Monday, January 20, 2014

How to Take Better Snow Photographs

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Winter has calmed down a bit here, with the passing of the Polar Vortex, and the reintroduction of reasonable winter weather. What better time to think about getting out and taking some snow photographs? Read on for advice and recommendations for how to take better snow photographs.

Up Your Exposure

Snow is fundamentally difficult to photograph accurately. I see snow and know that it is white; you see snow and know that it is white; but your camera sees snow and does not know that snow is white. Your camera and its sensor see snow and know that it is brighter than the 'expected' exposure. It responds (assuming you are shooting in any mode other than manual) by taking a photograph that darkens the snow to match the average exposure of an image. (Confused about exposure? Take a moment to catch up here by reading All about Exposure and More about Exposure: how to fix common exposure problems.)

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Here the snow looks much darker than it did.

If you are not ready to make the jump to shooting in full manual mode, there is an easy way to tell your camera that you want your snow to turn out bright and white: exposure compensation. The exposure compensation scale, available on DSLR as well as many point-and-shoot cameras, allows you to 'tell' your camera that you want your images brighter (positive) or darker (negative) than the camera's default expectation. For most snowy situations, you should adjust the exposure compensation on your camera to between +1/2 and +1 full stop of exposure. (Depending on your camera settings, your exposure scale may be in thirds or half units, called stops.) Many DSLR cameras also have the option to 'bracket' your exposure or take three or more photographs in a row at different places along the exposure compensation scale. When shooting snowy scenes, I often set my camera to shoot three bracketed images at 0, +1, and +2 stops.

You want to strike a balance between brightening up the snow to the white that it appeared to your eyes without losing its structure and definition. If your snow becomes too bright (overexposed), then it becomes a featureless, white mass rather than an identifiable snowscape. Bracketing your shots gives you the advantage of choosing your favorite in the sequence home on your computer, rather than relying on your LCD screen while you are out shooting. In the example shots above, the normal exposure (left) seems too dark, while the +2 exposure (right) is too bright, leaving the +1 exposure as a good, balanced shot.

Follow the Snow

Memorable snow photographs require patience and timing. While you can photograph snow lying on the ground on nearly any given day, you can only photograph pristine white snow just as or just after it has finished falling. The glorious snow that sticks to trees and transforms everything into a winter wonderland does not last long after the sun and the wind catch up with it.

Getting these types of snow shots requires a willingness to get out and start shooting as soon as the snow has finished falling. Make sure that you are prepared for snow-covered roads and trails and prepare yourself accordingly.

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You can also be daring and capture the snow while it is still falling. Longer shutter speeds will blur falling snow into bright streaks, while shorter shutter speeds will show only spots of snow. If you want the large, falling snow effect, use your flash. The flash will illuminate nearby falling snow and show it off better than without a flash.

If you are going to be outdoors photographing falling snow, you want to take some basic precautions to keep your camera safe and dry. The simplest method is to use a gallon plastic bag and cut out one corner of the bag. Stick your lens through this cut out and use your lens hood to secure the bag around the camera and lens.
Simple gallon bag as snow protection for your camera.

Many sources also recommend bringing another (intact) plastic bag with you when photographing out in the cold. When you are finished shooting, put your camera into the bag, and close it securely while you are still outside. Then, when you come in and your camera slowly adjusts to room temperature, any condensation will occur on the outside of the bag, rather than inside your camera.

Follow the Light

As with any subject, the intensity and direction of the light can have a big impact on your snow photographs. Backlight will bring shine and sparkle to newer snow, while early morning or late afternoon sun will bring long, dramatic shadows and possible silhouettes. Consider the 'look' you want in your snow photographs and choose a time of day that will match that intention.

Snow can also add drama to your sunrise and sunset shots, as the white snow will often reflect or take on some of the tones of the surrounding sky. And speaking of the sky …

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Four-shot panorama of sunrise over the skating rink.

Don't Forget the Sky

The sky can be a critical component of winter snow photographs. There is a huge difference in feeling and emotion between a bright, blue sky and an overcast, white one. For one, it is much easier to get correct exposures when shooting snow against a bright blue sky. An overcast sky also means that you will need wider apertures or longer shutter speeds to compensate for the reduced available light.

Bottom image available for purchase.

When shooting snow under blue skies, you may want to consider adding a polarizer to your camera lens to further emphasize the bright blues in the sky. (Read more about how to improve your photography by using a polarizer.) Remember when using a polarizer that you will lose a stop or more of light and may need longer shutter speeds (or wider apertures) to compensate.

Snow Photography Summary

Take these few simple steps to dramatically improve your snow photographs. Start by nailing the exposure: use exposure compensation to deliberately overexposure your image slightly (positive values) to get the pure, white snow that you saw with your eyes. Get out there and capture the snow while it is still falling or soon after it has stopped, in order to capture pure, pristine snow fields and heavily laden trees. Think about the light and the time of day in order to get the shot you want, and remember the sky and use it to your advantage.

Want even more snow photography advice? Follow our "Winter Photography" board on Pinterest or follow all our boards on Pinterest for more photography ideas, inspirations, and "how to"s from across the web.

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is now available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.