.

If the snow is falling when you take the picture and you don’t do anything to illuminate it as it falls, the snowflakes will not show up in the image because the overall exposure is not enough to make a single snowflake record during the brief period of time it is in front of the lens. (For you to use a shutter speed short enough to “freeze” the snowflakes would require a tremendous amount of ambient light that you’re not going to get at night.) If the snow is falling very heavily, it will affect the overall scene by giving it a whitish glow, but you won’t be able to see any of the individual snowflakes. That’s what happened with the first lighthouse shot. It is a single 4-minute exposure, but the only lighting was from the lighthouse beam. (I talk more about this photo here. )

To record the snowflakes, you have to throw some additional light into the scene. You can do this with a bright LED flashlight or with a flash. Each shows the snowflakes differently. The flash will freeze the flakes, while the flashlight will show them as streaks. I’ll talk about using a flashlight in another post. For now, let’s talk about using a camera flash.

Bodie Island Lighthouse in snowstorm

Bodie Island Lighthouse in snowstorm. Nikon D700, Nikon 17-35 lens, f/8, 4 minutes, ISO 800. This is the same exposure as the upper image, but during the exposure I fired a camera flash 4 times to illuminate the snowflakes.

Snowflakes fall at different speeds, depending on how heavy the snow is and how hard the wind is blowing. On average, you could probably stop the motion with a shutter speed of 125th of a second, and certainly 1/250th. So if you were to fire a flash at them, which has a burst of light that lasts for only 1/1000 second or faster, you can see how it can easily freeze the motion of the flakes.

The process is really very simple. Compose the scene as if it were not snowing and determine the proper exposure. You want a combination of aperture and ISO that will give you a shutter speed of at least 15 seconds, which should be easily to accomplish in all but the very brightest ambient-light situations. Fire the shutter and while it is exposing, point the flash at the scene and manually fire the flash. You don’t need (or want) the flash attached to the camera with a sync cord or Pocket Wizard or anything. This is a total manual gig.

After one pop of the flash, check the LCD and see how the snowflake exposure looks. You already set the exposure for the overall scene, so unless the flash is hitting something in the scene, it won’t have any effect on that. All you’re concerned with is how it is making the snowflakes look. Generally, you’ll need to dial down the flash to ¼ power or lower.

Christmas tree at night

Christmas tree shot during a light snowfall, without using flash to illuminate the snowflakes. Nikon D700, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, f/11, 3 seconds, ISO 800.


Once you figure out what power setting to use for the flash, you’ll need to experiment with the zoom setting, depending on the focal length lens you’re using. But there’s a catch. You can’t set the flash to match the lens and expect good results because the flash will not light the snowflakes evenly all across the frame for a wide-angle scene. I find that for most wide-angle scenes, I need to use four flash pops to get the snow to look right. One pop for each corner of the frame, and sometimes a fifth pop for the center. That’s why I recommend a shutter speed of at least 15 seconds, so it gives you enough time to make multiple popes of the flash during a single exposure. There’s another catch. The zoom setting you use for the flash will affect the power setting needed, so if you change the zoom after setting the power, you may need to adjust the power up or down.

The important thing to keep in mind is that there is no real formula to follow. You’re just going to have to experiment to find the right combination of flash power, zoom setting, and number of pops. And whatever you come up with tonight is not going to work tomorrow because the snow will be heavier or lighter or the wind blowing differently.

Some other things to keep in mind. You’ll need to shoot a lot of exposures when you do this, because most of them won’t work. You’ll get shots where the flash illuminates snowflakes that are very close to the lens and they’ll totally blow out, and you’ll get ones where the wind blows in a manner that makes the snow look likes tiny streaks instead of flakes. It can be quite frustrating. The process is simple; achieving good results can test your patience.

Christmas tree in snow

Christmas tree shot during a light snowfall. In this image, I combined 6 different exposures. In each of the exposures, I fired a camera flash to illuminate the snowflakes.

Another thing to watch out for is making sure you keep the flash out of the lens view when you fire it. Also, don’t fire the flash directly behind or too close to the camera. If you do, the camera will block part of the flash light and cause shadows in the snowflakes.

I said you want a relatively long shutter speed so it gives you time to fire the flash as many times as you need, but there is a way around that for those who don’t mind a little extra post-processing. You can fire the flash one time per exposure and then stack a bunch of exposures as layers in Photoshop using the Lighten blend mode. I use this technique because it gives me much more flexibility. I don’t have to worry about getting four flash pops to work perfectly in a single exposure. I can shoot as many separate exposures as I need to get it right, and then blend them into the final shot. The layering method also works great for cleaning up any snowflakes that are overexposed or blurred from the wind. You brush them out of just that layer, letting the other flakes show through.

If you use the layering method, it might work better to tether the flash to the camera with a sync cord or radio remote. Since you’re only firing the flash once per exposure, you can let it sync to the shutter.

A final thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to settle for the white light that comes out of your flash. Put a gel filter on that puppy (mounted in a GelGrip™, if you have one) and make the light whatever color you like. I tend to prefer white light for snowflakes, but hey, they’re your photos, so make the snow look however you want it to look.

I’d caution against yellow snow, though. You know what I’m talking about.

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