The problem with snow added in post-production is that it looks fake more often than not. That’s a shame because creating realistic snow is much easier than people would think. Listen to the Canadian girl and keep on reading to know once and for all the secret to create realistic snow in Photoshop.

What’s wrong with fake snow?

We’ve all seen pictures with snow. Some with real snow and some with dubious-white-copy-pasted-dots snow. Being a girl living in winter for half of the year, believe me, I know what snow should look like. If you want to add some, you might as well do it the right way — or the only thing people will see looking at your image will be how fake snow just destroyed another beautiful picture. Post-edited snow should add depth and ambiance to an image, not distract from it! Here’s my favorite technique to add snow to my winter pictures — and making it actually believable.

I shot this picture a few weeks ago. REAL winter. REAL snow. REAL life. Let’s use it as a reference.

1. Open your image in Photoshop

Just in case you missed it… it’s a Photoshop tutorial.

2. Create a new empty layer

Go to the top menu and select Layer > New > Layer (or Shift+Cmd+N on Mac; Shift+Ctrl+N on Windows).

3. Brush in snow

Plenty of websites offer free downloadable snow effect brushes. I got mine from Brusheezy, one called Snow and another Snow 2. Each one of them contains 15 brushes — it’s always good to have plenty of choices. (Needless to say, stay away from the “Snowflakes” type like this.)

Pick a brush to your liking in the brush preset picker and choose white as the foreground color. Put the opacity at 100% to clearly see the effect (we’ll tweak it a little later).

You can adjust the size of the brush so it fits the whole image or keep it smaller and stamp it multiple times to cover the surface.
First layer with snow brush used with white color at 100% opacity.

4. Modify the layer

That doesn’t look too bad but we can do better. Snow is not a fixed particle in the air. It moves with the wind, goes in all directions and has dimension. With the snow layer selected, go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur.

A window will appear. You will be able to choose the angle and the distance of the pixels. You won’t see much in the small preview in the window but you will see it in real time on your picture as you play with the settings. Pick the settings the looks the best for the snow particles and the scene. I went for a -44° angle and a 30 pixels distance.

Here is the result of my first snow layer.

Layer 1 complete

5. Stack textures

Now that you get the idea, you simply keep on stacking new snow layers. To optimize the realistic effect, change your brush and size on each one of them. I recommend at least a minimum of two different layers to create depth and movement. Change also the values of your Motion Blur filter and play with opacity. The more layers you add, the more you get a snowstorm look.

I chose to use three layers for this image.

6. Clean key areas

Once you are happy with the result, you’ll notice that your subject is probably a little lost beneath all that snow. Simply create a group with all your snow layers by selecting all of them and click Cmd+G (or Ctrl+G on Windows). Then, add a mask to it (see picture below).

The layer mask option is on the bottom right of the screen.

Pick your brush (a regular soft round brush) and paint on the mask with the black foreground color. This will allow you to remove snow from precise areas.

I painted in black the area of the athlete’s face and a little bit off her clothes as well to make her stand out a little more.

Remember the basic rules

Of course, there and dozens of other different ways to create realistic snow in all kind software. I just wanted to share with you the personal technique I’ve been using for the past years. Whatever technique you decide to go with, remember those basic rules:

  • Size matters: Snowflakes come in many, many different shapes. The more you mix your brushes the more realistic it will look.
  • Opacity: Mix the opacity of your layers to create a multidimensional effect.
  • Blurriness: Snowflakes move with the wind. With the Motion Blur filter, you can create a light snowfall when adding little to no direction to it. And you can create a snowstorm by combining all kind of strongly angled and opposite directions.
  • Density: The more layers you add, the heavier the snowfall will appear.

Of course, it’s always magical to be able to take pictures while snow falls during winter. But just like we can’t decide when it will rain, sometimes we have to deal with what mother nature gives us — or not. I hope this will give you a hand on your next winterly escapade!