Five Tips for Successful Winter Portraiture

Five Tips for Successful Winter Portraiture

We are in the heart of one of the most severe winters that has come along for years. Many are spending as much time bundled up as possible waiting for spring to show up in a month or two. Photographers, however, are a different breed. Crazy conditions are an opportunity to create interesting images so we often find ourselves meandering out into the unexpected after that perfect shot. Winter portraiture can be especially tricky as it requires managing a model in adverse weather. These tips should help ensure your next winter shoot is a success.

Have a Plan

Winter is a terrible time to simply jump right into a concept and hope it works. Cold weather brings far too many potential curve balls for you to not be as prepared as possible. Be very aware of exactly what you want to create and where you want to create it. Know your location and the current conditions in that location. Moreover, have everything about the shoot planned as tightly as possible so that you don't waste time experimenting when you should be shooting.

Model Comfort Is Paramount

If your model is miserable it will show in your photos. Take every step possible to help keep your model as comfortable as possible. By default, you need to assume that the model will show up completely unprepared so you need to be prepared on their behalf. Pack an extra set of snow pants. (because most of the time your model will show up in jeans). Pack an extra set of warm boots. (because most of the time your model will show up in sneakers). Pack blankets, scarfs, and hand warmers. Pack anything you can think of to keep your model warm. One really great trick is to bring along a flattened cardboard box, if you are shooting images where model's feet aren't in the frame, have them stand on the cardboard so their feet don't get as cold as they would standing on snow or ice.

Bring Extra Batteries

Batteries and cold weather don't get along very well. Every battery for every device you are working with will drain significantly faster than usual when it is cold. Make sure to show up with a healthy assortment of extra batteries or you may find that your shoot is cut short. Take the time to store your batteries in weather sealed containers, stuffing a battery covered in snow into your camera is a very bad idea.

Plan Around Fleeting Daylight

Days are much shorter in the winter so be aware of when sunlight is likely to abandon you. Be especially vigilant in inclement weather as thick cloud cover can cause the day to shrink away far faster than if the sky was clear. Don't show up a few minutes before sunset and expect to get great shots. Plan for the best light and be ready to shoot well before that time arrives. 

Be Vigilant About Your Transportation

More often than not you likely will be driving to your location. Be prepared for whatever mother nature has to throw at you. Become attuned to what your vehicle is capable of handling. Don't drive down that old logging road in a small compact car rocking summer tires or you may never get out. In the event of getting stuck be prepared to get yourself out of the situation by bringing along a shovel and other emergency tools to help free a stuck car. Never venture away from the city in winter conditions without a full tank of gas, all it takes is for a highway closure while your tank is near empty to lead to a rather large problem. 

Make sure that your vehicle is stocked with amenities for all sorts of emergency situations. Have food and water as well as blankets to keep you warm. A small candle can also make a world of difference in a freezing car if you need to wait hours for help. Just make sure to crack a window to let the smoke out. Packing a small packet of flares can also help if you find yourself in the ditch and need to flag down help. Just make sure not to develop any delusions of grandeur of using the flares as a prop during the shoot. In many areas, it is illegal to use flares in non-emergency situations.

What did I tell you about flares?


Shooting in the winter is all about proper planning and preparation. By smartly approaching your plan to shoot and by covering nearly every potential problem, you vastly increase the odds of a successful shoot. Remember that in cold weather a minor annoyance can quickly turn dangerous so don't take any unnecessary risks and stick to your plan. Be safe and have fun!

Ryan Cooper's picture

Ryan is an mildly maniacal portrait/cosplay photographer from glorious Vancouver, Canada.

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