Learn to Capture Snowy Images Successfully

Wintertime can present some interesting challenges for a photographer.  The colder weather will reduce the battery run time in your camera, moving from cold to warm environments can cause condensation [fog] to form on your lenses, and trying to stay warm and keep your gear protected from the elements takes extra attention.

Once you solve all of those challenges the next one is capturing a scene with a proper exposure.  Snow has a natural high reflectance value and if you shoot the pristine white snow in Auto mode it can come out looking a battleship gray shade since that is what the auto iris is actually programmed to do when shooting in Auto. The problem is not with your camera – it’s just that a bright snow scene is not an ‘average’ scene.  The key is to over expose but not so much that you lose details.  Think about light being like water and you are pouring some into a glass.  Under fill the glass and you will have a dark image, over fill the glass and you will lose some of the water, or in camera terms the highlight details will be lost in the image, which is not good.  Capturing in Raw Mode can significantly help with this because after making your capture you will have the latitude to change the exposure as much as plus or minus 5 f/stops.  But it is still favorable to get the exposure correct in the camera.

The key is to capture all of the tonality of the slightly different shades without ‘clipping’ the highlighted details in the scene.

Remember the overfilling the glass scenario above?  We want to keep all the water.  A Histogram display is a great way to instantly see if you are making the proper exposure.  The ‘mountain’ wants to favor the right side of the display but not so far that it is slammed against the edge. Finding that proper exposure is important to preserving the details in the scene and thankfully when using a digital camera we can see the exposure value and resulting image instantly.

Photo comparison, before and after. Mike Leonard.

Histograms of snowman. Mike Leonard.

White subjects on a white background have a minimal amount of contrast – it’s not like a dark object in front of something white.  Auto Focus may not see enough contrast to operate correctly so you may need to choose manual focus mode.  Details in the image can be brought out out by affecting the contrast in the scene.  Some cameras allow you to set a scene file or Picture Style right in the camera menu where you can adjust the contrast.  Choosing a high contrast setting will let you accentuate the subtle shades in the scene to bring out more details in the picture.

For even more control of the image consider using an editing application like Adobe Photoshop to further expand the tonality and bring out even more details.  Again this requires a properly exposed image to start with.  Some Photoshop Plug-ins can be very useful for digging out even more details in a scene – Topaz Adjust is just one that is very good for bringing out details in what may be a flat looking image.

Processing from camera Raw files is really a great idea since you will get the quality you were seeking when you bought the camera.  JPG files can throw away as much as 80% of the image detail and to only have 20% of the image to edit your abilities will be very limited.  Lots of modern cell phone cameras have the option to capture in a raw mode called DNG – Digital Negative Format – which gives you a lot of opportunities for editing your images after you capture.

If you are not interested in doing your own post processing there are services where you may send your camera raw files to be ‘developed’ and you will receive back optimized files that you can print, post to social media, e-mail … etc.

And if you make your best capture of snow now you’ll have something to look back at on those hot summer days.

— Text & Photos: Michael Leonard. Mike is a master at capturing the extremes with his camera. His favorite subjects to shoot are nighttime scenes including Lightning and Aurora (See How to Take Photos After Dark) and during the day he likes shooting landscapes, seascapes, lighthouses and more.  Learn more about improving your photography at phototourismbymike.com

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