Helpful Tips for Shooting in the Snow

As the winter time approaches, and the snow begins to fall you might not think that now is a phenomenal time to break out your camera and take photographs.  But it is. The snow, like the rain (in fact, like all inclimate weather) presents unique opportunities, challenges and inspirations for the photographically inclined. 

Adjust Your Exposure
The one thing to be most aware of with snow is that it’s white, so therefore your photos will have a predominant, highly reflective background throughout.  To get stunning photographs you need to take this into account and adjust your exposure accordingly. And part of exposing correctly is specifically exposing for the darker subject(s) that you have in your frame – birds, people, animals in the snow drift are all much darker than the snow, and in many cases your TTL meter will flub the photo.  Due to the way the the Through-The-Lens Light Meter is designed the most “accurate” exposure registers at 18% Gray, so your whites will typically be underexposed if you trust the meter.  

When you’re shooting with such large expanse of white as your background, you need to make an adjustment; and that adjustment can usually be achieved by opening the aperture 1/3 of a stop (so you’re going to want to set the camera to Manual to perfect shooting in the snow).  With digital cameras it’s a lot easier to see the affects of a 1/3 f-stop adjustment — if your eye is trained — and you’ll need to make at least 1/3-stop increase when shooting in the snow to ensure that the snow is bright white. 

Since you don’t want to trust the camera’s matrix light meter mode (too much), what you’ll want to use when shooting in the snow is the Spot Meter (if you don’t have a spot meter feature, then use center-weighted metering) for the critical portion of the image that you want to have the most accurate exposure.  Now if you’re intended photo is predominantly the snow and ice, you might get away with using the center-weighted meter mode, but what makes snow-filled photos most captivating is the rich details and texture of the snow (even more so if the snow and ice formations are the main subject).  
However, the spot meter will serve you best to get most accurate photos. You’ll want to examine the negative or the histogram (one of the great under-used features on digital cameras) to see if the whites are clipping.  You’ll want to adjust your exposure (shutter speed and/or aperture) to reduce the amount of clipped whites.  You’ll get some regardless, because of the power of the sun (even on an overcast day). 

Light Source
In addition to the f-stop compensation, you must pay particular attention to your light source(s) and where your subject is positioned relative to the key light and the reflecting light.  It’s too easy to under-expose subjects when the surface area in front of and behind the camera is a gleaming white (it’s similar to a studio setting with a white cyc, but more intense).  Depending on the subject, you’ll want to blow out the white, snowy background in any event to obtain that subjective notion of “proper” exposure.  While you might be forced to live without the hi-lites in the snow and lose a considerable amount of shadow detail, this would arguably be acceptable.

If your digital camera allows you to adjust the color temperature in increments, then you can either cool down or warm up your photographs.  But even if you can’t make minute adjustments in the color temperature, by setting the White Balance for tungsten and you shoot outside in the dayight your images overall will be tinged with a blue “cooling” cast that will be most notable in the shadows of snowy backgrounds.  

If you’re one of those people who still shoots film, then here’s quick tip that will give evocative images.  Load tungsten-balance slide film into your camera, photograph your subject(s) in the snow-filled setting and cross-process the film when you’re done. You’ll notice that water will have an unusually blue-black color that is velvety, endless and reflective. Of course you could always do an HDR photo if you’re photographing a snowy landscape or still life.  But that’s another discussion… 

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