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How to Shoot Photographs in the Snow

Photography in the Snow

Successful photography in the snow, people skiing for instance, is largely a question of applying the correct exposure compensation. (see below for quick tip)

The chances are that you are reading this article because you have tried taking photos in the snow and have ended up with a batch of rather dull, under exposed, shots. This is because you have left the camera on automatic and have not applied any exposure compensation.

When the camera is left to calculate the exposure by itself, it tries to read all the tones and colors in the scene and integrate to gray. What integrate to gray means is that, if you add up all the values of all the tones and colors and average them out you will arrive at a mid gray tone. This system works extremely well for over 90% of all photographs. Imagine a typical scene with some sky, a few trees, and bit of ground and some people in the middle. Add up all the tones and you will come out to, near enough, mid gray every time.

Obviously this system falls down quite a lot, in fact 10% of the time and, if you are a more creative photographer than most, and tend to photograph more unusual subjects, you will find that it breaks down even more often. Despite more sophisticated metering modes on the better cameras which will favor what is in the center of the frame, photography in the snow is just too taxing because of the extremes of contrast, especially on a sunny day.

Take a look at the photo in the right, the guy has dark clothing, much of which is in the shade, and the snow is in bright sunlight. It's hard to imagine a scene with more contrast.

Ski Photography

The camera, left to it's own devices, will try to render as much detail as it can, especially in the highlights. Which, under normal circumstances, is exactly what we want.

Nothing is worse than burnt out highlights, normally I would much rather see no detail in the shadows of a picture than burnt out highlights.

But snow is an exception to the rule, we see snow as white, we want to see some detail in it if possible but we are willing to accept large areas of white in the picture, we would rather see detail in the people and objects we are photographing.

Exposure Compensation Dial

Tip - Almost every camera has an exposure compensation dial designed to be used in just these circumstances. All you need to do, when you go skiing, is turn the dial up to +1, or even +2 if it is a sunny day and your pictures will be 'over exposed' by normal standards, but should be just what you want.

Using RAW format

If your camera has the facility to shoot in RAW format, this is definitely a good time to start using it. RAW format gives you much more latitude with exposure than shooting straight to jpeg. Although it is still much better to get the exposure right in the camera, processing a RAW file can bail you out even when you get it slightly wrong.

Histogram Readout

Skier in mid jump Snowboarder jumping, shot against the light

Even moderate DSLRs have a histogram readout on the screen these days. This can be a much more accurate way of assessing whether the exposure of a photo was correct (after you've taken it), especially in very bright conditions when you can't see the screen very well. I always like to look at the histogram of the first few shots of a session to make sure that things are going according to plan.

White Balance in Snow

The other thing that can be a bit tricky for our automatic cameras is getting the white balance right in the snow. If you do not intend to do any processing in the computer but want to get everything right in the camera, I suggest that you set the white balance to the setting for 'flash' instead of the automatic setting. This will usually give a warmer result as it is designed to compensate for the slightly blue white color of flash lighting. You could also use a skylight filter to warm up the scene, people have different opinions on these, personally I am not a great fan. Having paid all that money for a decent piece of glass in my lens I don't feel inclined to stick another piece in front of it unless I have a very good reason.

I prefer to do my fine tuning of the white balance in Adobe Camera RAW on my computer. That way I can really fine tune it and get exactly what I want. Over the years I have become very fussy about getting the right color balance.

Don't try to eliminate the blue cast from the snow altogether though, snow does have a tendency to look a bit blue. If you try to get rid of the blue altogether you may end up with yellow snow which is even worse. Try to make sure that the highlights (the ones that still have a little detail) are as neutral as possible, and let the shadows go slightly blue as in the pictures below.

Composition - Snow Covered Scenery

Snowy scenery can look great when you're there, and very bland in the photos that you take. There is usually too much 'blank space' in the photo, big white areas that go on forever. You need to look around for something that breaks up the snow, trees, rocks, or anything that puts a bit of contrast into the picture.

Photographing Snow photographing snow and ice

As with any landscape photography, you need to look for a bit of 'foreground interest' to bring the picture alive, and place the elements, horizon etc, on the thirds wherever possible. Never have the horizon across the middle of the picture, always move it up or down so the picture is divided roughly 1/3 - 2/3, not half and half.

See my tutorial on composition for more info on the rule of thirds.

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