I’m not sure if this video link will work, but it is funny. It is a Baltimore weather man talking about the snow that is coming this February 6th, 2010. Click on the link and see if it works and have a chuckle before I give you some tips on taking better pictures in snow.

Baltimore weather man

With so much heavy snow throughout the region I know that photographers will be out in droves trying to take some lovely snow pictures and portraits. Horses in the snow, kids in the snow, trees covered with snow and everything else will be photographed by everyone who enjoys photography. Many will be frustrated with their snow picture results. My professional friends, people who just got a great new digital camera for Christmas, and people who just take a few pictures now and then will be wondering if their camera broke.

Why are my snow pictures always so dark? I don’t want any more gray snow pictures

Camera meters which determine the amount of exposure that comes into the camera are based on average lighting situations. In most average situations 18% gray is what your camera wants to record. There are some dark areas, some lighter areas and some mid-tone areas in almost every image so your camera sets the amount of light exposing the film or sensor to that reading. The problem with snow pictures is that they have very little mid-tones and dark areas. Most of the image is white with snow. Your camera although quite sophisticated does not have a brain of its own and needs a little help from you. Without your help it will do what it knows to do and create an average 18% gray image or something with mid tones, highlights and dark areas. With mostly white throughout the image this confuses the computer in your camera and your snow pictures will NOT have white snow, but will tend to be VERY underexposed and dark. The snow will be in the mid tones and be one shade of gray or another, but not white. With digital cameras underexposed images also show a lot of noise or grain and so not only will your snow pictures be darks, but they will also be murky or muddy looking.

What is the solution to my dark, murky snow pictures?

Since you want your snow to appear white in your pictures, you have to take control of the situation and make some adjustments. The solution is fairly easy. If you are on one of the automatic exposure settings, that’s fine. You can stay there, but you need to find a menu setting called EXPOSURE COMPENSATION. Usually it is a little table with a plus + and a minus – sign showing. The normal setting is “0”. You need to tell your camera you want MORE LIGHT even though it may be very bright outside with all that snow. Remember, your camera wants to create an 18% gray scene so it will set the camera shutter speed and aperture to allow less light in turning your snow to 18% gray. Now more gray snow. Move that compensation setting to +1 and give it a test. Still dark? Then move it to +2 and take another test image. Oops, too bright (if you have your highlights warning on you will see the snow flashing in red perhaps), then try +1.5. Good, that looks great.

What should my HISTOGRAM look like?

If you are used to checking your histogram to confirm good exposures, you will be used to something that looks something like a bell curve. There is some data showing on the left and a big hump somewhere in the middle and then some on the right. A big hump in the middle USUALLY works good, but not with snow images. Average images show up that way because they are average with some dark areas, lots of mid-tones and some bright or highlight areas. With snow you do not want your histogram to look that way. With an image that is dominated with white snow, you histogram will be a hump toward the right of the graph. In fact it will be a big hump and very to the right of your viewing window. However, you don’t want it to be up against the right wall of your histogram. If your histogram looks like a graph that would continue to the right (not a spike or a hump but a wall), then it is likely you have over compensated and you will lose some detail in the bright areas of your image. If you have an image program like Photoshop, you are welcome to drag these two images to your desktop and check the histogram of both. The dark image below has a middle hump histogram. The correctly exposed snow picture show a spike or hump to the right (the brighter side of the graph).

Histogram of darker image showing most data in the middle. Most of the data is toward the middle of the histogram where your mid-tones would normally be showing. What that means is that your camera is recording your snow as a mid-tone and you will have gray snow :

Take better snow pictures. This histogram will produce gray snow

Below is the histogram of the image with proper exposure for snow images. Most of the data (the snow part of the image) shows up on the right side of the histogram where the white part of your image should register:

Taking better pictures in snow. This histogram is closer to what you should see

This last histogram shown below is overcompensated. You are too high on the plus + and the highlights will be “blown out” which means that the data about the texture of the snow will be lost. Do you see what I mean by the data is up against the wall of the right side of your histogram. There is more data to the right, but it is off the graph and is not being recorded by the camera. It is lost information and you cannot fix lost information.

Blown highlights snow image will not show detail in the texture of the snow

Here is the image that you would normally get without compensating for all the bright snow. This is the first exposure and histogram example:

taking better snow pictures

Below is an image with exposure compensation of +1.5 set on the camera before taking the picture. Remember, if you don’t make the change, your images will be very under exposed and this cannot be corrected with your image program because it will look murky and noisy from the lack of proper exposure. This is the second histogram example.

Take better snow pictures

Manual mode as an option

Some folks like to know exactly what their camera is doing all the time and they want to set all the exposure settings manually. However, the outdoors is not a studio where everything will stay the same. One minute there may be an opening in the sky and it could become much brighter. Another minute another brightness level. If you are in full manual mode, you will need to be checking frequently for changes in the amount of light in the scene. Personally, in variable light situations, I prefer to be able to concentrate on my subject after once making the adjustments in the camera to correct for all the bright snow. BUT, if you are a die-hard manual shooter, just overexpose by one or two stops and check your histogram to make sure you are not clipping the highlights.

LAST— Big caution–YOU MUST DO THIS–Remember this!!!!!

When you are finished shooting in a snowy scene. YOU MUST SET YOUR CAMERA COMPENSATION SETTING BACK TO “0”. If you leave it at plus +1.5 then when you encounter a more normal scene all your images will be over exposed.

I hope this helps you to have some great photography fun in the snow and get spectacular results. Go out and take some pictures and make some comments here.

This post will appear on my web site: http://www.photosbypdemott.com It will also appear on my Facebook personal page and my Facebook fan page along with a post on twitter. I am a portrait photographer in the Dayton, Ohio area specializing in on-location portraits of seniors, families and children. I also have a specialty in equine (horse) photography and will come to your farm or stable for your session. If you like my style I encourage you to follow me in any or all the above mentioned areas. If you are a photographer, I enjoy networking with other photographers both professional and amateur.

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