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Tips on Photographing Snow

Here are some tips for photographing during wintertime: setting the correct exposure values under the unusual light conditions created by snow and ice.

Photo by trychydts

Photographing snow and/or ice can be a tricky business. If you set your aperture/shutter values according to settings what you are used to, you may see that the snow is a single, washed-out patch without any detail in it. It flattens you picture and does not make it very lifelike. Here I will try to provide an explanation why is that; also you can read some simple tips to achieve better results while photographing when there is a lot of snow around. The article is mainly for beginners; black belt photographers sleeping with a light meter under their pillows should find very little new information here.

You will need:

  1. A camera in good working order
  2. Large quantites of frozen water out in the open (i. e. “snow” or “ice”).
  3. A light meter (purely optional)

What it is the problem?
Simply put: your picture got overexposed. What does it mean?

On a photo, due to the limitations of the film, there can be only a limited difference between the darkest and the lightest spot. On a color negative film, this ratio is approximately 1:256 — meaning the brightest areas can be no more that 256 times brighter then the darkest areas. Your image is correctly exposed if what you wanted to photograph is in that tonal range. Consult the image below; lets suppose it is a sunny, snowy day with some people and a black cat strolling around:

Areas too light are going to be burnt out (appear all white), since all the emulsion will be dissolved from the film. Areas too dark will fade away (there will be not enough light to make a distinct mark in the emulsion, so basically you will see black shadows without any detail on these parts of the photo.) On this picture of mine you can see what I am talking about. In that photo, I had to intentionally burn out the snow in order to make the branches of the tree before the darkish background visible:

Photo by trychydts

In that case, that was a compromise – let’s see what can we do if we do not have to make such decisions.

During wintertime, the extra factor you have to count in is that snow is white. Meaning it will be very, very bright compared to almost everything else on the photo — and it will also reflect a fairly large amount of incoming light; it will serve as a secondary light source. However, you should keep in mind that although snow is white, it is not washed-out white: it’s delicate texture formed by ice crystals is visible beacuse it consisted of many, extremely light shades. If you want to see the texture of the snow (so if you want to see the difference between the very light shades instead of burning them all out), you should make sure that it fells into the 1:256 range mentioned above.

Of course, the diagrams above are a rough estimate and were based on the assumption of bright sunlight. Since snow strongly reflects light, every tone but the darkest become much brighter in snow, so few thing will actually fade to black.

The rule of thumb

A simple and fairly good method to make things right it is if you set the camera as if the light conditions were one step brighter than they actually are. (In essence, you have to underexpose an overexposed picture.) For example, you should set your Diana to “hazy sunlight” instead of “cloudy” — if you are using an instant camera, you should use exposure compensation. This will push the optimally exposed range towards the lighter tones. Besides, you don’t have to worry about the darker areas, too, since the snow provides a beautiful, diffuse, secondary light source — so it will illuminate everything else. So although you formally underexposed the picture, your photo in actuality is going to be fairly well exposed.

I did exactly the same thing in Szeged (a beautiful Hungarian city). I used my Diana with ISO 200 film, but I did not adjust the setting; I used it as I had loaded ISO 400 film. Normally it would have resulted in umderexposed photos — however, under these extreme conditions the were exposed just fine.

Using a light meter

If you happen to have a light meter (old models can be acquired fairly cheap in many countries), or you camera has a light meter, then your job is even more easier. Light meters (built in and separately used models) usually have the option of “spot metering” – instead of calculating the average illumination, they meter the correct exposure on one spot. Direct your meter onto the snow and read the values – you can adjust your camera according to that. You do not want the average metering because now you are interested in the higher end of spectrum – in the light tones of snow.

I found it slightly better to use a light meter even with my Diana: sometimes an adjustment of not one, but two steps were required:

Summary

The exposure settings pre-defined on the camera were calibrated to normal circumstances: when grass is green, soil is brown and sky is blue. When everything is covered in a white, highly reflective substance, you should do some calculation yourself: intentionally “underexposing” your pictures in order to get the right exposure.

written by trychydts

3 comments

  1. mikeydavies

    mikeydavies

    brilliant article, truly great :)

    almost 3 years ago · report as spam
  2. trychydts

    trychydts

    Thanks! :)

    almost 3 years ago · report as spam
  3. wyrdchoice

    wyrdchoice

    This article was really helpful, thanks!
    almost 3 years ago · report as spam

Read this article in another language

This is the original article written in: English. It is also available in: Deutsch.