Photographing snow

Snow scene, pineSnowy 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.

snow-wb

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

Here are tips and techniques about taking better photos of snow scenes. Discover the best times of day to shoot and how to deal with the colour, shape and texture of snow.

  1. 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.
  2. Use the flash to fix the movement of the snowflakes. This will improve images that could otherwise look dull or blurred.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. A trick for good composition is to include a single coloured subject in an otherwise monochrome snow landscape. This can produce very effective results.
  6. Avoid shooting in sepia or black-and-white as it is easy, with these settings, to loose what little contrast your image has.
  7. Remember to protect your camera from the cold.

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16 Responses

  1. Gail Bjork says:

    Thanks for pointing this out, Andy. Corrected.

  2. Andy says:

    “Expose to the left and you’ll LOSE all your contrast. “Loose” is not a verb, alright??”

    “Loose” can be a verb … it’s just not the right one in this context. ;)

  3. Jan says:

    I’ve read that it’s better to overexpose snow when shooting with film (if anyone uses it any more) because film has more exposure latitude.

    With digital, you need to underexpose and then adjust the shadow areas when editing. By underexposing, the snow will not become blown out.

  4. Greg says:

    Tim is right on.  Overexposing snow with autoexposure is nearly impossible, unless you spotmeter on something other than snow.  And snow is quite blue in daytime.
     
    Expose to the left and you’ll LOSE all your contrast.  “Loose” is not a verb, alright??

  5. daniel says:

    hey man thanks alot for this article really helped me out. being a photography student i dont quite understand everything yet but this was just so simple and easy thanks bernard :)

  6. Bernard says:

    Hello Tim,
    adjusting your exposure compensation for photographing snow is both a matter of technique and preference. As you say, exposing “to the right” of the histogram yields better exposure. However, this does not tell the whole story, since by doing this you will quite probably loose a lot of texture on the snow. That is why I recommend exposing more “to the left”, assuming that there will be post-processing involved, but preserving the texture of the snow. I never claimed my advice would lead to the least post-processing, quite the contrary. Each photographer can decide for himself how he prefers to photograph snow, once that is understood.
    Again, regarding white balance, that is a matter of choice. Just like a photographer can break the rules of composition if that is his intend, she can also play with colours at will. I am simply giving advice on how to keep the snow white in a picture. Feel free to do otherwise, I am not pretending there is only one way to take a photograph.
    Photography is a work of light and emotion. Go with what you feel works for you.

  7. Tim says:

    I’m afraid this article contradicts just about everything else I’ve ever read about photographing snow.
    To be precise, sunlit snow in the scene is best rendered about +1.5 to +2EV above the midtone. This will get it in the right region of the histogram to minimize any tweaks required. The chances of there being anything *brighter* than sunlit snow in your scenery are few and far between.
    As for whitebalance: if there’s one thing in life that is *NOT* white, it’s snow. If it’s in golden-hour light, it is golden yellow; if it’s out in the open during the brightest parts of a cold sunny day, then because it’s mostly reflecting the sky, it’s blue. In shadow areas, it will be very blue indeed. Your so-called “correction” is actually breaking it. If you’re going to use a custom whitebalance, I recommend the underside of a mid-grey cloud on a mid-grey overcast day as your reference – or take an 18% grey-card with you.
    #5, the “single coloured object” subject-matter (not a matter of composition), is a recipe for a trite cliché. <i>Nil points</i>.
    #6, b&w and sepia: I’ll shoot what the heck I like, thank you very much.

  8. Amit says:

    hey great tutorial on snow photography.. using of flash: using flash outdoor is not necessary but if you are shooting winter photograph, using a flash can bring out details and highlights that might not be captured without it. However, if you are shooting close shots avoid using flash as much as possible as the reflection can greatly reduce any detail in your photo.

  9. Rodger Booth says:

    Sir, when taking a reflected reading from a very bright object we want to increase the exposure as the camera takes in the brightness and will stop the reading down and without the increase of .7-.1 of esposure the image will be underexposed. Hence with a reading of a very dark object we want to stop down as the camera is going to increase the exposure to bring out the dark color and the black will be overexposed and washed out.

  10. Bernard says:

    Hello Silja,

    there are several brands offering point and shoot compacts that are weather or water proof. Most of these are also designed to work down to -10ºC. There are also some manufacturers who offer weatherproof DSLRs and lenses (though these are much rarer, especially for lenses).

    I own both a weather resistant DSLR and a water resistant P&S, and I can confirm that being able to use your camera under rain or snow is very reassuring.

  11. Silja Sjödin says:

    Hello Bernard,
    As I´m taking snap-shots only there is no time for checking histograms, using tripods or manage manual settings– check my snow photography gallery, there 24 pictures displayed among loads and loads of them, images coming up soon in a snow photography book of mine.
    Though, I think it´s of importance with good advices, maybe one daay the circumstances are different from snap-shooting, then checking with the histogram is a very good idea.

    But at this time my “problem” is to find a weather-proof camera, the chilly and extreem cold I can handle very well, I have my tricks, but ex snow mixed with rain is still an unsolved problem when it comes to snap-shot snow photography. Well, enough for this time.
    Have a nice day, greetings Silja From Finland

  12. Bernard says:

    Hello Henry,

    your point is valid. There are two options available when photographing snow:

    1-increase exposure to get “white” snow

    2-decrease exposure to preserve the snow’s texture

    I chose to go with option 2 in this text, because it is easier to fine-tune an image in post-processing to make the snow white AND preserve the textures. If you over-expose, your snow will have a dreamy, purely white quality, without textures.

    If you can use a histogram, you can take advantage of it and expose as far to the right as possible without actually overexposing.

    Of course, each camera is different and some perform better even without over- or under-exposing.

  13. Henry says:

    Hello there,

    Great tips,

    However, don’t you think you should be increasing the exposure compensation instead of lowering it??

    cause under-exposing it would make the snow look even muddier. Instead you should be aiming for the ‘white’ snow look

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