17 November 2007

Tips for Capturing Great Snow Images

Here in Montana there is a lot of snow in the winter. Snow is a difficult photographic subject because of it's reflectance value. Depending on how new or wet the snowfall is, it can be up to 90% reflective. Light meters, and the meter in your camera are calibrated to calculate a standard 18% grey tone. This means that if you trust your meter, you are generally going to end up with a dull dark grey tone, which is usually what you don't want. Compounded with snow's reflectance value, the best way to get a great snow shot is in manual mode. Over the years I've learned some tricks to help get a better exposure with snow.

Add some Exposure

The first tip is to simply add 1 1/2 to 2 stops to whatever your camera says is the correct exposure. You camera is most likely stopping down due to the snow's reflectance, on top of trying to put the snow at a middle grey tone. In a shot filled with white, you have to add exposure.

Bracket your Exposure

When working with snow, I almost always bracket my exposure by a 1/2 or full stop around the exposure I think I need. You usually can't tell which exposure is the one you really want until you are back at the computer analyzing what you have done. I'd rather be safe than sorry.

Meter the Sky

This tip was given to me by a National Geographic photographer. The horizon line opposite to the sun is usually the mid tone for the lighting you are working with in a snow scene. If you spot meter that area, it will generally give you a great exposure, and you don't have to carry anything else with you. If you can't see the sky, spot meter anything that is a grey tone, a card if you have one, otherwise, a parka or pack might have the tone you are looking for.

The Correct Exposure is Going to Be Blue

Blue light and a very reflective subject will usually turn the correct exposure blue, especially in the shadows. Plan on having to warm your image up in the computer if you want white snow. I use color balance in Photoshop and correct shadows, mid tones and then highlights.

Winter photography can result in some of your best work. A little bit of extra care and thought with your exposure will yield you some great images. Just remember to move a little slower and you'll be fine. And don't drop your lens in the snow!

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