One of the first questions that I get on my Snowy Owl and Winter Wildlife workshops is; “How do I get a good exposure in the snow?” It’s a simple question, but the answer is a little bit complicated because there are so many things to consider. Here are 6 tips and tricks to help you make amazing beautifully exposed images in the snow.
The reason snow photography is complicated is that your camera wants to see white as gray. You need to adjust your camera to make images with the correct exposure and color cast.
Camera Exposure in the Snow
I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode, but not in winter. In snowy conditions, you do need to think about the process and not only rely on the camera to get it right and taking control of your gear will help you get it right in the camera.
Don’t be scared of manual mode! If you just are not comfortable with that, you can still use these techniques to get your best exposure in the camera and then work on the images in post processing.
Contrary to the conventional logic; you will add exposure compensation to your winter wonderland photos not subtract. Depending on the light this can be as much as +3 stops! You can see what happens to an image when you don’t have the exposure set correctly in this Bobcat photo.
Bobcat in the Snow without Exposure Compensation
Check Your Highlights
When you are adding that much compensation, you need to be sure to watch your highlights. I prefer to use the “blinkies” and not the histogram for this so that I can see exactly where the image is over exposed and can then decide if I am satisfied with the exposure.
Blue Sky Exposure
If you happen to be photographing on a bright blue day, you can take a reference image of the sky (spot metering) and then read the settings and use them to make a correct exposure of the snow.
Cloudy Day Exposure
Take a reference photo of the snow that is in the same light. In other words, don’t make your reference image in an area that is part in the sun and part in the shade. This technique will give you the proper exposure for the snow. You will need to check to make sure the subject is not overexposed. Read the settings from your reference image and then adjust your camera settings accordingly.
[su_pullquote align=”right” class=””]Hint: Daylight is “never” the right preset white balance setting! Well almost never. :-)[/su_pullquote]
Getting the white balance set correctly solves most problems with winter photography. The reason snow photography is complicated is that your camera wants to see white as gray and this results in images that are either overly blue or a dirty gray. Don’t forget that blue is a natural part of the shadows in a snowy scene, so you should not eliminate it entirely.
In my photography, automatic white balance works great 90% of the time. Snow is one of the times that I disagree with my camera. Depending on the light Auto WB will make your images blue, gray or even yellow.
[su_pullquote align=”left” class=””]Hint: Save this gray card image, and you can use the color drop tool in your editing software to set your white balance during processing.[/su_pullquote]
The most reliable way to set your camera for the best white balance is to use an 18% gray card. You take your handy dandy card on location and take a picture of the card. The look at the exposure setting for that image and change the controls on your camera to match the gray card reference image.
[su_column size=”1/2″]A company called Expodisc makes a filter that attaches to your lens and that makes the process simpler because they can attach to your lens. The downside is they don’t fit all of your lenses.[/su_column]
[su_column size=”1/2″]Check it out on Amazon.[/su_column]
Shoot in RAW
I know most people do shoot in RAW mode, but for those of you “jpegers” out there you are missing a lot of latitude in your editing.
In RAW you can have unlimited freedom to find a white balance that suits your image.
In RAW you can eliminate color casts such as the blue in the snow with a click.
In RAW you can add white, control highlights and contrast with precision.
In RAW you can add black, and this will often enhance a snow photo
I was able to make a decent image from the Bobcat photo above because I was shooting in RAW.
After editing the RAW file to correct exposure
Snow Photography Summary
When you are working in the snow, you can’t just point and shoot. You need to use your eyes and your photographic tools to make a great image in your camera. Think about the exposure, make a reference image as a guide to setting up the camera, check your white balance and shoot in RAW; easy peasy!