How To: Shoot in the Snow Using Natural Light

The best tools can also be the simplest.


Exposure data: 1/60 sec at f/2.8, ISO 100.Rhea Anna

Great Lighting often calls little or no attention to itself. Rhea Anna’s portrait of a professional model, above, appears lit by simple ambient light. A casual viewer wouldn’t guess that the Buffalo, NY-based pro photographer actually used three different reflectors (one, the snow) to punch up and warm up the thin, wintry light that fell softly from the overcast sky above.

Examine the picture closely, though, and you will see evidence of Anna’s reflector-based strategy—for example, the shadows typical of a top-lit portrait are absent. The chin, nose, the ridge above the left eye, and the hat would normally have cast shadows if lit solely from above, but here they’re shadow-free.

“I love the soft, even lighting you can get by combining ambient light with reflectors. I couldn’t have made this without that combination,” she says. “The knee-deep snow helped, too.”

Her lighting strategy was actually comprised of four different components, each serving a unique purpose:

**Overcast sky: **This was Anna’s main light, and its dense cloud cover provided a softbox-like source that was large, bright, and very diffuse.

**Snow: **Opposite the sky, the blanket of white snow on the ground served as a similarly large panel of light, a natural reflector. Notice how the model’s chin appears lighter than her cheekbones? It’s the rapidly falling-off fill light cast up by the reflective snow.

White Reflector: Anna's large, soft, natural light sources were a little too diffuse, flat, and lacking in contrast. "To add some life, I used a white reflector, but not positioned too close. It gave the scene a brightness and the light a directionality," she explains. "What would have been flat and lusterless now had a slight contrast and punch."

**Gold Reflector: **Another problem with using an overcast, winter sky as your main light? Its typically blue color temperature. Cool-toned light can be lifeless, wan, and unflattering to portrait subjects. Anna warmed hers up with a soft, nonmetallic, gold reflector. Its warmth contrasted nicely (and subtly) with the cool, blue-toned background, and it goosed color saturation, particularly of the model’s strawberry blond hair.

The best thing about reflectors? They’re easy to use. “We had an ambitious shot list that day. I didn’t have time to deal with lightstands and artificial sources,” Anna says. “I handed my assistant and stylist each a reflector, and in less than 15 minutes we were done and on to the next shot.”

For more of Anna’s work, including the striking photo essay containing this image, visit

To light a model in 2 feet of snow on a farm in Orchard Park, NY, pro photographer Rhea Anna relied solely on reflectors. She started by mounting a Canon 24–70mm f/2.8L EF lens on her Canon EOS 5D. Her main light was the overcast sky above, and her fill light was cast mostly by the snow below. To add punch and directionality to the lighting, she placed a white, 42x72-inch F.J. Westcott Scrim Jim reflector to one side of the model, and to warm up the ambient light’s heavy blue cast, a 32-inch gold Photoflex LiteDisc on the opposite side. Nonelectrical reflectors are perhaps the best, safest, and often only lighting tool for photographers working in and around snow or water in all its forms.Kris Holland/Mafic Studios (illustration)
Canon EOS 5D DSLR ($2,500, street, body only, for the 5D Mark II)
Canon EF 24–70mm f/2.8L ($1,350, street)
Photoflex 32-inch LiteDisc Soft Gold reflector ($50, street)