When I hear the phrase “winter photography,” my mind instantly goes to Yosemite Valley Winter by Ansel Adams; even 50 years ago, this iconic image was highly marketable. Adams even sold it for one of his last commercial jobs back in 1969, when it was printed on Hills Brothers coffee cans.
Beautiful landscapes still sell, whether you’re working for a specific client or licensing your photos through a major agency, but the winter season isn’t just for landscape photographers. On the contrary, this time of year is perfect for commercial photographers and artists of all genres to produce unique, eye-catching work.
As the holidays (and winter ad campaigns) roll around, brands are on the lookout for original content that stands out, and that includes everything from lifestyle to macro photography. Here are our top tips for creating winter photos with commercial appeal.
Add some people
Great stock photos tell a story and convey a clear message, and one easy way to do that is by incorporating people in your shoots. Whether you’re working with friends or professional models, remember to ask them to sign a model release, as you’ll need it to license your photos commercially.
How you incorporate people is up to you; you can take some outdoor portrait shots in the blue winter light, or you can tap into the “tiny person, big landscape” trend by photographing someone in a vast and majestic location. Take advantage of everyday opportunities to photograph people outside in the snow; even a walk to the park with your dog or kids can present the perfect chance for a mini-shoot.
Scout your spot
Plan for nice weather and natural light; downloading an app like The Photographer’s Ephemeris will help you track the sun from your location. The midday sun in winter can quickly get too harsh and bright, but sunrise and sunsets can lend your photos a magical golden glow.
If you plan to arrive at your location in the dark (before daybreak), you’ll need to scout it in advance. Explore the area on a different day to look for the best angles and most photogenic vantage points, and take note of them for later. On the day of your shoot, be careful about where you step—you’ll want to have fresh snow without any footprints your frame.
If your location is privately-owned, you must have a signed property release to license your photos commercially, so if you’re not sure, double-check with the local authorities.
Turn your favorite winter activity into a photoshoot
“A day playing with the family or friends outside can turn into the perfect winter shoot,” the 500px Content Team tells us. “Baking with the kids, building a snowman, and making snow angels are all great photo opportunities, as are snowball fights and sled rides.”
Before you head out for some skiing or ice skating, help your models choose clothes that will look great on camera. Avoid brand logos and any other copyrighted details in photos you plan to license commercially.
Once you’re there, remember to enjoy the moment; in addition to the more posed, formal shots, you’ll want to get candid, spontaneous snaps of people laughing and goofing around. Grab some detail photos as well, like close-ups on ice skates and snowmen. Finally, get some shots of the action itself (e.g., people throwing snowballs, sledding down a hill, etc.), and remember to move around for dynamic framing and compositions.
Play with colors
The right color palette is important for any stock photoshoot, but it’s doubly important when you’re shooting against the bright snow. The 500px Content Team says, “Hats, scarves, and sweaters are always a great addition to any shoot, especially if they bring a pop of color.”
Use bright hues to draw the eye to your subjects. You don’t have to limit yourself to traditional winter colors like red, green, and gold, either. Introducing unexpected colors can make your photos stand out and catch buyers’ attention.
This rule holds for most situations, but it’s especially important when you’re working outside during this time of year. “A lot of the time with wintery scenes, there is a lot more reflective, white snow and general brightness, so shooting RAW format will give you more room to correct or tweak the exposure and color temperature after the shoot,” the 500px Content Team explains.
Watch your exposure
When you’re dealing with reflective snow, your camera won’t always get the exposure right, so keep an eagle eye on your histogram, and consider overexposing a bit by using your camera’s positive exposure compensation function.
“Photographers will often shoot in auto mode, but that can lead to darker shots due to the bright, reflective, flat light from snow that your device ends up reading,” the 500px Content Team tells us. “Whenever possible, stick to manual mode in these conditions.”
Some point and shoot cameras also come with a “beach” or “snow” mode, which can work well in winter.
Protect your gear
In cold temperatures, your batteries run out quickly, so bring some spares and keep them close to your body for warmth (an inside jacket pocket is always a good bet, or you can keep them toasty with hand warmers). Invest in a reliable rain hood as well to protect your camera from snow.
Another pitfall of shooting outside in winter is foggy lenses—moisture can build up when you move from cold temperatures to warm ones. When you head back inside, give your gear time to warm up by keeping it tucked inside a plastic bag in your camera bag. Additionally, take out your memory card before heading into a warm environment.
Your fingers need protection too! Brands like Vallerret offer gloves designed specifically for photographers.
“Cozy days-in are always great to photograph during the winter months,” the Content Team adds. On days when it’s too cold outside, stay indoors—just make sure you have access to a nice big window for light, and spend some time working on your winter-themed styling.
The Danish concept of hygge (the art of coziness) has been a major trend in recent years, and it’s filtered into the world of images and marketing, with more than five million photos tagged #hygge on Instagram alone. Bring out your steamy mugs and knitted blankets for a warm atmosphere.
Get creative with lighting
It gets dark early in winter, so use that time to experiment with artificial lighting. Flash and neon have both experienced a bit of a resurgence in recent years, so think about incorporating them on set—or use holiday lights and candles for a festive vibe.
Focus on homemade details
Today’s buyers crave genuine, first-person lifestyle and food photos, so whip up a batch of cocoa and cookies to give your photos that warm, homey feeling. Play into that handmade, authentic atmosphere. Cookie-cutter stock photos are a thing of the past, so think about documenting the winter traditions that are unique to your family, from making homemade tree ornaments to playing dreidel.
Include the pets
There’s no shortage of adorable stock photos of cats and dogs, but one way to make your pet portraits unique is to add a seasonal twist. Provide plenty of treats and toys, and document your furry friends enjoying the weather and the festivities. “Photographing pets in the snow or indoors hunkered down by the fire is always great,” the 500px team says.
Try some macro shots
Winter isn’t just about vast landscapes; it’s also about tiny details. Bring out your macro lens and have fun shooting frozen soap bubbles and snowflakes. Remember to use a dark background like trees (or even a scarf that you’ve kept in the freezer) for contrast with delicate white snowflakes.
Edit with care
Post-processing is an essential step in licensing your photos; it’s rare that an image comes straight out of the camera looking perfect. When you sit down to edit, select only your best photos to submit; you don’t have to waste your time “fixing” images that are not up to par or too similar to one another.
Usually, some color correction and exposure/contrast tweaks will be helpful; if your image is underexposed, the snow can come out looking dull and gray, so pay special attention to those areas to make sure they’re bright and vibrant. At the same time, don’t go overboard with edits or filters. Stock buyers need images that are clean and adaptable, so avoid over-processing.
Finally, remember to keyword your images so buyers can find them while searching for winter images. You’ll want to include literal keywords like “winter,” “snow,” or “sledding,” but you can also get creative with conceptual keywords like “togetherness,” “joyful,” or “festive.”
Think like a buyer
It’s always a good idea to look at how brands use photos during the winter season. Pick up magazines and newspapers, and browse Instagram Stories for creative campaigns. Create a folder of some of your favorite advertising images, and think about why they caught your eye. Study how companies use composition, copy space, and color to their advantage, and then incorporate these elements into your winter photography for Licensing.
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