Shooting snow scenes

If ever there was a time to capture winter wonderful landscape photographs in winter, it’s when there’s a blanket of crisp white snow covering the land, but it’s important to make sure you use the right techniques to capture snow scenes at their best.

Which gear?

As with any classic landscape, the aim is to get the sharpest image possible from front to back and this normally means a tripod, camera, shutter release and a selection of graduated filters to balance bright skies with foregrounds. With snow scenes however, the techniques are different so there is slight but significant difference in the equipment you require. Out go graduated filters (for the most part) and in come polarisers. Let me explain…

Why not to use ND Grad filters: Since there’s a lot of snow in the composition, the foreground area will typically be as bright as, if not brighter than the sky. so dropping in a graduated filter has the opposite effect of making the sky unnaturally dark.

Why to use a polarising filter: Since there’s a lot of snow scenes are very bright and very little texture is present. Glare can reduce the appearance of texture further and burn out highlights so using a polariser can cut out glare and bring back texture into foregrounds.

See the example below.

Using filters in snow scenes

Getting your exposure right.

If you’ve ever wondered why your snow scenes look grey, under exposed and muddy, this is due to the way your camera’s metering system works. In order to expose correctly for a snow scene, you need to know that digital (and film camera’s) are calibrated to expose for an 18% grey. The exact reasons for this are complex but in layman’s terms, the average values of all the light and dark areas in any scene should be 18% grey and this is what the camera’s metering system uses as a reference point to measure lights and darks. Of course there are pitfalls with the 18% grey reference point, particularly when confronted with predominantly dark or light scenes. For example, if you were to take a photograph of a plain black or white wall, the camera’s metering system would be fooled in both cases and would try to average the scene into 18% grey. See below.

18 % Grey metering

Since a snow scene is very bright, the camera’s meter will see it as too bright and in order to make it conform to the 18% grey calibration, it will UNDER expose the image. To combat this you must OVER expose but by how much depends on the scene.

With digital cameras, it’s really very easy to get your exposure right. If it looks too dark, simply over expose a stop until it looks how you see the scene. If your camera has live view you can adjust the exposure in camera in real time. See my video below.

But why does my snow appear blue?

Blue snow is a common problem with many digital shots that can easily be corrected in Photoshop or (Lightroom) but, if you prefer taking photos to sitting in front of a computer, the fix is relatively easy. Snow is reflective and typically blue snow occurs when your white balance is set to auto or your white balance was incorrectly set. Like every area of photography, there are complex ways of achieving results but belt and braces approaches are equally effective in the majority of cases. The simple fix for blue snow is to set your white balance for the conditions in which you are shooting. Sunny for a sunny day, cloudy for cloudy, shade for shade etc. Try a few settings till it looks as close to what you are seeing – you can always fine tune in an image editing program later.

Have fun and enjoy the beautiful snow!

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