When you think of cold temperatures and snowfall, you rarely think “hey, what a great opportunity to snap some portraits of my friends.” Most of us are a slave to the notion that cloudy weather equals bad photography. We somehow believe the color will be washed out or everything will look gray. Not so my friends. I want to challenge that idea and show you why a snowy day can yield some pretty fantastic results.
What is so great about snowy days?
It has everything to do with the light and its intensity. On a sunny day, the light comes from one direction and one direction alone. It’s very intense, and you have no control over it. If you don’t like what it’s doing, you have to bring a bunch of fancy flash equipment to cancel it out. Now most of us don’t want to put in a ton of time setting up something elaborate, so we just go with whatever opportunities the light presents to us. If you don’t work with the sun, you get harsh shadows and intense lines on your subject’s face.
On a snowy day, it’s a completely different story. The light is bouncing all over the clouds, the snow, and everything around you. It doesn’t really matter which side you shoot your subject from because the light is even on all sides. If it’s really snowing, you’ll have a hard time finding shadows anywhere. The world is one big soft box for you to enjoy.
What else does snow do?
If the snow is still falling, it can create some interesting foreground action. That’s why I prefer to set the aperture on my camera no higher than F5.6. The decreased depth-of-field makes the foreground and background a little more blurry, drawing emphasis to your subject. If you have a point-and-shoot camera, just switch on over to portrait mode. You might not be able to get the same amount of foreground blur, but it works better than simply shooting in automatic mode.
You do have to be careful about getting too much snow in the foreground. When it’s positively dumping outside, the snow can become a huge distraction to your subject’s face. I prefer to shoot during a light to medium snowfall where there’s just enough snow for it to be interesting but not so much that it practically covers up your subject’s face.
Making snow look white
There’s a funny thing about snow. Your camera doesn’t quite know what to do with the stuff. It’s so darn white that it makes your camera think the entire scene is really bright. So what does your camera do? It notches down the brightness of the scene, making your snow turn a bland shade of gray. Nobody wants that. To fix it, you’re gonna need to adjust some camera settings.
If you have a point and shoot camera, this is a super easy change. Chances are you’ve got a “snow mode” to handle these sorts of situations. Just switch over to that, and your problems are solved.
If you have a digital SLR, it gets a bit more complicated (but it’s still worth it!). You’ll need to adjust your camera’s exposure value settings. You can usually find the switch next to your shutter button denoted by a +/- sign. If you are in programmed automatic mode, you can hold down the button and twist horizontal dial from side to side to adjust your exposure value settings. For snow, I generally go with a +2 e.v.
What does this do for you? In a nutshell, it tells your camera to expect the scene to be a little more bright than usual. It will make snow look white by allowing more light into your camera. If you’re shooting manual mode, you don’t have to worry about exposure value. In that case, you are the one who is deciding how much light to let in by choosing the shutter speed and ISO speed settings. Keep looking over your photos in the LCD to see if the snow looks white enough, and always try the same shot at multiple shutter speed values.
Where to shoot
The world is your oyster when it’s snowing. Literally anything will work because it’s like you’ve got reflectors setup everywhere! Just make sure you follow some general rules when it comes to picking a background. Ask yourself:
Is my background distracting? Sometimes it’s better to go with a blank white snowbank than a building or something with sharply defined lines.
Does my background add value to the shot? Does it emphasize a theme you’ve got going? Do the colors work with the clothing your subject is wearing?
Those are a few things to think about. The nature of portraits is to show your subject up close and personal, so you won’t want too much of the background showing. Otherwise it becomes the main emphasis. Go with something that lightly compliments your subject, and enjoy the amazingly soft light you’ve get to work with.
Yes, I know it’s cold outside. I know you can’t wait to grab that cup of hot cocoa. But if you’re patient, I promise you that you’ll get some of the best portraits of your life. Sometimes mother nature provides you with a free professional photography studio. Take advantage of it!
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