Proper Exposure for Winterscapes

The weather geeks are predicting some wintry precipitation for the overnight.  I thought this might be a good time to talk a little about how to take those snowy landscape pictures!  

Just point and shoot right?  I mean, my camera/phone knows what it's doing, so what else do I need to know?

While this is often true, snow presents a classic problem for our modern electronic gizmos...they don't know that you're aiming them at something that's supposed to be white! You see, a camera's light meter doesn't know what it's metering, it's just measuring the amount of light and telling the camera's computer (yes, it has computer inside!) what f/stop, shutter speed and ISO values to shoot at.  It then sets the camera at that exposure setting automatically when you release the shutter.  Even if you're using a manual mode where you change those settings yourself (and of course, you should!) the camera's meter will indicate a "correct" exposure based on the amount of light it's measuring.  

Problem: Snow is shiny and reflects a lot of light.  Therefore you're camera will want to underexpose the photo and leave you with snow that's closer to middle gray than a nice, pure white.  Ooops!

Interestingly, your camera will do the same thing, but in reverse, in lower light situations or when taking pictures of subjects that are dark.  It will want to overexpose the scene in this scenario.

So what do we do?  The answer is actually fairly simple, the only difficulty is recognizing these sorts of situations when we shoot (hint: this is one of them!). Most cameras have some way of overriding what your camera's meter is telling you.  This is usually called exposure compensationcheck your camera's manual to find out how to adjust this.  For my camera, if I'm shooting in Aperture Priority (which I often am) I simply dial in exposure compensation by dialing the rear command dial up or down (this adjusts the shutter speed).  But for some cameras, you have to hold down a dedicated button to do this.  

This is not meant to be instructions on how to dial in this compensation, but rather why.  So again, read your manual.  

But which way?  Do I add "positive" or "negative" compensation...and how much?  What do these numbers mean?

Exposure Compensation is usually written or displayed in terms of "+" or "-" Stops over or under the Exposure Value (EV).  In other words, a "+1 EV" would mean overexposing the scene by 1 full stop.  Whereas "-1 EV" would mean underexposing my 1 full stop.  

Confusing?  Probably a little, but here's an easier way to think about it using the example of our upcoming snow storm.  If I wake up in the morning to a scene right out of a Jack London short story, point my camera and take a shot, it will likely be underexposed. In other words, it's too dark!  Therefore, I need to dial in a "+" exposure compensation. Need brighter picture = need positive compensation.  

Naturally, the opposite is true.  Picture is too bright, dial in negative compensation.  Pretty simple right?

But how much?!  Well, basically, it depends.  It depends on how over or underexposed your camera is making the scene.  The short answer is, look at your LCD display on the camera or even better, your histogram and adjust to taste.  I know, I know, you want simple, concrete, one-size-fits-all bad! Get another hobby!  I will say that in my experience, with my camera, when I'm shooting snow, I start out with +2 exposure compensation and go from they say, your mileage may vary.

So get out there and shoot some snowy scenery tomorrow...or whenever the weather gets nasty.  Here are just a couple of extra tips to get you started.

  • Learn to use your camera or phone's exposure compensation (yes, a lot of phones have this feature).
  • Look for subjects that are different in the snow.  The snow and ice can bring an entirely new dimension to the otherwise familiar.
  • Keep your camera warm and take extra batteries!  Your camera will operate just fine in most chilly environments, but your batteries will be drained much, much faster!
  • Consider converting images to black and white.  The general lack of color in a snowy scene emphasizes form, texture and tonal contrast.
  • Most careful, stay warm and recover with a nice cup of hot chocolate.