How to use winter light for beautiful photos

There are lots of things to not love about winter. The icy winds, short days, fog that doesn’t lift, and endless dreary rain. One thing to love about winter, though, is beautiful light. Summer daylight tends to be harsh and unflattering if you are outdoors during the day. In winter, whether the days are overcast or bluebird days, the light is usually perfect for taking stunning portraits.



You’ve probably heard of ‘the golden hour’ for taking photos. This term is used for the early part of the day just after sunrise, and the last stretch of the day just before sunset, when the sun is near the horizon and everything glows golden. (Except for those rainy Waikato days where you hardly see the sun at all, am I right?!)

The magic of the golden hour is created by the sun being so low in the sky. Rather than creating harsh shadows, it creates much softer, more even lighting on faces and can give them a beautiful backlit glow.

The great thing about winter is that the sun never reaches very high in the sky, and you can get this same effect even during the day.



Sunny winter days

On a clear, sunny winter day, sun shining right on your child’s face can still be a little harsh, with bright highlights and dark shadows. To get the most flattering photos on a sunny, winter day, give this a try:

Position your subject with their back to the sun, and capture the beautiful halo backlighting their heads.

The key to doing this successfully is to set your exposure for your subject’s face. Exposure is how bright or dark your photo is.

Modern cameras are usually pretty good at setting exposure automatically, without you needing to adjust anything. Backlit portraits can be confusing for your camera though. Your subject’s face is relatively dark and the background is bright, especially very early or late in the day when the sun is super low in the sky.


So, if your camera doesn’t get it right automatically, what can you do about it?

The method will depend on your camera and on how confident you are making manual adjustments. Here are a few suggestions, loosely in order of easiest to hardest:

  • Get in close. Filling most of your frame with your subject’s face will help your camera get your exposure perfect without having to make any adjustments.
  • If your camera has a portrait mode, use it. This will help the camera to recognise the face of your subject and expose correctly for it.
  • If you can manually choose where to focus (eg by touching the point on your phone’s screen), focus on your subject’s eyes. As well as getting your photo correctly focused on the most important feature in your portrait, this will help your camera to measure the light in the right area of your frame.
  • Use a manual exposure slider to increase the brightness. Depending on your camera or phone, this might be a dedicated dial or in a quick access menu, or you might have to go digging through settings to find it. Look for the little + – signs, or the letters EV (exposure value). It might look one of these.

Note – the default Android camera app doesn’t have manual exposure adjustment. There are other great camera apps you can download for free or for a small charge that are well worth the investment for a bunch of reasons. My favourite is Manual Camera, but Camera Zoom FX or Camera360 are both great as well. For iPhones with iOS 8 or higher, once you choose a focus point on the screen, you can drag your fingers up or down on the little sun icon that appears to increase or decrease your exposure.

Working out how to manually change the exposure on your camera might take a bit of digging the first time you do it, but it is well worth the effort! Once you have it sorted, you’ll be able to easily adjust the setting to get your photos right every time, or to create dramatic effects. These photos below show how you can completely change the look of your photos just by changing your exposure.

  • Change the ‘metering mode’ on your camera to centre-weighted or spot metering. Pretty much all cameras have this option, including the standard camera apps on most phones. When you use these modes, instead of measuring the amount of light across the whole frame of the image, your camera will measure the amount of light right where you are focusing, and expose for that area.
  • If you are familiar with using aperture priority mode, shutter speed mode, or full manual mode on a camera that has these options, you are probably already familiar with adjusting your exposure using these modes. These are the most flexible and accurate ways to get your exposure perfect. If those modes still seem a little daunting to you, try setting your camera on ‘P’ (programmable) mode. This takes care of everything automatically for you, but allows you to make little tweaks as you need them. In this mode, you can use the exposure slider to adjust the brightness until your subject’s face is light enough.


As the days slowly get longer and the sun gets a higher in the sky, you may find the light in the middle of the day a little harsh, even with your subject’s back to the sun. If this is the case, avoid the couple of hours during the day when the sun is at its peak.



Overcast winter days

Drab, cloudy days can feel a little uninspiring for taking photos. While the landscape may look dreary though, the good news is that overcast days are beautiful for portrait photos. They give beautiful soft, even light in every direction. If your background is looking bland, it is the perfect chance to get in close and fill your frame with your subject.



And those foggy Waikato days? They can be pretty picturesque in their own way!



Even aside from the beautiful light, there really are lots of great things about winter. I am completely a summer girl at heart (give me jandals and beaches any day), but it’s hard not to also love snuggling in front of the fire, hot chocolates, boots and scarves, and winter casseroles. Here’s to winter!