Being a North Carolina Landscape Photographer you might think that I don’t often photograph snow, and you’d be correct. I wish I had the opportunity to photograph it more, as it can transform an ordinary scene into something magical. While snow can bring on some fantasy like photographs, it can also be a real challenge. This past week, western North Carolina was inundated with snow and I made sure to take full advantage of it. In this article I want to talk about what I experienced as some of the greatest challenges in winter photography and what I do to handle these challenges.
Exposing To The Right (ETTR)
One of the most important parts of any type of photography is achieving the proper exposure. A proper exposure uses the dynamic range capabilities of our camera to capture an image that doesn’t clip our shadows or our highlights. Clipped shadows or highlights means that there is no data in those parts of the image and it can’t be recovered in post processing. The majority of time we can use the exposure indicator on our camera to indicate a proper exposure, but that isn’t the case with snow. Snow is very white, very reflective, and very bright. With this really bright subject our camera will indicate proper exposure when the image is in fact under exposed (too dark). To offset this mistake we need to look at the histogram on our camera’s LCD screen. To achieve proper exposure in a snowy image you will expose to the right. This means the majority of the data on your histogram will be to the right side of the chart, but not so far right that the highlights have become clipped. This method of ETTR will guarantee that we have properly exposed our photograph and collected as much data as possible, so that we can manipulate the file in post processing and achieve the outcome we had hoped for.
White Balance Correction
One of the first things that comes to mind when thinking of snow is that it’s white. Seems obvious, but it’s easier said than done, when we’re talking about creating a white, snowy photograph. Fortunately for us, when shooting in RAW, white balance is a non destructive piece of data collection. By that I mean, the white balance of your photo is not burned into the file and can be easily manipulated in post processing (this is not true when shooting in JPEG). To handle this problem, I first bring my image up in Adobe Lightroom (I would recommend the Adobe Suite for anyone serious about photography and post processing). Lightroom has a nifty feature where you can change the background of the space where you are editing your photo. Right click on the background and you will see an option to change the background to white. A white background will serve as a great reference point as you correct the white balance. This is a great tip for processing snowy images, but it’s actually one that I use with all my images. Processing with a white background is extremely helpful in gaining a better understanding of what your photograph will look like printed.
Snow is the New Light
As a landscape photographer I am always concerned about the type of light and where it is coming from. The human eye is often drawn to brighter things, so using light in a photograph is crucial in creating an impactful piece of art. In landscape photography, I often hear the phrase (and I often say it myself) “shoot the light.” Composition is important, and how you use the light to interact and transform your composition is even more important. Because snow is so bright it almost acts like light. Using patches of snow to catch the eye of the viewer in place of light is a great way to add an extra dimension to your photograph. So, while snow may be an element of your composition, try to also think of it like light.
Careful with Contrast
On bright sunny days it can be difficult to get those soft painterly photographs. The light is a little harsh and everything tends to be a little too contrasty. This is often the case with snow, and something to be careful of. Snow, as I’ve said before, is very bright, and often other elements in our photograph will be dark by comparison. This can be hard to handle, and often the heavy contrast will be too distracting and will take away from our carefully crafted composition. I try to avoid overly contrasted scenes while I’m in the field, but I also like to post process in a style that will minimize this heavy contrast. In post processing a snowy photograph I like to create what I call a ‘high key’ image. This is a photograph that is overall very bright, even the darker more shadowy areas. By bringing up the brightness in the shadowy areas, we can tone down the contrast in the image, creating a softer and more professional piece of art.
Pay Attention to Your Gear
The last tip here is a simple one. Pay attention to your gear. Shooting in cold, snowy conditions is magical, but it’s also fairly challenging. If your gears goes out on you, that’s the end of your shoot, and you won’t be able to capture those magical images. My first tip is batteries. Cold batteries die extremely quickly, so don’t keep them in your backpack, keep them in an inside pocket close to your body where they will stay warm. My second tip is bring a lot of microfiber towels. This one mainly applies for shooting while it’s snowy. Keep one draped over your camera to prevent ice from accumulating on the body and lens, and a second to wipe the snow flakes off your front element. Third tip, stay warm. If you’re cold and miserable you won’t stick around to get those great shots. Wear lots of layers, invest in some quality boots, and maybe even some photography gloves. I’ve linked all of my equipment here if you’re interested. Basically, keep you and your equipment warm and dry.
Bonus Tip: Texture
Creating texture in a photograph is like that extra special ingredient that will take an image from decent to spectacular. Shooting while it’s snowing will allow for the opportunity to add some streaking snowflakes to your photograph. Play around with different shutter speeds and see how it looks. It’s subtle, but it’ll add that extra wow factor that we are always searching for.
Thanks so much for reading, I really appreciate it. I hope you found those tips useful and can put them to practice the next time you are out in the snow!