How To Take Better Photos of Snow
By Carole Clément for Focus Numérique
Winter can be a great time to get out and about with your camera. The low sun often gives a warm, golden kind of light and shooting snow can make for some interesting compositions. That said snowy scenes aren't always easy to capture. What's more, snow generally goes hand in hand with cold and wet, which can bring a whole load of other problems for photographers.
Cold causes two main problems. First of all, batteries drain more quickly in cold weather. Second, thermal shock caused by large and sudden changes in temperature between indoors and outdoors can cause condensation—or sometimes even frost—to form on the elements of your lens or on your camera's sensor. Anyone using a film camera may also find that film becomes brittle in the cold.
And then there's snow. It may look pretty, but the white stuff can play havoc with your camera's settings. Exposure is often distorted by the excess of light reflected from the snow. A camera will therefore typically under-expose a snowy scene, making it look quite dark. Plus, in snowy surroundings, the colour temperature of daylight is suddenly no longer the usual 5,000 Kelvins, but up over 10,000 K or even 15,000 K, which can confuse the white balance and give snow a blue-looking tinge in your photos.
Read on for tips on how to get around these problems.
Cold, Wet Conditions
You should try to keep your batteries warm and alternate regularly with a second battery kept in a warm place (in a pocket underneath your clothing, for example).
You should also try to acclimatise your camera's lens and sensor progressively rather than going straight from your centrally heated chalet to the sub-zero mountains. This should help prevent condensation from forming on their surfaces due to a sudden change in temperature. The best way of doing this is to put your camera in a bag before leaving the house, as the temperature will be in-between that of indoors and outdoors and won't drop as suddenly. If you won't be using your camera straight away, it's a good idea to take out the batteries first and slip them into a warm pocket to help keep battery life to a maximum.
Water in all its forms (snow, rain, ice, etc.) is another foe. Unless you have a weatherproof camera and lenses, you should think about taking steps to protect your equipment from water and humidity in the air. One solution is to make your camera a kind of "poncho" from a plastic bag held in place with a rubber band around the lens. It may not look too classy but it'll do the job. Otherwise, you can buy specially designed plastic rain covers, like this RainSleeve from Op/Tech (below), which costs about £5 for a pack of two.
While also preventing stray light from entering the lens and being reflected all over the place, a lens hood can help keep drops of water or snow off the front of the lens. You can protect your lens with a filter too—a UV filter or a polarising filter would make a good choice. A polarising filter has the added advantage of making a blue sky look more saturated (darker), giving a more striking, more highly contrasted image.
White Balance (WB)You should avoid using a "Sunny" white balance preset as this is generally set for a colour temperature of 5,200 K. You need to go for a higher setting when shooting snowscapes. The best option is to switch to manual white balance mode and use the white snow as your target white for adjusting the setting. This will neutralise the overall image. You may need to look at your camera's instruction manual to find out exactly how to use the manual (or "custom") white balance settings, as these can vary from model to model. Note too that this kind of function may not be available in some more basic cameras.
Your shots can take on different coloured tinges depending on whether you set your white balance using a patch of snow that's in the sun or in the shade. If you try to neutralise the white balance using a patch of snow that's in a dark, shady area as your target white, you won't get the same effect as when using a patch that's in strong sunlight. If you set your white balance with a patch of snow in the shade, brighter, lighter parts of the picture will start to look yellow or red. You'll get a generally more natural result if you set your white balance using a patch of snow that's lit up by the sun.
ExposureYou can set the exposure to a "Beach/Snow" mode if your camera has one, as this will automatically compensate for changes in exposure and will activate the flash if need be. The colour temperature (white balance) will stay at the setting you've already chosen in the menu.
If you don't have a "Snow" exposure mode, you'll probably find that your shots will tend to come out under-exposed. In day-to-day situations, your camera's light-metering system is programmed to assume that all of the tones in a given scene will average out to a mid grey. This clearly goes to pot when the scene is mostly white! As a result, expanses of white snow can come out looking grey, as the camera underexposes the scene making the image look dark. You therefore need to compensate for that by adjusting the exposure by +1 to +2 EV stops. You should keep the light metering in multizone or matrix mode too, so that the camera will analyse light over the whole scene and work out an average.
With greyer, overcast skies and lower light levels, it can sometimes be interesting to use your camera's bracketing functions to play around at taking high dynamic range shots. This can bring more visual impact and greater intensity to images that are otherwise flat and dull.
Snow reflects a lot of UV light from sunlight. A lens hood (sometimes called a sunshade) is a good way of protecting your camera from this stray, non-image forming light (which can lead to lens flare) while also protecting the front of the lens from snow and rain. You should even use your lens hood in overcast conditions—in fact, we'd say you should especially use it in those kinds of conditions, as it will still help block out stray light being reflected off the snow.
Another option is a UV filter for your lens. A polarising filter is perhaps an even more interesting choice, as it will cancel out a certain amount of light being reflected by the snow (this light will be partially polarised) while also making skies look denser and more saturated for striking results.
To Sum Up
We recommend you use:
> a UV filter (UV light is abundant in mountain snowscapes),
> a polarising filter to saturate blue skies and reduce reflection and glare from snow,
> thin silk gloves (shooting and adjusting settings in thick mittens just ain't gonna happen),
> a bag or pouch to keep your batteries warm,
> a bag for your lenses and camera to prevent sudden changes in temperature (put them in BEFORE you go out),
> spare batteries (you may find they run out very quickly in the cold),
> a lens hood for keeping out stray light,
> an increase of about 2 EV stops to purposely over-expose the shot,
> manual white balance set using a patch of snow in the sun as your target white.
That said, you can also play around with changing the white balance and exposure settings to create different effects in your snaps.