The Dilemma of Shutter Speed During the Winter Months

Nov 02, 2021

The first significant snowfall has arrived here in the Canadian Rockies, and the mountains look like beauties with that fresh dusting of snow. I'm certainly looking forward to winter landscape photography as there's no season more diverse than winter. Conditions change daily, and nature infuses variations in her artwork displaying frosty flowers, icy details and snowdrift artwork. 

As we all know, with winter comes snow. Snowy winter days should not be avoided during the winter as they produce beautiful atmosphere within a landscape scene. However, these types of weather conditions certainly have their challenges. One of those challenges is the dilemma of shutter speed choice.  

For the most part, a slower shutter speed is acceptable for landscape images, especially when the goal is to show movement. Long exposures are, of course, a favourite technique for many landscape photographers. However, during a snowy scene, falling flakes can end up exposed as a blurry mess, especially against darker backgrounds.  So what's a landscape photographer to do when the snow is whirling about? 

The answer to this question is simple. The landscape photographer should use a faster shutter speed. A faster shutter speed will freeze the movement of the falling flakes eliminating motion blur. 

Now for the more creative photographer and one who has the post-processing skills, a longer shutter speed can also be considered if the goal is to soften choppy waters or smooth out clouds. Shutter speed doesn't always have to be either-or. The image below is an example of this technique. In the example image, I noticed snowflake blur against the mountains and shadows details in the frame with the long exposure that smoothed out the water and sky. Once I'd captured the longer exposure, I then captured a faster exposure which helped freeze those snowflakes midfall. Finally, in post-processing, the two exposures were blended together to maintain the longer exposure water and sky and quality of detail in the mountains and landscape minus snowflake blur. I did also enhance the snowflakes in the scene with a snow brush, as in the exposure, they did not show up as significant as I'd have liked.  

ISO 100, 16mm, f11, blend of 43 seconds and 100 seconds shutter speeds

Regardless of whether you take more of a creative or purist approach in your landscape photography, remember that when snowflakes fall, a faster shutter speed will help freeze the movement in those falling flakes and preserve snowflake detail within the wintery scene.