What‘s the Best Film for Snow Photography?7 min read by
Snow is a unique and beautiful phenomenon. Not everyone gets to see it, let alone feel its noise-calming effect, lullaby-like crunch under the foot, or a pillowy thump when a heap falls off a tree.
Photographing snow can be exhilarating, but it’s worth getting ready for in advance. Some films will work wonderfully in this weather, while others will struggle. Plus, there’s the question of exposure when your scene is made of bright layers of white powder.
Over the years, I’ve shot dozens of films, many of which are reviewed on this site, and some I’ve shot in the snow with various results. In this guide, I’ll introduce my definition of the “best” film for snow photography and give you some ideas for choosing your own.
And since snow may occur in various lighting conditions, I’ll list my top film recommendations accordingly: sunny, overcast, shade, and nighttime.
Best film for photographing snow in bright sun.
Snow can increase the contrast of your scene significantly, even more so under an unobstructed afternoon sun.
You may be able to take advantage of this contrast with slide film; however, exposure mistakes may make your show appear blank and void of all texture. Even if you measure everything perfectly, a part of your exposure may not come out.
This is why negative film with a wide dynamic range and latitude, like Kodak Portra 400, is likely to yield excellent results without the loss of detail:
My preference for black-and-white film in full sun is high-resolution, high-contrast, medium-ISO films like JCH StreetPan 400. As monochrome emulsions tend to be even more forgiving to over-exposure, an extra layer of contrast can add a captivating effect:
Best film for photographing snow during grey/overcast skies.
Intense snowfalls typically come with clouds, which can make things look rather grey. High-contrast films can make your images pop a bit more. Still, my favourite way to capture this kind of weather is to use the mostly-plain appearance to draw in the viewer with a few colourful details that high-contrast, high-latitude films like Kodak Ektar 100 can create. For this to work, you’ll need to find a subject that stands out; the white-out around them will give an extra appearance of contrast while still preserving some of the texture in the snow:
Best film for photographing snow in the shade.
I love slide film. Aside from looking magical in-person, slide film scans and prints can show more colour and contrast than most negatives, which can work wonders in the snow.
The limited dynamic range of slide film limits the best results to shaded areas, where the contrast of the sun against the white won’t completely void the snow of detail. Even Kodak’s Ektachrome E100, known for its fantastic exposure latitude, struggles in this kind of weather.
But a shaded area, like a sparsely-lit forest on a sunny day, can present some opportunities to capture the colour of snow in its full glory. Slide films like Fujifilm Velvia 50 can do wonders for you:
Best film for photographing snow at night.
Winter season isn’t grey. Holiday lights at night can light up the streets in all kinds of wonderful colours that make for a cozy, festive feel. A dark snowstorm, on the other hand, can create an opposing emotion. Whatever your intention is, chances are that the easiest film to shoot will be the one with a higher ISO.
CineStill 800T is a perfect colour film choice for this occasion. It’s sensitive enough to be useful without a tripod, and its chemistry is fine-tuned for photographing artificially-lit scenes. The film’s expansive dynamic range brings another advantage in shooting high-contrast scenes. Note that the link above will take you to an article that also explains how to shoot this film in the daytime.
However, you should know that CineStill 800T comes with a rem-jet layer, which can cause static discharges if you advance it rapidly in dry air (such as in a heated house). This is usually not an issue outdoors, so it may be best to rewind it while still outside.
Static discharges appear as red blobs or lightning bolts. Though they may look cool in some contexts, the artifacts are usually not desired.
You don’t have to use the film I recommend in this article to make good or even better photographs. My choices are based on the film’s texture (grain), absence of- or certain colour properties, ISO, and, most importantly, dynamic range. Please feel free to use that as a guide for your individual choices — and feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.
You may also want to experiment with exposures:
Slide film is very finicky; thus, if you choose to shoot it the open, meter it at Sunny 22 (or under-expose it by 1-2 stops to capture the snow’s texture).
Keep in mind that your light meter may under-expose your snowy scenes as it may judge the shade of snow to be in the 18% middle grey — which is incorrect (the snow should appear as the brightest part of your image). So if you’re photographing something that’s predominantly white with snow with a meter, add 1-2 stops of exposure.
Before you go: 3 tips for shooting in freezing cold. 🥶
A few safety measures can make your photoshoot significantly more pleasurable. So once you’ve picked out your film, make sure to:
1) Stay extra warm. Chances are you’ll feel colder with a camera than without. Many film cameras will need you to have your gloves off to operate, and you may be standing motionless to steady yourself, which can further cool your body.
2) You’ll be able to spend more time outside with a pocketable camera. Film cameras can experience issues in cold weather due to condensation on electronics or the increased viscosity of the lubricants in mechanical cameras.
3) Instant film needs to be warm. You may want to keep your pack in a breast pocket and load your Polaroid or Instax camera just before your first photo. Then, once your image is out — stick it back into your jacket.