I love snow, but it sure is weird. Not in any standard sense. Snow is weird because it can really throw your camera for a loop. Your eyes know it is white, but somehow your camera almost always seems to get it wrong. Why is snow so difficult to photograph? Why do your pictures of snow end up looking gray time and time again? This time, I’ve got the answer, and it’s a lot stranger than you’d expect. Let’s find out what all the fuss with snow is all about.
Why is snow so weird?
Snow is the most reflective substance the Earth can produce in large quantities. How reflective is snow? Let me put it this way. You’ve heard about ice ages, right? Part of the reason they stick around has to do with snow reflecting the light hitting Earth. As the amount of surface snow increases, the planet generates less heat on the surface and more snow falls. It’s a deadly feedback loop that can plunge the Earth into prolonged periods of cold.
But enough science. Or shall I say, more of it? If you attempt to photograph snow with your camera’s automatic settings, you’re bound to run into a problem. Your camera is expecting to see a certain kind of scene, and you’re literally throwing a curveball right into its path. Scenes with snow are very bright everywhere, and your camera expects to see something that’s only bright in certain places.
In other words, your camera is programmed to take that oh-so-average sunny day picture with a bright blue sky and a somewhat darker ground below. Your camera doesn’t attempt to bring out the best colors in the sky or the ground below. It picks an in between value and goes for that, thereby attempting to give you the best of both worlds.
Now this works perfectly fine when you’re taking that sunny day photo, but it’s awful when you’re photographing snow. If you take the same settings and apply them to a snow-filled scene on an overcast day, your camera assumes that it’s an extremely sunny day, picks a fast shutter speed, and you end up with grey snow. Bummer.
The super quick solution
If you don’t want to read any more (the tl;dr crowd), try this. Switch over to snow/beach mode and take a few more pictures. Magically, almost instantaneously, you should see white snow again. See you later! Have fun!
I’m sure the rest of you are wondering what your camera just did. In short, it adjusted the Exposure Value (EV) setting up a few notches. Exposure Value compensation was designed to solve the problems that occur when you photograph scenes that are either very bright or very dark all around. It exists to help you out when you’re lost in a field of snow or nestled deep in the Amazon.
When you adjust your EV up, you are telling your camera that the scene you’re photographing isn’t bright just because there’s more light. It’s bright because of the nature of the thing you’re photographing. Namely snow, which is extremely reflective. When there’s a lot of snow around you, you should expect most of the image to turn out white. That’s not the white from overexposure. It’s just snow being snowy.
What about sunny days with snow?
I’m glad you asked. The EV settings you choose should depend on how much snow is in the scene you’re photographing. The more snow, the higher the EV. Just so you know, a picture of a melting snow pile in your driveway taken a few days after a storm does not count as proper “snow photography.” You need a lot of snow for it to impact the camera settings you choose.
It helps to check your LCD to see exactly what your camera is doing. Look for grayness and strange shadows in the snow that shouldn’t be there. If your snow is grayish looking, you need to bump the EV up a little. Your camera is mistaking it for an overly bright scene.
Notice how the white of the snow matches the white of the cathedral in the photo to the right? That's because the EV value was set correctly.
Of course, reading the LCD can be a rather difficult thing to do when you’re surrounded by so much reflected light. Thankfully, that’s what hot cocoa breaks are for. You can also jury rig a setup and attempt to peer through your LCD under your ski jacket. It’s a little difficult on my eyes, but I’ve got some friends who swear by it.
9 words for snow
Have you ever been out skiing and found yourself completely unable to see anything in front of you? Yes, I’m referring to the phenomenon known as snow blindness, which is often caused by flat light on overcast days. There's no way you'll be able to take a picture in that kind of situation. No matter what settings you choose, everything is going to be one big blob of white (or grayish white if you haven’t read this tip!).
There’s a reason the eskimos have so many different words for snow. If you pay attention, there really are a lot of different kinds of snow. More pertinent to photography, you’ll notice that some kinds of snow have more texture than others. They are more defined and therefore easier to photograph.
Which do you think makes for a better photo? A fresh powder field with a few ski tracks through it or 2 month old hard pack with a thick layer of crust on top? If you picked the former, I’m pretty much in agreement with you. The tracks give depth to the snow, adding shadows that aren’t present in icy hard pack snow. Without shadows, you have no texture. That’s why you can’t see anything in the middle of a whiteout.
Consider this the next time you pick a shooting location or time to photograph a snowy scene. In the early morning, the shadows in the snow will be more prevalent, but as the day goes on, they’ll start to disappear. The weather also plays a big role. When the clouds roll in, make sure you’re photographing some snow with a little texture. Otherwise you’ll get lost in the whiteout.
Have fun and stay warm!
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