How to Photograph Snow


The weather forecasters warned us nearly a week in advance that the east coast, particularly the Mid-Atlantic region, would be in the bullseye of a major and historic snow event beginning on January 22nd and ending sometime on January 24th 2016. With that in mind, the usual preparations for hunkering down to ride out the storm took place and we felt well prepared for the event. And what an event it was, with some 32 inches or more of heavy snow accumulating by the time it was over.

Needless to say, as a photographer I was excited to see the snowfall but also anxious for its conclusion so I could head out to capture a few pristine winter scenes. The good news is, the snow was over on Sunday morning and the sky was beautiful and sunny. The bad news, I had to spend the majority of the day digging out and cleaning up our property. Finally, after helping my neighbor, the opportunity for the great escape presented itself and I headed out about an hour before sunset, capturing the image you see below.

- Click any image to Enlarge -

The sun was still well above the trees when I arrived at one of my favorite locations so I simply waited for the light to soften and the sun to dip just below the tree line. Having the trees backlit would provide a nice silhouette across the frame and the colorful sky became a bonus.

The Challenge of Shooting Snow

Like most photographers, I love shooting snow scenes. For me, it’s that transformation from the often drab, gray winter that brings renewed excitement and a whole new world covered in pristine powder and wind-sculpted shapes that are just begging to be photographed. But this new world, which is very temporary, brings with it many challenges for capturing a well-balanced image. In some cases, its the bright sunshine that makes it difficult to find the right exposure. This leads to photos with blown out areas (overexposed) or that dreaded dingy gray or even blue snow, leaving you with disappointing photos that are nowhere near what you saw while in the field.

Now let’s understand why the snow in some photos appears less vivid and white than expected. Your camera's meter reads all of this vast whiteness as an overexposed scene and then compensates with it's auto exposure system by selecting a faster shutter speed to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. Since the light has been reduced, the resulting image shows the dingy gray or off-color blue snow described above. I could show an example here but we've all seen enough of those disappointing images.

To avoid the dingy snow and capture the scene in a realistic and well-balanced manner, I simply use my camera's Matrix Metering System and Aperture-Priority mode. Now this may sound quite simplistic but this is what works time and time again for me and will for you as well. Take a couple of test shots, look at your LCD screen and determine if you need to adjust your exposure compensation. 

You can also focus on a darker area of the scene, like one of the trees in the image below by holding the shutter button halfway down, then (with shutter still pressed halfway) frame your scene as you would like to capture it and press the shutter the rest of the way. Experiment until you find the method that best works for you.

The shot above was taken out of the passenger-side window of my vehicle, a truly drive-by photograph. I stopped and took several hand-held shots and was on my way in less that a minute. What drew me to this scene was the repeating patterns of the trees.

Next up, a neighborhood sunset taken in the days after winter storm Jonas had passed through the Mid-Atlantic region. This was one of the few streets that had been decently plowed and the lighting at the time was soft, lending itself to this quiet and peaceful mood.

In closing just remember, photographing the fallen snow is somewhat counterintuitive in that, you may have to overexpose the scene by increasing your exposure compensation 1.5 to 2 stops to override what the camera's meter is indicating.  Again, experiment until you find what works best for you.

Stay creative!

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