Even a light dusting of snow can add a little romance and interest to a view that you’ve seen on many occasions, but many people find it difficult to photograph. This simple guide to photographing snow will set you on the road to perfect pictures.
01 Increase the exposure
Because snow is white, it has the potential to confuse your camera’s exposure metering system, making snow look grey and the whole scene becomes gloomy. That’s because your camera is programmed to make subjects a mid-tone and you need to tell it to increase the exposure.
If you’re using your camera’s scene modes, switching to Snow or Beach mode will usually do the work for you. If you’re shooting in Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority mode, however, you’ll need to use the exposure compensation control to increase the exposure a little. You may need to increase it by as much as a stop (1EV).
If you’re shooting in Manual exposure mode, simply set exposure settings that the camera’s exposure system indicates will overexposure the image.
The aim is to make the snow look white but without burning it out. The best way to make sure you’ve not lost all the highlight detail is to activate the highlight warning (if your camera has one) and keep an eye on the histogram view. If there’s a big peak at the very right end of the graph, or the highlight warning is flashing over large areas of the screen when you review your image, you need to reduce the exposure slightly.
02 Shoot raw files
As a rule, we’d recommend that you shoot raw files as they give you the maximum amount of data for making exposure and white balance adjustments, but this especially advisable with photographs of snow.
03 Use Auto White Balance
Most cameras’ Automatic White Balance systems do a pretty good job in snowy conditions, but if you don’t like what you’re camera is producing, try the Sunny/Daylight setting. If images look a bit too blue, switch to the Flash setting.
If you’re shooting raw files, you can easily correct any mistakes with a click of the White Balance correction tool in your raw editing software.
Under clear skies, shadow areas reflect the blue sky, so they can look very blue. If you don’t like it, you can try reducing the blue saturation of those areas when you process the image, but making wholesale adjustments can result in yellow snow in the sunlit parts, and nobody wants that.
04 Keep Batteries Warm
Cold weather slows the chemical reactions that are required to keep your camera’s battery working. If you’re going to carry your camera for a while before taking any photos, pop it in your bag to keep the cold at bay. Also, carry spare batteries in an inner pocket to keep their temperature up.
05 Carry a Lens Cloth
Snowflakes seem to defy gravity and have magical lens detecting powers, so carry a lens cloth to give the front element a wipe on a regular basis.
06 Mind Your Footprints
Have a good look around the scene before you go marching into it. Once you’ve walked into the shot you can’t go back and remove your footprints.
07 Use your manual mode
Many of us use our camera’s Aperture Priority mode when shooting wide landscapes, but snowy vistas can be a bit tricky. All that bright light reflecting off the snow can be a bit much for your camera, and it will compensate for it by giving you a darker image with less impact.
Taking manual control over the exposure lets you fine-tune for the conditions and capture bright whites that really evoke the sense of being there. And to that end…
08 Protect your camera from condensation
Coming in from the cold, your camera can be prone to condensation. The way to keep your camera condensation-free is to seal it inside a Ziploc bag, ideally with a couple of silica gel sachets, when you’re outside.
Then when you go inside the condensation will form on the outside of the bag rather than the inside of your camera. Let the camera come up to room temperature before opening the bag.
How to Photograph Snow: Summary
- Increase the exposure with exposure compensation
- Shoot raw files for easier adjustment
- Use the Auto White Balance setting for white snow
- Keep batteries warm so they last
- Carry a lens cloth to keep the front element clean
- Mind your footprints
- Avoid condensation by putting your camera in a Ziploc bag before going in