Winter photography can be frustrating. For instance, “Why do my winter photos come back with gray snow instead of white?” “How can I prevent it from happening again?” These are two questions many winter photographers ponder. Not only is gray snow a problem, so are winter compositions and equipment use in cold temperatures.
Gray snow happens because of the way cameras look at scenes. Manufacturers make cameras to read every scene as middle tone. In other words, a camera reads a scene as one that reflects back to the camera 18% of the light hitting the subject.
For most scenes, this poses no problem. But, when encountering an extremely bright or dark scene, the camera still wants to set the exposure for a middle tone scene. Because white objects reflect up to 90% of the light hitting them, the scene ends up underexposed and therefore, gray snow.
Metering Snow – To get white snow, use one of three ways described below:
1. Using a reflective or TTL (Through-The-Lens) meter in your camera, take a meter reading off a gray card, a pair of jeans, rock outcropping or tree trunk. The intent is to meter off something approximately middle tone or 18% reflective. The subject you take your reading from must receive the same light as the object you are shooting. Because the camera is programmed to make every scene middle tone, if you take your exposure reading off something middle tone, the exposure will be right. Set your shutter speed or aperture for these readings.
2. Meter off the snow. When metering off snow, have only snow in the viewfinder. Meter the snow using a reflective meter or TTL metering and then add one stop of light to the reading you receive. In manual mode, do this by slowing the shutter speed one stop or opening the aperture one stop. In Program mode, do this by dialing in +1 stop compensation factor using the exposure compensation dial. Opening up one stop is only a starting point. Bracket the first time in one-half stop increments up to two stops. When you get the slides or photos back, decide which exposure produced the desired effect and use that setting for future shots.
3. Use an incident meter to obtain a reading by pointing the hemisphere dome of the meter toward the camera, take the reading and set your shutter speed or aperture to those readings.
Winter Scene Composition – When composing a winter scene, look for strong graphic shapes and startling contrast to include in the scene. Bare tree branches against white snow or a weathered split-rail fence protruding from a snow drift make good winter scenes.
Barns, fences, country roads, winding rivers, evergreen and deciduous tree stands, and landscapes are all good winter scene candidates.
Using a slow shutter speed to shoot a scene while snow is falling will create white streaks on the resulting slide or photo. These white streaks of snow caught falling create the winter mood for the scene. If you use a faster shutter speed while snow is falling, the snow will create a muted background thereby highlighting your subject.
Look for the early morning and/or late afternoon light. The light at these two times of day emits a golden color that dramatizes winter landscape scenes. Also, at this time of day shadows are at their longest thereby offering graphic elements for a photo. The snowflakes from freshly fallen snow add sparkle to a scene by catching light and reflecting it.
The direction of light, in relation to where you are with the camera, directly effects how a scene will record on film. The three common directions of light are frontlighting, backlighting and sidelighting. Frontlighting is light striking the front of a scene or in other words, the light comes from behind you. Frontlighting creates brilliant saturated colors, but in two-dimensional form. Backlighting is light striking the scene from behind. The light is shining directly into your face. Metering for a backlit scene can be tricky. If you want to create a silhouette, meter off the blue sky just to the left or right of the sun. Make sure no sun is showing in your viewfinder.
Set your camera for the settings you received off the blue sky and shoot your scene. The result will be a strong graphic silhouette. If you don’t want a silhouette, open up two stops from your blue sky reading.
Sidelighting is where the light is coming from either side of the camera. Sidelighting creates strong three-dimensional shapes, textures and shadows making for interesting images.
If the sky is a bland blue, use a polarizer filter to darken the blue in the sky and enhance the other colors in the scene without altering the color balance. Remember, a polarizing filter works best when it is approximately 90 degrees to the direction of light.
Winter Related Problems – Two equipment problems you’ll encounter when shooting in the winter are lack of battery power and the frosting of equipment. If you are using one of the newer electronic cameras, insufficient battery power can be a problem. These cameras are nonfunctional without enough battery power. The problem is the cold sucks the strength out of a battery. The solution is to carry extra batteries inside your jacket next to your body. When your camera battery starts to fail, take it out and replace it with a warm one from your jacket. Put the “dead” battery in your inside pocket and it will come back to life when it warms up. Also, try to carry your camera inside your jacket when not shooting.
You will encounter the other problem when you take your camera out of the warm car and into the cold. Your equipment will frost up due to the temperature difference.
Until the temperature of your camera reaches the ambient temperature, it will be impossible to see through the viewfinder. Be patient and the viewfinder will eventually clear up.
Don’t blow on the lens to clean off a speck of dust or a snowflake. The moisture from your breath will freeze on the outside of the lens. To clean a dirty lens, use a lens brush.
The final part of the frosting problem happens when you bring your equipment back into a warm environment. Until the camera reaches the temperature inside your house, condensation will form and will continue until reaching a temperature equilibrium.
To prevent this from occurring, keep your equipment inside your camera bag until the temperature has stabilized. Some photographers recommend putting your equipment inside a plastic bag to slow the temperature change. The condensation created can be damaging to the electronic components inside the newer automatic cameras.
Winter is a magical time for photography. Minimize your exposure metering, composition, and equipment problems by applying the above techniques. Dig out those snowshoes and cross-country skis and work some winter magic through photography.