Shooting in the snow
As winter is upon here in the northern hemisphere, our minds turn to snow pictures, from the kids playing in snow to beautiful shots of sublime landscapes.
What problems can we meet, what should we know about and how do we prepare to make these shots successful ?
As with all photography there are no rules, restrictions only hinder the capture of creative images.
I often hear and read “white balance is a crucial part of photographing snow.” Rubbish! What color is snow? It’s like the sea it totally depends on the conditions at that moment, do we really always want dead white snow images.
Look at these two examples one very blue because the hill is mainly in shadow the other, from a Renault advertisement I did many moons ago, has warmer colored snow but again we see a bluer influence in the shadows. An evening light will give a warmer snow color than a morning light, as a general rule of thumb. So I always set my camera on daylight setting and let the snow take on it’s real color, rather than colors being changed because the snow must be white.
Before writing this, of course, I read other advice on the subject. I was shocked to see so much contradiction in the comments. I read “Over expose by half a stop.” “Underexpose by half a stop.” Well which is correct? Neither, it all once again depends on conditions, front light, backlight, sidelight, trees, no trees, buildings etc. etc.
Don’t forget how your exposure meter is set in your camera, if it’s on a central point it could give a difference of several stops compared to a general setting.
Imagine it’s set to spot meter and in the centre of the image there’s a dark pine tree, the exposure will adjust to get detail in that dark tree, if snow is in the center of the image and it’s lit by direct sun, then it will expose for detail in the white and a totally different result will occur.
So what should we do to get the best result? With a point and press or a telephone, trust the camera. Anyway you can’t do much else J
Now with a DSLR it’s a different situation and this is where you find, that it was worth spending your time reading the manual and learning how to adjust and set the camera, if you haven’t then leave it on automatic except for the white balance of course. The technicians who designed the camera know more than us so trust them !! but shoot in RAW and JPEG format in case they’re wrong. For those who don’t know, RAW gives a much greater scope to recover exposure by digital retouching and getting detail in what can appear to be totally white or black.
Now if you know your camera, use the settings you need, there’s no generalization, every situation is different. Take the time to think about the image you want. Where do you need lots of detail? Where can you accept less detail? Usually you will need to set between the two extremes, so set your exposure on a neutral part of the image and retouch, if necessary, afterwards.
When I talk about a neutral part , I mean in light intensity a medium intensity shadow zone will do the trick.
Most of us know when shooting anything outside that the position of the sun, is incredibly important, even more so in the snow. A highish sun will flatten out the image and loose any detail in the snow. Even though the sun is never very high in winter, the lower it is, the better.
Being first out after the snow has fallen is a great advantage. Pure virgin snow is just waiting for your creative talents, so up early and get that early morning light before breakfast.
Don’t forget it will be cold so as mum used to say “Wrap up well dear.” Find some old gloves and cut off the end of the fingers, it’s very difficult to change the controls with winter gloves on. A hat is an obligation, as most body heat is lost through an uncovered head.
Condensation can be a big headache, I remember using a Hasselblad in temperatures around -18°, in fact it was the day I shot the snow plough picture. Holding the camera was like holding a block of ice. My first reaction was to try and keep the camera warm under my coat, (in fact a Swedish fishing suit) and bring it out when ready to shoot, this sometimes causes a nice David Hamilton effect because of condensation on the lens caused by the humid warmth in the coat.
In those days we would send our cameras back to Hasselblad to have special winter lubrication applied, or for the tropics, to have a hot climate grease put in.
Cold batteries tend to discharge more quickly so bear this in mind as well, there’s nothing worse than having flat batteries especially when you’ve got out of bed so early. A couple of my past assistants have had their heads on the chopping block for that reason.
In the semi darkness use a tripod and a longer exposure if possible instead of increasing the ISO. Noise can look a little strange on snow, as it tends to show more in the shadows than the whiter areas.
If it’s snowing a fast shutter speed will stop the snow and a slow speed can create some nice effects, this can be fun to play with and take your mind off the fact you are freezing cold. Time for some of that hot tea or coffee you left on the kitchen work top, again good preparation means a happy photographer and a happy photographer takes better shots..
If you have something of interest in the foreground try a flash, not from the front, but from the side, if you can. This is where your knowledge of high-speed flash comes into play. It will allow you to use a very high shutter speed to control the exposure of the frontal snow while letting the background go dark.
What to do if there’s no snow? Well as you can see from this very very old shot, you can build it in the studio.
Right we are done ! We have some great shots.
First look around where you’ve been working. Have you dropped anything? Including rubbish of course. Photographers used to have a very bad name because some, not me of course, would just leave film boxes around.
Now this is important! When you get home don’t immediately leave your cold gear in a nice warm room. Take everything out of any bags, (including that sandwich you didn’t finish) and find a ventilated place where it can warm back to a normal temperature over a period of three or four hours without gathering condensation. I remember once literally pouring water out of a Hasselblad.