How Photographing and Succeeding Your Photo with Snow

Do you enjoy photographing landscapes or animals during the winter?

Your photographs evoke silence and emptiness. The snow’s immaculate whiteness also evokes purity.

However, snow can also evoke suffering and death due to its extreme cold and frost.

Snow is an extraordinary photographic element of suggestion and interpretation. It is a source of inexhaustible creativity.

Technically speaking, it may not always be good to photograph snowy scenes. In the same way, framing and compositions can be more complicated than at first sight.

I will share with you how I approach this natural element in nature photography both technically and artistically.

Photograph of a bison in the snow in North of United States.
Photograph of a bison in the snow in North of United States.

Managing Exposure

The first technical problem in photographing snowy scenes is the adjustment of the exposure.

The camera tends to under-expose the exposure of a scene when there is snow.

The first adjustment to make on your case is the exposure mode.

In general, matrix mode (or evaluative mode at Canon) gives good results. The camera calculates the exposure across the stage.

If you are photographing a tree or an animal with a dark tone in a snowy scene, you certainly want to keep details in the structures of the coat or the plumage. In this case, I advise you to work in spot mode. You measure the light on the animal or plant. You memorize it and take the picture. The snow will appear very white and certainly overexposed, but the important thing is to preserve the details of the main focus present in the scene.

If you are shooting in automatic mode (program mode) or semi-automatic mode (shutter priority or aperture priority), your camera will perform an exposure calculation by averaging the entire scene. The snow will appear gray in these situations.

Indeed, since the snow is very bright, the camera will want to underexpose the photograph to reduce the exposure to a neutral value. The photographer performs calculations on a mean gray value of 18%. It is for this reason that the snow will appear gray and not white as in reality. My advice is to offset the exposure in a positive way. You can start with +2/3, increment or down one or + 1.3 +1.7 2 or EV.

This acronym EV means exposure value.

EV is the unit of measurement the amount of light received by a sensor.

By positively composing your exposure, the snow will appear white. It's up to you to perform some tests and check the result on the screen and with the histogram to determine the correct value.

If you are shooting in manual mode without using Auto ISO mode, I recommend overexposing the exposure with the previous method by increasing the sensitivity for a given aperture and speed.

If you are shooting in manual mode using Auto ISO mode, you only need to compensate your exposure positively for the scene. This is the equivalent of the semi-automatic mode.

I recommend that you check the histogram of your photos in the control panel. If your histogram is pasted on the right side, then your photo is overexposed. Some of the pixels in the photo are too exposed. Your histogram should not be glued to the left or stuck to the right. With photos of snow, it will certainly be located to the right of the midpoint. This is perfectly normal.

My advice is that when shooting, the snow is neither too gray nor too white. It is at the moment of development with the computer that you will set the tones you want.

To properly expose a snowy scene, simply overexpose the photo with positive compensation and control the histogram to ensure that it is to the right of the midpoint.

I advise you to shoot in RAW mode because you can easily adjust the exposure during development. You can increase or decrease it a little. If you're shooting in JPEG, you can change the brightness of the photograph at the time of development, but this is not equal to exposure. Thus, the results of shooting in JPEG will be worse.


Managing White Balance

The second technical problem in photographing snowy scenes is that of the white balance setting.

Large, snow-covered expanses tend to absorb the color of ambient light. If the sky of your scene is very cloudy, the snow will appear with a bluish tint.

You have two choices. You can set the white balance to cloud mode, or you can manually set the white balance using a special card. This second choice is the method I use.

To calibrate my white balance, I use the ColorChecker system from Rite. It is a very practical system that comes in the form of a small slate that folds. There is a multitude of colored squares and a white slate. For all my landscape photos, I use this system not only to manage my colors but also to fix my white balance.

Sometimes in my photographs with the snow, I do not try to completely neutralize the bluish tint. After all, blue is a cold color. As part of the creation of an artistic photo, this reinforcement can be beneficial.

However, if you shoot in RAW mode, you can always adjust the white balance of your photos at the time of development. I remind you that a photo in RAW does not have a color space. It is at the moment of development that this is fixed. If you are shooting in JPEG, you will not be able to change the white balance at the time of development because the color space is fixed by the camera at the time of shooting, which can be either sRGB or RGB.

Photograph of a coyote in the snow in North of United States.
Photograph of a coyote in the snow in North of United States..

Adjust a Shutter Speed to the Needs of the Scene

The third and last technical problem that can occur when shooting snowy scenes is the shutter speed during a snowfall.

To freeze falling snowflakes I recommend a speed at the moment 1/400 of a second. If they fall sharply, you can increase the speed to freeze them.

If you want to create an artistic photograph by creating a yarn for flakes, I recommend a low speed.

There are no fixed values for speed. It all depends on the effect you are looking for. I advise you to bracket your compositions and your effects at the time of shooting.

You will choose at the moment of the selection on the computer, the photos which suit you.

Photograph of a bighorn sheep in the snow in North of United States.
Photograph of a bighorn sheep in the snow in North of United States.

Managing Your Equipment on the Field

When anyone thinks of snow, they immediately remember its coldness. For photographers, this coldness creates problems with the cameras, the batteries, and the objectives.

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Several problems appear if you want to shoot while it is very cold. This winter, we went to create photos for a collection in northern United States. Everyday temperatures were around -30 degrees Celsius.

With a camera that stays outside for two hours, the batteries wear out very quickly. With one battery, we usually create about 400 photos with our 45-megapixel sensor. In these difficult conditions, we arrived on average at 150 photos. When it is very cold, the batteries discharge very quickly.

At each trip, I had 2 batteries in reserve that I put in a pocket with small heating bags.

The second problem that we often encounter is that the lenses’ engines get stuck. The auto focus does not work anymore. Our only solution is to disengage in manual focus mode and focus with the ring available on the lens.

If it snows, I advise you to utilize the hood of your lens. Not only does it enhance the contrasts of your photos, but it also protects the lens from falling snowflakes.

Finally, if you photograph nature scenes for several hours and decide to come back to a warm place such as your car, I advise you to put your camera in a waterproof plastic bag to avoid condensation. Leave the camera inside for several minutes before returning to the field.

If you let the condensation settle on your camera body or your lens, you will have tiny droplets of water that will form. This will increase the risk of damaging your electronic equipment. High-end cameras are tropicalized, but entry-level ones are not. The different prices of equipment do not change our opinion. We never take chances with damaging property. When I enter a heated cabin, I place my camera in waterproof bags for 40 to 60 minutes.

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