Shooting in a snow-white environment

If you happen to live in a winter wonderland of snow, then you know all about the downside of the fluffy white stuff, like early-morning shoveling and icy roads. But snow is an iconic fixture of wintertime for a reason; it gives us snowmen, frosty trees, and snowball fights (not to mention ski trips). All of those things are also good winter photo subjects. Here are some tips for taking great pictures of snow this winter season.

Protect your camera: Before you take your camera out into the cold and snow, make sure you know how to care for and protect it. You’ll want to keep the camera from getting too wet, so it’s not a good idea to shoot unprotected during an active snowfall. And when you’re done, don’t bring the camera directly from arctic conditions into a toasty, warm house, or your camera might be damaged by condensation. See Four Easy Ways to Winterize Your Photo Techniques for tips on how to deal with these issues.

Shoot early in the day: Midday is generally a bad time of day to take outdoor photos—the sun is overhead and creates harsh light with lots of contrasty shadows. But it’s especially bad when you’re taking photos in the snow—the snow reflects all that light in very unflattering ways. You’ll get better photos by shooting early in the day.

Shooting in the morning avoids harsh shadows and makes for pleasing light.

There’s another benefit to early morning photos: The chance to capture virgin frost clinging to trees, leaves, and pine needles. Frost is extremely delicate, and even a little sunlight will make it melt and lose its light, crystalline structure. If you want to get close-ups of ice crystals and frost before it starts to decay, get outside in the early morning hours.

Don't trust your camera's exposure meter: Have you ever noticed that your snapshots of snow never seem to look as beautiful as you remember when you took the shot? A field of pure white snow is perhaps the most challenging place to take photos because your camera will almost certainly be confused and use the wrong exposure. When left to its own devices, your camera is going to try to make the white snow look grey.

Many digital cameras are easily confused by snowy scenes.

The fix? You have a couple of options. If your camera has a scene mode called Snow or Sand and Snow, try using that. If you’d rather fiddle with the settings manually, try over-exposing the shot by about one stop using the camera’s exposure compensation dial.

It’s also a really good idea to review the photo in the camera’s LCD afterwards. Display the histogram and make sure that the graph isn’t "clipped" on the right side, which is a strong indication of an under-exposed photo.

Using the right white balance and overexposing the scene can dramatically improve many photos with snow.

Finally, you could shoot using your camera’s Raw format and then tweak the brightness and contrast on your computer using your favorite photo editing program.

Check your white balance: It turns out that wonky exposures are just the start of your problems. Snow is notorious for confusing the white balance in many digital cameras. The result can be photos that turn out a sickly blue instead of the crisp, pristine white you’d like to see.

The best way to fix this is to manually set the camera's white balance. Carry a sheet of white paper with you and use it to set the white balance outdoors, in the snow you’re planning to shoot. (You might need to check your camera’s user guide for instructions on how to set white balance.) If you can only choose among white balance presets, try the tungsten setting instead of daylight. Or, if you shoot in Raw mode, you can whiten the snow afterwards using your photo editing software.

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