When we think of snow, we think of white, fluffy, snowflakes blanketing the landscape or of it burying our passenger car. The thing I want to focus on is the “white” characteristic of snow. Even if you live in Fiji and have never seen snow in person, you might still know that it is white. When we close our eyes, we don’t envision grey snow. Here you will learn how to better approach snow photography in order to create images that dazzle with detail-rich white snow. This can work for ice, as well.
Modern digital cameras are amazing. Through computer algorithms and high-tech hardware, the range of light most cameras can work with is remarkable. Lets start there: What is meant by “range of light”? The range of light, or exposure latitude, simply put is the tonal difference between the brightest area in your scene, and the darkest. A scene with pure white containing no detail, to inky pure black, has a large exposure latitude. A scene with only mid tones like green or red (or grey) has a narrow exposure latitude. Film, and even early digital cameras had a hard time recording both black and white in one frame - the exposure latitude was too great. On-camera tools like filters, or software were used to bring both ends of the tonal spectrum closer together into a manageable range. Newer cameras have exposure latitude ranges that are rivaling that of a human eye and can create images with detail in both bright white and dark black. But what if your camera doesn’t QUITE do that.
A visual example of tonal range
Examples of graduated neutral-density filters, used to balance bright and dark areas of a scene
Most consumer-level digital cameras do not have the capacity to meter a snowy scene with other darker elements within, like trees, and render the snow and trees perfectly exposed, together. That is where our brain and technique steps in to override our camera. A camera set to any auto-mode, and metering for “zero” (typically) meters a snowy scene as ‘waaaaay too bright’, and selects to underexpose the image. This can often lead to snow that appears to be muddy looking, grey and dull.
Ice crystals as I knew them to be - white (over-exposed by one stop)
Ice crystals as the camera needed them to be - darkened to within its range of exposure latitude
Knowing this limitation, we must choose to over-expose our scenes with snow. This over-exposure can range from slight, like +1/2, to extreme like +2 stops of light. This range depends on your camera, the available light you are photographing and the look of the final snow image you see in your minds eye. The key is to experiment and know how YOUR camera records snow. Try different over-exposure settings and find the one that gives the best results. Be mindful to not over over-expose, though. Adjust your settings to over-expose by changing the Exposure Compensation when using an auto-mode, or adjusting either ISO, shutter-speed or aperture when shooting in manual-mode. There is a sweet spot between white snow with detail in the shadows and texture of the snowflakes, and a pure white blob of snow with no detail. Like every other scene we photograph, the exposure setting will likely change with a new lighting situation. Be nimble and know you might need to adjust slightly.
Sunrise over Crater Lake National Park
This is, of course, a very basic understanding of photographic exposure for snow and other bright wintery things. We did not discuss white balance or how snow looks in different light. But to keep this general rule in mind with an understanding of the technique can go a long way to improve your snow-scene photography.