The snow has begun to fall here in the west, blanketing mountain scenics in a carpet of white. When we head out on a snow photography mission, we need to pay closer attention to the light meters in our cameras. All manufacturers have different terms and technologies for their in-camera meters. All of these meters still basically function the same. A typical in-camera camera meter (even in today’s digital cameras) takes an average reading of the light being reflected off of the scene in our viewfinders. By taking an average reading, the in-camera meter can then determine proper exposure based on the 3 reciprocal variables of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.
Snow Photography and the In-Camera Meter
As I mentioned, our in-camera meter takes an average reading. This essentially means that the meter is reading the light, then averaging that light, and then giving you an average setting for exposure. So if we understand that our reading is averaged, components of our scene that are lighter or darker than average probably need the brains of the photographer for proper exposure.
Have you ever shot snow photography with your meter in auto only to realize after taking the photo, the scene is significantly darker than what you eyes witnessed?
This same scenario happens oppositely when photographing dark subjects. Scenes that possess a lot of black are typically rendered lighter than they appear to your eye. This happens because your camera averages the light between pure white and pure black. It creates what is often referred to as middle tone, middle gray, or even 18% Gray.
Snow Photography and Middle Tone
So what is 18% Gray? The 18% refers to the reflectance of the color gray that your light meter reads. Unless you only shoot black and white subjects, or nothing but Star Wars Death Stars and Tie Fighters, 18% gray will typically mean very little to you. I personally feel that middle tone is the most accurate description of what our camera meters register for us. If you think of any color out there – blue, red, green, orange, etc. There are light tones, dark tones and middle tones of those colors.
Our cameras average scenes for the middle tones of ANY color. This why lighter colored scenes come out dark and darker colored scenes come out light. If we make no other adjustment to our camera’s meter when shooting.
Snow photography happens to work out perfectly for the gray color scenario. So if middle gray is what our camera is averaging for, then white snow will look gray or muddy if we do not adjust the meter to over expose or add light to our meter’s reading.
The specific option settings for our in-camera meters can further complicate snow photography. Most DSLRs have the ability to adjust the in-camera meter for size/sensitivity. The typical adjustments are spot, center-weighted, and evaluative/matrix metering. Brands cue in their own names for the meter settings as well, making it even more confusing. So let me try to simplify what the meter is doing when you adjust these settings.
Spot Metering – will only allow the meter to pick up a small fraction of your scene in regards to its reading. This is usually highlighted in your viewfinder by a small circle in the center of your viewfinder frame. If you want the most accurate meter reading possible, switch to spot mode and put the circle over the specific part of your scene that you want to meter and adjust accordingly. In the film days, this was the only meter setting you could effectively use to get a proper reading when shooting high-contrast transparency films like Fuijchrome Velvia.
Center-weighted Metering – is typically highlighted in your view finder by a larger circle or a set of brackets further from viewfinder center. It essentially expands the area of your in-camera meter and averages what is in the larger circle.
Evaluative/Matrix Metering – averages out the entire scene in your viewfinder. I can honestly say that I never used this metering mode when shooting film and almost always use it today. Digital cameras are easier to work with during a snow photography shoot. Let’s discuss why.
Exposure Compensation Film
Today’s digital cameras do an amazing job of automatically compensating for reflected light in most situations. The algorithms built into our digital cameras are far superior to film cameras of yesterday. With simulated exposures in live view and camera sensors that have significantly more dynamic range then film, nailing exposure in-camera is becoming less and less important for photographers.
However, there are a few scenarios where you will need apply what is called exposure compensation. One of those situations is snow photography.
The first time that I set out to photograph skiing, I knew nothing about exposure compensation and the effect that a bright subject would have on my final scene. I left my camera meter dead center and EVERY photo (a whole brick of Fujichrome Velvia) from that day was black. Film had a lot less dynamic range and thus a smaller latitude before failure. Snow photography took even more thought back then.
The second time that I went out, I overexposed my ski shots by 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 stops and came home with perfect snow photography exposures.
Exposure Compensation Digital
Enter the digital camera. Two things happened when digital arrived. First, you were able to look at an LCD to see what your photo looked liked. Second, digital sensors weren’t as demanding for proper exposure as film was.
Even though digital cameras have brought this exposure gap down, I still find that a little overexposure for snow photography helps a great deal. Instead of needing to add 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 stops, a single stop towards overexposing is typically sufficient in most snow scenarios. Messing up isn’t necessarily a deal breaker either though.
You can fix underexposed RAW photos in post as long as they aren’t too underexposed. In other words, if you forget to add some exposure to your snow photos in the field. You can still probably fixe the exposure in Lightroom without adding too much noise into your photo.
It is also pretty simple to take a test shot and look at your histogram to judge your exposure. The key is to overexpose your photo to the point at which your histogram is just touching the highlight side or the right side.
Expose to the Right
Ever heard the term expose to the right? By exposing your scene to the right the camera sensor is actually picking up more of the colors in your scene.
You can also think of it this way … We write from left to right – your histogram matches this. Left side is “black” and right side is “white”. Just like the term, “Black and White Photography”.
When I do this for snow photos, I typically don’t use “blinkies”. I also try not to look at the photo on my LCD screen. This is because it may actually look overexposed. Look primarily at your histogram. As long as you do not have a huge spike on the right side of your histogram you can pull back your exposure in post.
Snow Photography White Balance
This leads me directly to my final thought on photographing snow. Your white balance. If you are shooting RAW files, you do not need to worry about white balance in the field. Set your camera to auto and go to town. Your photos will potentially have a blue cast as the light gets lower, but you can easily adjust this later in Lightroom.
Thoughts on JPEG
You are screwed if you are shooting JPG in the field! Kidding, but you do need to take an additional step towards proper white balance. The best way to get white balance for JPG shots in snow is set a custom white balance if your camera allows for it. With my Canon 1DX, I can point the camera directly at the snow for any scene, take a photo, then set a custom white point for that snow. Again, I would only make this adjustment if I was shooting JPG and not the RAW file format.
If you are shooting RAW and you shot through sunset or even during a snow storm, you will probably get a final photo that is too blue for you liking. To fix this low-light bluing effect, I grab the White Balance Selector tool in the Basic Panel of Lightroom. From there, I click in various places on my photo to get a custom white balance. This in turn gives my photo a more visually appealing color tone. Simple and done.
The most important thing to remember when photographing snow is that a little exposure compensation goes a long way. Blowing your exposure while shooting RAW is salvageable most of the time with today’s sensors. Adding a little bit of overexposure to your in-camera’s meter reading will not only give your photo more color it will also introduce less noise. This allows you to add even a bit more exposure in post.
Shooting RAW instead of JPG in-camera will also make your life easier for choosing a white balance setting. With a RAW file you can just set it to auto and go.
And finally, I have found evaluative or matrix metering to be the best setting for a proper snow exposure.
The only thing left for you to do, is go out and photography snow. Time to discover some results of your own.