Photographing snow such as snowy landscapes are among the trickiest situations to photograph with digital cameras. The exposure and white balance settings can easily be fooled by the bright lighting conditions.
Whether the sky is overcast or the sun is shining, special care must be taken to avoid messing up the colours completely. The very bright snow acts as a second light source by reflecting sunlight shining on the ground.
The basics of photographing snow
Some cameras offer a Snow or Winter setting, and this feature can be very helpful. It usually corrects the Auto white balance calculation of the camera and lowers the exposure value to avoid over-exposing the image.
The Snow mode is usually efficient and delivers more than acceptable results. However, it is not perfect, and not always available depending on the brand and model digital camera. Moreover, using this mode usually means the photographer looses control over aperture and shutter speed, limiting creativity. Luckily, there are ways to take beautiful snow pictures even without the help of a preset scene mode.
Photographing snow under clouds
If the day is cloudy as often happens in winter, the white balance is easy to set. The Cloudy setting generally available on most cameras works well in this situation and produces accurate colours.
The exposure often needs correction, however, and lowering the EV compensation by -0.7 or -1 is a good rule of thumb. To be on the safe side, using Center-weighted or even Spot metering is a good way to reduce the risks over-exposing your images, as long as the center of the frame is bright.
Photographing snow on sunny days
If the sky is blue and the light is very bright, setting the white balance accurately is even more important. Most of the time the preset white balance modes cannot handle this situation, resulting in a strong blue cast in all your images. In this case, the best way to achieve a correct white balance is to use the Custom or Manual white balance mode. By simply pointing the camera to a clean patch of snow, a proper balance of colours can be set that will remain valid for your entire session.
But beware of shadows! Even on a seemingly uniform patch of snow there can be darker areas, and using them to set the white balance will produce an incorrect colour cast.
In sunlit conditions it’s even more important to avoid over-exposing images. Set the exposure while framing a bright area, compensate by lowering the EV value, or use spot metering. If your camera offers a histogram, use it to make sure no part of the image is overexposed. Be careful not to under-expose so your snow looks white, not too gray.
More tips for photographing snow
- When snow is falling, use a slow shutter speed to capture the movement of the snowflakes. This is more efficient if there is a light source in your image.
- Use the flash to fix the movement of the snowflakes. This will improve images that could otherwise look dull or blurred.
- If you have access to a strobe lamp, use it with a slow shutter speed to capture the movement of the snowflakes in sequence and create very interesting effects.
- Shoot during the Golden Hours, when the sun is low on the horizon, to capture the texture and shape of the snow on what would otherwise look like a uniform field of white.
- A trick for good composition is to include a single coloured subject in an otherwise monochrome snow landscape. This can produce very effective results.
- Avoid shooting in sepia or black-and-white as it is easy, with these settings, to loose what little contrast your image has.
- Remember to protect your camera from the cold.