When I ventured into my first adult winter in New England, I found myself approaching the season with a certain giddiness and childlike innocence that bordered on naive. What I had forgotten from the winters of my youth was how a snowy world creates a sense of freedom with all that vastness of white. Winter is a photographer’s dream! I love to feel humbled by nature, and winter provides me with this experience. An expansive environment covered in a blanket of snow leaves room for creativity with your photography.
I quickly discovered, however, that a snowy environment is challenging to photograph. By keeping exposure, metering and white balance all in the forefront of my mind, I accepted my first winter challenge and documented this powerful season.
In winter, I become a storyteller. Composition is key while working with so much white space. I might focus on the sparkle of freshly fallen snow or the fine details of delicate snowflakes. The vastness of an all-white landscape will catch my eye, especially with the pop of color that comes with snow gear. It’s impossible to shoot all of these angles at once, however, so ask yourself what it is you want to see, then learn your settings accordingly for weather and situation. Later, in postprocessing, consider what images pair well together to bring out interesting perspectives.
Winter presents unique opportunities, challenges and inspirations for photographers of all experience levels. The days are short during winter, so lighting is everything. Snow is a reflective surface—it can be your best photographic companion if you keep the basics in mind.
Your camera’s light meter will be completely confused by a bright field of snow. The camera will try to adjust for the midtone of the scene, which will likely underexpose your shot, resulting in grayish-looking snow.
Exposure compensation is an easy way to get around your camera’s tendency to underexpose bright subjects. It lets you quickly add or subtract exposure by 1/3 to 2 stops. Using compensation doesn’t require extensive knowledge of ƒ-stops or shutter speeds.
While shooting in manual mode, however, exposure compensation is completely disabled. This means you have to make all exposure adjustments yourself. How much you adjust your exposure depends on the light available outside and the sensitivity of your specific camera. Play around until you find what you like. Keep in mind that any white subject photographed in reasonably bright light is at risk of losing detail with even slight overexposure.
When photographing snow, any of the camera’s matrix light meter modes may be used effectively. It really just depends on the overall scene. If the scene is evenly lit and has an even brightness, then center-weighted metering will work well to give you a good overall exposure.
Center-weighted metering averages the exposure for the entire metering area: By putting greater emphasis on the center zone, it reads overall brightness. Spot and partial metering work well with subjects that have more contrast. These modes let you meter only a small part of the scene. I find this metering most useful, so it’s my preferred mode.
Spot metering is the most selective option, as it only reads exposure information from the single exposure zone in the center of the frame. This is approximately 3% of the total picture area.
Partial metering is similar to spot metering, but covers a slightly larger area. It only reads the cross-shaped central five metering zones, which is approximately 10% of the total picture area.
What makes a snow-filled photo most interesting is the rich detail and texture of the snow. While in the field, be sure to examine the histogram to help determine your best settings. Adjust your exposure (shutter speed and/or aperture) to reduce the amount of clipped whites. You can check the histogram on your camera’s LCD screen.
Even when the camera "accurately" determines the correct exposure using the metering mode of your preference, with a subject like snow, you’ll often see underexposed results. If this happens, use exposure compensation to deliberately lighten your pictures.
In addition to apertures and exposure compensation, you must pay attention to your light source. The position of your subject in relation to the sun (and light reflecting off the snow below) is important. Snow creates a natural reflector, bringing additional fill light to your subject. Lens flare frames your shot if you make the sun part of your composition. Alternately, keeping the sun parallel to the snowy slope you’re shooting is a great technique when shooting skiers on a mountainside.
It’s very easy to underexpose subjects in the foreground when the ground (both in front of and behind the camera) is snow-covered. It’s better to blow out the white, snowy background in order to obtain "proper" exposure of your subject in the foreground. With this approach, you’ll lose some details in the snow behind your subject. You may also lose a considerable amount of shadow detail in the background, but it’s a better choice to make when shooting portraits.
In contrast, the brightness of a snowy background can cause details in your foreground to be washed out. This will create a silhouette instead of a portrait. If you’re looking for detail in a portrait, fill the frame with your subject. Try eliminating as much of the snowy background as possible by adjusting your composition. You may also move your subject to a backdrop of trees to keep your portrait properly exposed.
Shooting a portrait while it’s snowing can have beautiful results. Snowflakes in the air below cloud cover will naturally diffuse sunlight. While this may not be good for landscapes, this softbox effect is great for portraits. As the snow keeps falling, be sure to try out a telephoto lens. The long focal length will enhance the visual effect of the falling snow.
White balance settings tell the camera what color temperature light source you’re shooting in so it can create the appropriate color cast for each scene. Differences in time of day, geographic region and weather conditions can make a huge difference in the color temperature of your light.
Most cameras have several automatic presets for common light sources: Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Flash, etc. Many cameras allow photographers to take a custom white balance reading—you can do this by manually setting the camera’s white balance using a sheet of white paper before you start shooting. You may also dial in a specific color temperature (measured in degrees Kelvin) to better match your scene, which may not be covered with your camera’s presets.
The preset white balance options are pretty accurate, but you have to remember to use the one that most closely matches your light source and weather conditions. On sunny days with clear blue skies, it’s common to see snow picking up a slight blue tint; experiment with the Cloudy or Shade WB setting to warm up the overall color and neutralize that blue color cast. If your camera allows you to adjust the color temperature in i
ncrements, you can either cool down or warm up your photographs. If you aren’t enthusiastic about carrying paper around to set the color balance in the snow, you can try setting the white balance to its Tungsten setting instead.
Another approach is to shoot RAW images, which provide additional control over exposure compensation on a computer. Even when shooting RAW images, it’s still necessary to start out with an exposure that’s reasonably accurate out-of-camera. Keep in mind that once a scene has overexposed highlights, there’s nothing that can be done in photo editing to bring that detail back.
There are many presets in Adobe Lightroom that can create artistic touches to your winter photography. If you’re experimenting with mobile photography this winter, you’ll find that applying different filters to your images will warm up your cold blue pictures. Fog turns creamy and soft. Textures become amplified on an overcast day. Remember that there’s no right or wrong way to shoot winter images, and often the "not technically perfect" images can be thought-provoking if composed well.
When I moved to New England a few years ago, I enjoyed the steep learning curve that accompanied extreme winter living. I learned more about my DSLR, and I embraced mobile photography, as well. Snow is an inspiring subject, whether you’re shooting landscapes or single snowflakes.
Winter environments have obvious challenges. However, when taking a mindful approach, you’ll capture the stories around you and create a magical winter wonderland.
TIPS FOR SHOOTING IN THE COLD
| 1 | In below-freezing weather, it’s important to have an extra set of fully charged batteries. The cold temperatures will drain batteries quickly, and it’s best to have a few extras on hand. After a battery is drained, placing it in a warm interior pocket of your winter coat may help you get a few more shots out of it.
2 | During cold weather or extreme conditions (snow or sleet), never change your lenses outside because moisture or condensation can get inside the camera body.
3 | Always let your camera acclimate to indoor temperatures before changing your lenses. This means letting your camera warm up slowly when you bring it back inside.
4 | An easy way to prevent condensation buildup is to seal your camera in an airtight plastic bag (like a Ziploc®). Seal the camera completely inside the bag before you bring it inside. The condensation should form on the bag rather than on the camera.
5 | Fingerless gloves are helpful in cold weather, providing you with warm hands between shots, yet allowing you to have access to your camera controls and dials.
6 | Time of day plays an important role when shooting in snow. Early-morning and late-afternoon hours provide warm pastel tones. Bright, midday light offers cooler, more neutral tones. If you want color in your photography, avoid shooting during the middle of the day.
7 | Look for contrasts. Colorful subjects, winter gear, people and textures act as a great contrast against the expanse of white snow and gray winter skies. Embrace winter’s simplicity! Draw your viewer’s eye to your subject with creative composition by using angles, lines and color contrasts.
8 | Use whatever light is available. Winter light is dramatic. Look for low-angle light to create long shadows. Use backlighting to create silhouettes. During dusk, shoot long exposures to capture cool tones.
9 | Keep your eye on the weather. Early-morning frost provides stunning opportunities to showcase Mother Nature. The aftermath of a snowstorm will provide you with ample opportunity to document ice-covered branches or high, sculpted snowdrifts. Subjects that were once ordinary become stunning.
10 | There are many filters you can try that will improve your winter photography. A graduated filter will help reduce the contrast between sky and ground. A polarizing filter will reduce reflections from the snow. And a UV filter is always recommended while shooting in sunny conditions.
Meredith Winn is a writer, photographer and co-founder of NOW YOU Workshops. She’s a contributor to Shutter Sisters, featured in our regular column, Point of Focus. You can see more of her work on her website at www.meredithwinn.com.