Autumn has come and gone. At least, that's how it feels right now in Idaho! The colorful leaves are falling off the trees, everything is becoming more dull and brown, and soon enough it will happen: snow! Beautiful, white, sparkling snow. Excitedly, you get outside with your camera to capture that awesome looking winter landscape and shoot photos to your heart's content. Later, after all the photos have been taken, you head inside to take a look at your handiwork. You get to the computer, import your images from your camera, and hold your breath as you anticipate seeing your wonderful winter photos. You feel as excited as a child at Christmas…
That's when it happens. You click through your pictures and with each photo, your heart sinks deeper until it feels like it is hovering somewhere around your ankles. What the heck happened? In each of your photos, the snow either looks dark, dull grey, a strange bluish hue, or the entire photo looks totally overexposed with blown-out highlights. But the camera said it was properly exposed!! Why did the photos turn out like that?
Snow is a tricky subject to photograph. The very thing that makes us all say “Oh – the snow is so pretty!” is exactly what confuses our camera. Snow is extremely reflective and it picks up light very easily. It is such a bright white and fills so much of the scene that your camera tries to overcompensate by stopping down the exposure. (This gives your photo that grey look we have all seen at one time or another in our snow photographs.) Snow can also give off a color cast. The reason for the blue casting is all about white balance. Is it sunny? That blue sky also reflects off the white snow. Kind of a double whammy, isn't it?
We have all seen incredible winter landscape photos, so we know it can be done. How did they get white snow and perfectly exposed landscapes? No, it’s not all Photoshop magic. It’s just a little bit of know-how and applying that knowledge to your next snowy photo session.
Here are a few tips to help you achieve white snow.
Tip #1: Set your white balance
If your camera has an option in the menu for snow (or even flash), using this option will help reduce the blue and grey tones. The result may not be perfect, but it will definitely help. You can also set a custom white balance. (Refer to your camera manual for instructions on how to do this.) If it still looks a bit off-color, you can correct this in post-processing.
Tip #2: Do a grey card test and zone system test
I know, I know… I can hear you now. “Ugh, are you kidding? That's so old fashioned. I don't need it!” Usually, you would be right, but this is one instance where you really do need to do it. The reason (even if it is boring and old fashioned) is that it will show you how your camera reacts with blacks and whites. This helps you know how to compensate to achieve photos with white snow. My camera tends to favor blacks; now that I know this, I can meter the light and expose my photo accordingly. If you don’t know how to do a grey card/zone test, directions can be found here and here.
Tip #3: Meter in camera!
However… don't rely on the meter entirely. “Wait… you just said to meter… which is it? Do it or don't?” I know – I sound like I'm contradicting myself. But the meter will be confused from all of the white, remember? It will lie to you! The meter reading is merely a suggestion that you should take into mind along with the information from the grey/zone test. (You did do the test, right?) If there are rocks or trees close by, meter off them to get a more accurate meter reading.
Tip #4: Use a lens hood
Using a lens hood will cut the glare from the snow and reduce the light your camera sees. This will also help your camera meter the light more easily and accurately.
Tip #5: Use your histogram
Why? The histogram can show you if your photo is overexposed or if it will appear dark and dreary. If you have a large spike at either end, try again – your exposure is not quite right. You want most of the histogram to be in the middle, with one small spike on the right side. (That one spike is just telling you the snow is white. If you don’t have that spike, your photo will be too dark.)
Tip #6: Bracket your shots!
By bracketing (taking extra pictures overexposed and underexposed), you give yourself a greater chance of getting the proper exposure. Since most of us shoot digital, bracketing won’t cost anything except for a few added seconds.
Tip #7: Shoot in RAW
RAW gives you some flexibility in over- or under-exposing your image in post-processing. However, the best practice is to always strive to get the proper exposure in the camera.
Tip #8: Be creative!
Black and white with stark shadows can lead the viewer's eye into the photo, making for a much more interesting shot. A pop of bright color among all of that white can also make what otherwise would be a bland white photo much more engaging.
Tip #9: Try going out during the “golden hour”
The “golden hour” is generally an hour before sunrise or sunset. Shooting during this time allows you to catch some really interesting colors on the landscape!
Tip #10: Think about composition
The view may look fantastic to our eyes, but the camera sees things differently than we do. Try to avoid too much wide open space. The end result will be a photo with a large white area and very little to engage the viewer. Rocks, ice, trees with frost, zooming in, or even footprints in freshly fallen snow can all add interest to your photo.
Tip #11: Take a tripod and go out while it’s snowing!
Some really interesting photos can be had by using a slow shutter speed. You could turn a nice, gentle snowfall into a raging blizzard or a soft, dreamlike scene. Play around with your settings to see what different effects you can get.