So far this winter we’ve been lucky to have snow – enough to make winter photography interesting. Most winter shooting articles I see are about gear – what to wear and how to deal with and/or protect your camera, so this winter photography article will take a different tack. Mostly how to shoot snow well, or at least as well as I can shoot it. There are a few things to keep in mind, but one we often overlook is –
Snow is not pure white
We think of it that way, but it really isn’t. Snow reflects the ambient light which is mostly a result of what the sky is doing. Therefore snow is really a reflection of the sky. If you have an overcast sky, the snow will be flatter and generally warm in tone. If you have a bluebird sky, the snow will be reflecting that blue and have a cooler look with often blue shadows. And there are combinations in between. Once I shot an intense sunset in winter and the snow was purple because the sky was purple. It was amazing.
But it can be difficult in terms of white balance so –
Adjust white balance in the field
This is my practice all the time anyway, but I find it especially useful for snow scenes. If I can get the white balance in camera to match the closest to what I am looking at, it’s better for me to process after the fact.
Use a white background for editing
Normally my background in Lightroom is the darker gray, but when I’m doing snow I change to white so I can compare how white the snow is to a very stark white shade. I find that useful to avoid gray or dingy looking snow. The best way to avoid that is to expose correctly in the first place.
Overexpose by at least a stop, sometimes two
This is key. Camera meters are trying to make everything 18% gray. It’s how meters work. So think of that when you look at what your camera determines for exposure – it’s trying to make the snow gray. You want it white (or whatever shade of white it is) so you need to over expose. A stop is minimum, but two might be necessary. How far should you go?
Push that histogram to the right as far as you can
But don’t clip the highlights. Exposing to the right is a good practice anyway, but looking at the histogram is especially critical when you have a winter scene. It will also keep your blacks from blocking up as well.
Dehaze brings up texture
Sometimes you want texture in the snow or at least more contrast, sometimes not, but the dehaze slider can make some subtle changes when you want them.
Pulling in the highlights in curves adjustment brightens whites
Open a curves adjustment and click the top right pin (the highlights pin) and drag it straight to the left. This will lighten the snow.
Have fun and experiment
For this next shot, I cloned away the stem the leaf was attached to and left it floating in air. Because the background is so uniform, it’s easy to do and can add some intrigue to an ordinary photo.
This one got a vertical flip so the branches are spreading upward. You can easily play with horizontal flips as well.