Winter is in full form at the moment. Whether you live in northern latitudes or are traveling to the mountains, outdoor photography this time of year often involves snow. While there are plenty of precautions to take in order to keep yourself and your equipment warm and dry, today we’re focusing on the photographic challenges that come from bright white snow covering the ground. Here are five tips for successfully photographing snow.
1. Get Out Early When The Snow Is Pristine
Think of the best snow landscapes you’ve seen. Rarely are they filled with trampled down snow or the remnants of a once-beautiful snowfall.
To find this, of course, you can’t delay and you’ll have to go out to start shooting as soon as the snow starts falling—or at least shortly after it’s finished blanketing everything in white. This may mean prepping your equipment the night before so you’re able to rise early at first light and capture not only the magic hour where the winter landscape can have some rare color but also, and more importantly, to get that pristine blanket of snow.
The one major caveat here is when footprints or other tracks in the snow become a primary image element. If you’re photographing a line of animal tracks, for instance, that’s the perfect contrast to an otherwise uninterrupted field of snow.
2. Choose Your Settings Wisely When Photographing Snow
Consider dialing in a manual exposure in order to keep your camera from being fooled by the bright surroundings on a ski slope on a sunny day, for instance. With the “Sunny ƒ/16” rule in mind, we know that we have to stop down from the basic sunny day exposure of “1/ISO at ƒ/16.” In practical terms, that means 1/200th at ƒ/16 with an ISO of 200. In a situation in which snow fills the frame, an extra stop will be necessary to prevent overexposure—making it 1/200th at ƒ/22 or 1400th at ƒ/16.
If you don’t like working with manual exposures, consider setting an aperture priority mode to something middle of the road—such as ƒ/8 or f/11—in order to facilitate a fast enough shutter speed to avoid motion blur. Whatever auto or program exposure mode you use, don’t forget to dial in exposure compensation to +1 in order to trick the camera into exposing correctly for the bright scenes that it will naturally want to expose as “middle gray.”
And don’t forget to adjust your white balance. Auto white balance is often going to get close, but if you find it providing an unwanted blue cast to the snow, you can use a “shade” preset or dial in a slightly lower Kelvin temperature to eliminate some of that blue shift. Or create a composition that utilizes that blue cast for deliberate creative impact.
3. Check For Overexposure
To ensure you’re not blowing out the highlights, check the histogram after an exposure to ensure the peak of the highlights is toward the right side of the frame but not all the way at the edge. If that peak is cut off on the right side of the histogram you’re blowing out highlights, and that’s detail you’ll never be able to get back. With that highlight peak a little to the left of the edge, allowing some breathing room between your brightest white and the physical capability of your camera’s sensor, you can always bring up the highlights a bit in the computer without fear of irretrievably blowing out the detail with an overexposure during capture.
4. Add Contrast When Photographing Snow
Speaking of controlling contrast, understand that the contrast between white snow and any dark object is going to make for an interesting image. A stand of pine trees in shadow, for instance, or the bare branches of a tree in silhouette—these dark objects contrast brilliantly with bright snow and make for great graphic images. It’s a simple recipe for a striking photograph, but you’ve also got to be careful that the contrast doesn’t get out of hand.
Particularly, when working on a sunny day, understand that the contrast between dark subjects and bright white snow can cause you to make a difficult choice: do I capture the detail in the highlights or the detail in the shadows? Because too much contrast means you can’t have both. Instead, consider adding a fill flash to bring up highlights—particularly with people and portrait subjects or really any shadowed subject close to the camera—or looking for open shade or shooting on overcast days when the shadow-to-highlight ratio won’t be quite as strong.
5. Capture Falling Snow
Snow in the air presents an amazing photographic opportunity because it’s hard to fake it and so it’s relatively rare. If you’re lucky enough to be photographing outdoors when the snow is falling, you’ve been given a gift you’ll want to make good use of.
You can consider using a fast shutter speed and focusing close to the camera (with a manual focus, of course) in order to capture sharp, well-focused flakes and allowing the background to fall out of focus. Or you can use a slow shutter speed and play with the motion blur that occurs when snowflakes move through the scene. Big fluffy snowflakes are certainly an opportunity to add an interesting compositional element, but they get even better if you’ve got them backlit by the sun against a dark background.
If the sun isn’t cooperating, consider using your flash or even a streetlight to take advantage of the magic that happens when snowflakes are backlit in your composition. Something as simple as an otherwise mundane scene filled with falling snow can make for the kind of unique image that makes braving the cold worthwhile.