There's nothing like a snowy day to inspire your inner photographer. Snow-capped peaks, the sunlight reflecting off ice crystals, kids throwing snowballs at each other - almost everything about the snow begs for photographs. But wait! You can't just grab your camera and start shooting. Snow creates tricky conditions for photography, and if your photos are going to adequately capture the natural beauty and winter fun of the day, you need to be armed with more than just your camera and a pair of fingerless gloves.
That's right, you need to arm yourself with some knowledge. You know how you need sunglasses if you're going to be on the ski slopes on a sunny day? You know how sometimes even your sunglasses aren't enough to hold back the glare? Think how your camera's meter must feel. OK, it doesn't feel pain like your poor abused corneas do, but it is capable of extreme confusion. And nothing confuses a camera meter quite like the lighting conditions on a sunny, snowy afternoon.
Remember that the meter in your camera is standardized for middle gray. This means it assumes that the range of light in any given scene is going to be diverse enough that it will average out to somewhere near that middle tone. Most of the time, this is a pretty good system because scenes usually do average out that way - but there are exceptions. One is when you point your camera at a raven sitting on a black piece of velvet, which let's face it isn't something you do every day.
Another is a bright sunny day in the snow.
While that brilliant snowy reflection is making you wish you could put a second pair of sunglasses over the first one, it is also having an effect on your camera's meter. Your meter assumes that it's looking at a scene that averages out to middle gray when it is in fact analyzing a scene that is a whole lot brighter than that. If you trust your meter as you do during every day shooting conditions, you'll end up with snow that quite literally looks like middle gray.
You can get really technical with this problem by taking a spot meter reading off of an object you've estimated is actually in that middle-gray range, and then setting your camera manually to the settings your camera gives you for that reading. In most cases, though, set your exposure compensation to "overexpose" all of the images you take those conditions. +1 or even +2 for a particularly bright day ought to be sufficient, though you may want to keep checking your photos as you take them to make sure that the compensation is and continues to be correct throughout the day.
Remember to err on the side of overexposing the snow itself in favor of keeping detail in your subject. Since our eyes already see snow as pure white, an overexposed area of snow is not going to be as bothersome as an overexposed area might be in another scene.
You might also consider using your camera's bracketing feature - this is the setting that automatically shoots each frame at one of three different exposures, so you'll end up with a range to choose from. This can help you increase the number of usable shots you bring home, especially if you're having some trouble getting the correct exposure.
Besides your winter hat, snow boots and fingerless gloves, there are some important pieces of equipment you'll need to make sure you have on hand. If it is a particularly cold day, make sure you bring extra batteries and keep them in an internal pocket in your jacket. Batteries drain quickly in cold temperatures, so you're likely to need an extra set - and keeping them close to your body will help stop them from suffering the same rapid demise as the set in your camera. If you're using a DSLR you will also need a lens hood, especially on a bright day. Since snow is so reflective, lens flare can be a big problem for winter photography.
Which brings me to my next point, DSLRs are great but depending on what you're doing, you may want to consider leaving the DSLR at home in favor of one of those "tough" point-and-shoots that are on the market today. Snow can be slippery, bad skiers can careen into you without warning and there are plenty of opportunities for getting accidentally wet when you are out in the snow. All of these things can damage a nice DSLR, while "tough" or "sport" cameras are made to take a certain amount of abuse.
If your camera has a "RAW" setting, use it. It can be easy to get the exposure wrong on a snowy day, even despite all of your best efforts. Shooting in RAW will allow you to capture a broader range of tones from each scene, which means it will be easier to rescue an image with a slightly incorrect exposure.
Snow looks blue to your camera, which can make for a pretty image but may or may not be what you want for all of your snow photos. Set your white balance when you arrive at your snowy location by pointing your camera at a large spot of clean snow and setting the white balance based on that reading. Some cameras have a "snow" setting, which should take care of both white balance and exposure compensation for you, though you'll want keep checking your images to make sure you are consistently happy with the results.
If it's a bright day and you're shooting people, you will most likely be plagued by that eternal mid-day shadow problem, only in a more extreme sense. That bright snow can really compete with your subjects, causing their faces to fall into a deeper shadow than what you might get on a snowless day. In this situation you can use your fill flash to fill in those dark shadows. Be careful though, because flash can actually add extra reflection to your scene, which is not something you really want to do on a day that is already very reflective. Get close to your subject and use an off-camera flash if you have one, which will give you more control over where the light goes.
If you're photographing winter sports, don't get so hung up on exposure and white balance that you forget about shutter speed. Skiers and snowboarders move fast, so set your camera's shutter speed to at least 1/1000 to avoid blurry images.
Not every day you're out shooting in the snow is going to be a clear one, but don't think you're off the hook because there isn't any sunshine. Your camera's meter is still going to be confused by all that white snow, which is still reflecting light even though it isn't direct sunlight. In most cases you'll need to set your exposure compensation to at least +1 on an overcast day, sometimes more than that depending on other conditions. Just as you would do on a sunny day, compose, check the exposure, and adjust the exposure compensation as necessary. And remember the sky, of course, which can give your snow photos a completely different character. An overcast sky above new snowfall, for example, can make an image appear gloomy or even menacing.
You may also be lucky (or unlucky) enough to be caught out during snowfall. This can open up all kinds of additional opportunities for capturing great photos, but make sure you have a rainsleeve or some other way to protect your camera from moisture if you think snowfall is going to be eminent.
Once your camera is adequately protected, experiment with different techniques for capturing falling snow. Use a tripod and a longer shutter speed to make falling snow appear as streaks - this can add a sense of fierce storminess to your scene, even if the snowfall itself isn't particularly fierce. Now try using a shorter shutter speed to freeze the flakes, which will make for a more relaxing image. Use a wide aperture and you'll get a mix of in-focus and out-of-focus snowflakes. You can also try using your flash, which will make the snowflakes will appear as large, out-of-focus blots that can add interest to your snowy scene (this is caused by the reflection of the flash off of nearby flakes). If you're having some trouble getting those flakes to show up in your images, try positioning yourself so that you're shooting them against a darker background.
Time of Day
I know, you're tired of hearing me talk about the golden hour. But I can't help myself. There's almost no shooting condition that doesn't benefit from those warm tones of sunrise and sunset, and the natural blue tones of snow are no exception. There's an added benefit, too - if you go out in the early morning just after fresh snowfall, you'll get to shoot pictures of that blanket of snow that are unmarred by footprints or the melting-off that will happen as the day warms. You may also encounter icicles, frost covered tree branches, pipes or other objects that will make for great macro shots. And the long shadows can create interesting shapes on fresh blankets of snow, too.
With a tripod, you can also try shooting snow scenes at night, when the light goes away along with that optimistic quality that you find on a morning just after a snow storm. Snowscape scenes shot at night can seem particularly bleak or even a little scary (imagine being stuck outside in that scene, during that time of night). Artificial lights and moonlight can all add a unique look to nighttime snowscapes.
All landscapes have the potential to suffer from that "looks amazing in person but boring on camera" problem, but this is particularly true of snow scenes. You might go "wow" when looking at a vast expanse of pure white snow in person, but your viewers are going to be stifling a yawn. You need something in the foreground (a subject!) to create a sense of depth and to break up the monotony, such as a tree, a skier, a frozen river, or a set of footprints. Otherwise it will just be a two-dimensional looking shot of white, white and more white.
Finding color in your scene is another great strategy for snow photos. A green pine sapling sticking up through the snow or a skier in a red jacket can add great contrast and instant interest to an otherwise plain vanilla image. Alternately, snowscapes can look amazing in black and white. Try playing around with your final images in post-processing to see if some of them look better when you've stripped away the color.
Some final thoughts
If you're chasing beautiful snowy landscapes (vs. that wild, untamed snowboarder), remember that paths vanish in the snow. Make sure you know your location well or you may end up wandering into not-so-safe terrain or right past that "no trespassing" sign. (The good news is, of course, that you won't get lost - just follow your footprints back to your car.) And speaking of footprints, take care not to mar the scene with your own footprints--think about what you want to photograph before trudging out into the landscape to set up the shot. Then walk carefully, taking care not to leave footprints where you might want to shoot, or to displace any of the snowfall when you pass through.
Also remember that your camera will require a little extra care in these conditions. I've already mentioned using a rainsleeve in case of actual snowfall, but you should also watch for other cold weather photography problems. be careful not to bring your camera directly into a warm house after being out in the snow for a long period of time. Doing so can create condensation inside your camera, which might damage it. Instead, transfer your camera to a bag and leave it just outside the door for 10 minutes or so, then bring it inside and put it in the coldest room of the house. If you can, lower the temperature in the house just before you leave to go on your shoot so that your camera won't warm up too quickly.
Like every other kind of photography, thinking creatively will get you a long way out in the snow. Just don't get complacent--remember that snowy shooting conditions are going to be a bit different and try to keep that in mind throughout the shoot. Snow photography is a lot of fun and really not all that hard to master if you understand Mother Nature's tricks--and if you keep out of the path of eight-year-olds who are flying down the slopes for the first time.
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