Friday, December 17, 2010

Photographing in Snow

The calendar has yet to show us that winter has officially arrived, but in the mid-western U.S. we have had a full week of "the white stuff" already with temperatures in the single digits! If we are still in autumn, you sure could have fooled me!
I made this winter image today as I was putting my mail out for pick up. When I raised the flag on my mailbox, the icicle that had formed on it was sticking straight up in the air!  It looked so silly, so I went into the house for my camera.

Indiana Winter
Winter scenes make beautiful images, but photographing them can be tricky.  
When photographing a snow scene, the exposure is very important to keep in mind.

The light meter in your camera wants to make every tone it measures a mid-tone grey. Shooting a snow scene "on the meter" will result in dull grey snow.  This can be explained simply: the scene is so bright, the camera stops down to make the bright whites medium toned.  (see the Polar Bear image to the left shot on the meter.  the snow and fur are a dull grey)
Shot 'On' the Meter

In order to get the snow to show white in your photo, it is important to remember to add light to the exposure using a + exposure compensation. The tricky part lies in how much exposure compensation...the answer is: enough to make the snow white without losing the subtle details and texture. 

+1 1/3 stops

In the  Polar Bear photo to the right, +1 1/3 stops were added to properly expose the image. (Enlarge the image by clicking on it to better see the correct tones while maintaining detail in the fur and snow.)

Unfortunately, there is no set amount of exposure compensation to use when photographing snow scenes, although the rule of thumb is +1 1/3 stops.  So, depending on the ambient light conditions, you may want to begin by adding 1 1/3 stops of light, and then tweaking the amount of light you are adding by assessing your histogram on the back of your camera. It is important to make sure the far right (white) is not clipping. (i.e. the histogram is bunched up against the far right side of the graph)
If your snow scene shows a histogram bunched up to the right side of the graph, your image is over exposed and detail is lost.  In this case, you must then, subtract light (- exposure compensation) by small increments to make sure you are capturing detail in the whites.  You will know the white detail is present when the histogram 'backs off' the far right edge of the graph.

(Polar Bear images made in Manitoba, Canada)

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