How you can make better photographs of snowy scenes!

It is mid-February and it seems there is one snow storm after another in the news lately. So it seemed a good time to offer some tips that might help you to get better photos in snowy scenes.

Don’t trust your camera’s exposure meter!

The one thing that can help your snowy scene photos more than anything else is to override your camera’s exposure setting. It might help to understand that your camera’s exposure meter is programmed to do one thing, determine the proper exposure settings to give your image a medium tone result. Specifically, exposure meters attempt to make everything neutral 18% grey. When you are photographing a snowy scene, you do not want that! So, what do you do?

Camera automatic setting results in underexposure.

Camera automatic setting results in underexposure.

Here is an example which shows the result you would get by letting your camera simply choose the exposure settings for you (auto exposure). As you can see, the photo looks dark and grey. Sort of “murky”. This is because the camera meter analyzes the scene and sets an exposure to make everything the average medium tone I referred to earlier. In a scene full of bright white snow, the camera makes the image darker than it should be. The meter is fooled by the scene and mistakenly underexposes the image. So how do we go about fixing this?

Properly exposed image by overriding camera meter

Properly exposed image by overriding camera meter

To correct the problem you need to either override or trick the camera’s meter. As you see in this photo, the scene is properly exposed with the snow appearing a beautiful bright white. You see improved results even in the few darker areas as well with the horses showing better color rendition and detail. In the case of this image I simply made an adjustment in my camera settings so the meter would compensate by “overexposing” by a factor of 1.6 stops. A compensation setting of somewhere between 1 and 2 stops usually works well.

But what if your camera doesn’t allow you to override the meter function? Well, in some cases you can fool the camera’s meter into giving you an overexposed result. (Truth be told you would be fooling the camera into giving you the correct exposure, but that is semantics.) With most modern cameras, when you are ready to take a photo you will press down the shutter release button partially and the camera will set its auto-focus and auto-exposure based on the scene you are viewing. To fool your camera into giving you a brighter exposure, you would aim your camera at a scene made up of darker tones (but at the same distance from you as the scene you intend to photograph) and press the shutter release button down to establish the focus and exposure settings. Then while still holding the button in that position, recompose your photo in the viewfinder and take the photo. This trick will not work on all cameras but will on some. You would have to try it with your own camera to know if it will work for you or not.

Try and catch the sun, early or late.

With the sun low in the sky the shadows get interesting

With the sun low in the sky the shadows get interesting

Next is a tip that can actually apply to any outdoors photography, not just snowy scenes. If you can make your photos early or late in the day and manage to have some nice sunlight to work with, the images will undoubtedly look better. Early and late in the day the suns light has more pleasing color to it giving a bit of warmth to the scene. Additionally, with the sun lower in the sky at these times there are more interesting shadows giving shape and character to the subjects in your images.

Carry extra batteries and hold them close!

Another great tip for doing photography in snowy and cold conditions. Cold conditions have a negative effect on usable battery life. In really cold conditions the usable life of your batteries charge can be reduced to half or even less what it would be at room temperature. The catch to this particular tip is not just to carry extra batteries with you, but it is to carry them close to you. The idea is that you want those batteries to be as warm as possible, otherwise the cold shortens their usable charge just like the ones in your camera. So, keep them in a pocket close to your body and use your bodies heat to keep them in good shape. One day that tip could help you get that last shot that really means something!

Put your camera in a zip lock bag.

That might sound odd but let me explain. If you have been using your camera outside in the cold conditions for a while, the cameras body adjusts to the cold temperatures. Then when you bring that camera (and more importantly, lenses) inside to room temperature, you will often find that the camera and lens will very quickly become covered by condensation on the surface. It is moisture in the warm inside air which condenses on the camera’s cold surfaces. It’s like a moist cloud settled on your camera and it is going to take a good while before it dries out.

Next time try this. While you are still out in the cold conditions, place your camera inside a zip lock bag, then bring it inside. Once inside, leave the camera in the plastic bag for a few minutes allowing the camera body to adjust to room temperature. You will find that the adjustment to room temperature doesn’t take very long and thanks to the zip lock bag, there will be no condensation to worry about either!

I hope you will find some of these ideas useful and maybe it inspires you to get out there in the cold and find some great photographs!

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