Could another blizzard be on its way? Tom Coleman explains how to achieve great results in the snow, while protecting yourself and your gear
Image by Emanuel Hahn.
Snow blanketing a landscape can offer an amazing opportunity for any photographer. If you live in the UK, you may even get an unexpected day off work to go out shooting; we all know how reliable the UK's transport network is when an unexpected blizzard sweeps across the land!
As magical as snow can be, it’s all too easy to come away with dull and dreary photographs that fall short of capturing a winter wonderland. In this concise guide to snow photography, I’ll look at getting the camera settings right, share some ideas for subjects to shoot, list the kit you’ll need and look at how to protect yourself and your gear when out and about in the extreme cold.
Weatherproof camera and lenses
It’s in extreme weather conditions that the build quality of your camera kit really makes a difference. From your camera to your lens, if it’s weatherproofed then not only will it cope with wet, snowy weather, but it will also stop condensation forming inside in the long-term. That’s not the end of the story with condensation, though — more on that later.
Even with weatherproof kit, if it’s snowing then it’s best to use extra protection. Dedicated rain covers are available but a regular plastic bag and rubber band will do the trick if you don’t have a rain cover to hand.
A warm photographer is a happy photographer and one that’s more likely to stay outside for longer. Once you’ve found your spot to shoot, it’s likely there’ll be a certain amount of standing around, which is just the time when the cold will take its full effect.
Obviously wrap up warmly — a thermal layer and hat will make all the difference — but make sure to keep your hands warm too. It’s much more difficult to press buttons on your camera when your fingers are frozen. Your kit also gets cold; it’s truly unpleasant to lug around a freezing cold metal tripod with unprotected hands, although most tripods have foam covers on their legs, which will go some way to helping.
There are plenty of gloves available that will keep your hands a bit warmer without compromising your dexterity around the camera, and some even work with touch-screen devices. If it’s extremely cold, you may also appreciate a hand warmer heat pack.
Fogging on the front of your lens may be unavoidable. Make regular checks that condensation has not formed here or else the clarity and contrast of your pictures will be compromised. Pack a lens cloth and wipe off any condensation using a circular motion.
The risk of condensation does not end once you’ve returned home. A sharp change in temperature from the cold to your warm home is likely to trigger condensation, so make sure you either place your kit in a sealed container or stagger the change between cold and hot temperatures by first putting the camera in a cold room, such as a porch.
Condensation is likely to occur when you’re out and about in the extreme cold. As already mentioned, weather-sealed kit will not fog up on the inside when exposed to cold air. However, any camera is susceptible during a lens change, so if a lens change is necessary, make it quick and avoid allowing any snow into the camera by turning it to face downwards.
General camera settings are, of course, determined by your subject (and I’ll share some ideas later), but you can’t just set your camera to auto and expect punchy results in the snow. Here are the key camera settings to get right...
Plain and simple, accurate exposure is tricky to acquire when out in the snow. Being a reflective white, snow can play havoc on a camera’s evaluative metering system, which determines the correct exposure by looking at all the different tones within the scene to determine highlights, shadows and mid-tones. Therefore, if bright tones dominate the scene — be it a snowy landscape or bright sky — the result is underexposed (dark) and dull images.
Exposure compensation can be used to adjust for a camera underexposing a snowy scene.
To brighten images easily, you can stay in a camera’s evaluative metering mode and dial in positive exposure compensation. Depending if it’s sunny or grey and cloudy, anything between +0.7EV to +2.5EV should suffice.
Although bright images capture the eye, don’t go too bright or highlight detail will be lost. To check highlight detail is present, use the histogram. One should dial in positive exposure compensation until the data reaches the right hand side of the histogram but not beyond it.
As you apply exposure compensation, make sure the data in your histogram does not move too far to the right.
Alternatively, select the spot-metering mode and take a meter reading from a mid-tone in the scene — this might be a detail such as a person’s face or the bricks of a building. Spot-metering systems vary from camera to camera; in some, for example, you may be able to shift the spot across a wide area of the frame using the camera’s control wheel.
If the spot area is fixed to the centre of the frame, pressing the Auto Exposure Lock (AE-L) button when over the mid-tone and recomposing the shot to taste does the trick.
Tip: Battery life is compromised in cold conditions, so don’t expect to get the same shot count from a battery as you would during the hot summer months. You can help extend battery life by keeping the battery warm when it's not in use — in your hands, under an arm or in a trouser pocket are great spots.
Colour and white balance
Chances are if a scene is covered by snow, it’s dominated by a single tone largely determined by the ambient light. When set to the auto white balance (AWB), most cameras compensate for dominant tones by shifting the colour balance with an opposite colour cast. When shooting in snow, it’s common that AWB will render a cool blueish colour cast. Instead of the auto mode, use a white-balance pre-set according to the weather conditions, be it the overcast or sunny setting.
This comparison shows the difference made by a simple adjustment to exposure compensation and white balance.
It’s always worth converting a snow picture to monochrome post capture, given how unlikely it is that there’ll be a wide colour palette in a snow-covered scene. Tone and form are great features to explore creatively in the snow. For example, reducing detail by increasing contrast for a high key black-and-white image may work with some subjects, such as a tree silhouette.
Darker subjects against the snow are great for high-contrast monochrome images.
Some scenes come straight to mind when we talk about the snow, but the conditions will suit a wide range of photographers and subjects. Here are a few ideas...
If there’s snowfall overnight, get out early. Just like the avid skier or snowboarder seeking out fresh powder, be the first to your planned location to capture the untouched snow. Once cars have turned the white stuff into brown slush, or people have trudged through the snow and scooped it up for the first snowball fight, the purity will have gone and the impact will not be the same.
Many details in a landscape have been hidden by snow, which can make for wonderfully simple vistas. Try for a single tree or blades of tall grass poking up from the heaped snow.
Your subjects do not need to be complicated.
If you are the first to your location, be careful as you go because once you have walked through snow it's impossible to backtrack and clean it up fully if that’s the spot you want to shoot. Conversely, a set of footprints in the snow leading off into the distance can be a great tool to invite the viewer into the scene.
It’s not all about the landscape — look for smaller details and subjects capped with snow.
Regarding illumination, snowy scenes are great for taking portraits. Think of the snow as a massive, all-surrounding daylight reflector, meaning that the subject will be well lit from all sides — especially when the sun is out. Portraits taken in the snow can be bright and vibrant, with the reflected light making eyes pop and eliminating dark areas underneath.
Be sure to have fun when taking portraits in the snow. Your model will be cold, so get some energy going. Throw snow in the air, build a snowman or have a snowball fight — whatever it takes! With the majority of the scene being white, any strong colour will really standout. For example, you may wish to have your subject wearing a colourful coat and scarf.
Christmas comes around every year and there’s no better way to touch the imagination than snow-covered villages, quaint cottages and cobbled high streets. If out in the local town, think of some typical landmarks and buildings and capture a collection of images to put together in postcard format post-capture. Make the most of snowy days — these pictures can sell or at the least can be used for your Christmas card design next year!
Objects take on new shapes and forms when covered in the snow, whether it’s piles of snow on steps or window ledges. Look out for interesting and abstract shapes and patterns and get in close to capture them.
About the Author
Tim has worked primarily as a wedding photographer and cameraman, but enjoys every kind of photography. He has worked for Amateur Photographer magazine as the Deputy Technical Editor, writing everything from camera reviews to advice on good photographic practice. You can view more of his work here.