Photographing your favorite subjects in snow offers a special way to make winter memories. Capturing your kids as a blur of bright jackets and hats sledding down a hill, finding winter’s frozen designs in sparkling snowflakes through a macro lens, or framing a nearby stream or wooded trail still covered with freshly fallen snow.
No matter what your favorite snow subject, exposure can be tricky. Our camera’s light meter is easily fooled by the brightness and underexposes snow scenes resulting in dark photos with washed out, gray looking snow.
What we view as a beautiful snowy scene (photo below on right), the camera reads as an overly bright subject and determines less exposure is necessary. This is because the camera’s light meter is designed to measure the amount of reflected light from a subject and make it medium gray. But since bright subjects, such as snow, reflect twice as much light as medium gray, the camera overcompensates and underexposes the scene. The result is drab scene with gray snow (photo on left).
It can be pretty easy to correct for this and any of these 4 methods will work. Three are outlined for manual exposure modes, and one for the Auto mode.
In the Manual modes;
1. If using A, S or P (Aperture, Shutter or Program mode), use Exposure Compensation. Look for a button with a +/- symbol. Set the compensation in the (+) plus direction by 1 to 2 stops. (0.3 is 1/3 of a stop, 0.7 is 2/3 of a stop, 1.0 is one full stop, and so on.) Refer to your instruction manual under Exposure Compensation for how to set this on your camera.
2. Another way to capture white snow when using A, S or P is to use Exposure Lock. Aim the camera at something neutral in tone; something tan, grey, or the blue sky, then press the exposure lock button keeping the pressure on it until you recompose and depress the shutter. (See your camera manual to locate the Exposure Lock button.) Exposure Lock is best to use with either spot metering, or, if using the cameras default metering system, fill the frame with the subject that is neutral in tone and then lock exposure, recompose, then shoot.
3. If shooting in full Manual mode, spot meter the snow and simply change the shutter speed or aperture until the exposure scale in the bottom of the viewfinder reflects 1 to 2 stops over exposure. (Each of the little pegs on this scale usually represents 1/3 of a stop. Dial it towards the plus + direction until its shows 1 to 2 full stops over zero).
4. Lastly, if using the AUTO MODE, look to see if your camera has a Snow/Sand setting (usually found as one of the Scene modes). This setting is designed to properly expose for subjects that reflect more light than normal. If your camera doesn’t have Snow/Sand setting, try locking the exposure on something other than snow - aim at something neutral in tone, depress the shutter button half way and keeping the pressure on it, recompose then depress fully. This may lock focus as well, so it’s best to aim it at something at the same distance as your subject.
With any of the above, set a low ISO of 50, 100 or 200, especially on sunny days.
Lastly, enable your highlight alert setting if your camera offers it (usually in the Playback menu settings) to ensure you don’t go too far and overexpose your highlights.
Use your histogram as a helpful tool to ensure you haven’t overexposed the highlights. Snowy scenes will show most of the data in the right side of the histogram which is fine, just check that the mountain range comes down within the graph and doesn’t hit the right side which would indicate overexposure. If this happens, retake the photo changing the exposure to take away a bit of light.
There’s no crystal ball to tell us how much snow we’ll get this year but if our snow globe is any indication, we’ll surely see at least a few inches. Next time it snows, grab your gear, head out the door and shoot it… using any of the 4 ways to capture it as white.
To learn more about manual exposure modes, consider taking the DSLR Photography - The Basics class or the Photography Basics - 3 Sessions class.