Shooting Snow

The days are getting longer and the sun brighter, but you still have time to get out there and photograph the frigid Yukon wonders.

Winter brings unique challenges in capturing this splendour effectively – challenges you can overcome.

Your mind and eye adapt to each portion of the landscape as you gaze over the vista before you.

Not so for your digital camera.

The ice crystals blanketing the landscape confuse the metering system of digital devices as it considers the entire scene in order to choose the settings necessary and provide optimum exposure.

Fear not, intrepid shooter. As the critically-thinking, creative human operating the system, you can overcome this technological failure.

Your digital camera’s exposure system takes in the entire scene, then blends it and attempts to create an exposure that results in a neutral 18 percent grey.

Unless you are shooting in RAW format, it will then process a JPEG file. (Using RAW format and post-processing is a subject for another time.)

Scenes heavily laden with white, such as snow, tend to be underexposed and come out looking more grey than white.

So, what do you do?

Overexpose the scene – the opposite of what your camera is attempting to do.

There are a couple of ways to do this.

Put your camera on manual mode and adjust the shutter speed and f-stop until your meter indicates the amount of overexposure you desire.

Alternatively, you can use the exposure compensation settings to overexpose.

The amount of overexposure required will differ, depending on the quantity of snow, overall brightness, angle of sunlight and the amount of area in shadow.

Try 1/3-stop increments and experiment with different exposures to see what your preference is, as overexposing can cause loss of detail in the snow.

Exposure, when there is a high dynamic range, is subjective and depends on what portions of the image you want in detail.

Get out early in the day or late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky. The angle of the sun’s rays at those times defines the shadow and provides intrigue.

Look for shadows in tracks, pathways, bumps and rises to create interesting texture in the whiteness.

Your camera may also underexpose your darker areas when there’s an expanse of white in the background. In this case, overexposing correctly exposes the subject of your image.

Use spot (centre weighted) metering on the critical area of the photo when your subject is darker than the snow to ensure correct exposure. This may, though, cause the snow to lose definition.

Sometimes a balancing act between the two is necessary, or you may choose to blow out the white entirely in order to preserve detail in something else.

Another option is to use fill light.

The portrait accompanying this column has the background overexposed by one full stop with a strobe providing fill light for the subject. A wind chill of 36 C and blowing snow made it difficult for the model. Thanks, Stephanie.

Getting the correct colour balance can be difficult when photographing snow as it reflects more of the blue spectrum of light than other colours.

Our mind and our vision compensate for this and we still see white – but the camera sensor will only record what it receives.

The paradox to this is that when snow is overexposed to retain its inherent whiteness, the trade-off is often a lack of definition.

While we’re on the subject of photography in winter, don’t forget to protect your camera and its electronics.

A large 25-cent zip-lock freezer bag is great, cheap insurance.

Before coming in from the cold, put your camera – lens and all – into the bag, so that condensation forms on the outside of the bag rather than inside your gear as it warms. Wait at least two hours before removing the bag.

Freezing temperatures will do more than cause your fingers to burn and ache. Battery life for your digital system is also shortened considerably. Always carry spares.

The Achilles heel for my system during cold snaps is the internal backup power that maintains BIOS settings such as the date and time. Make sure those settings are accurate after an excursion in the cold.

There, you’re all set. Go out and create some wonderful winter photographs and share them with the world.

Email your questions to me at [email protected] or post them after the column at the What’s Up Yukon website Your queries will form the basis of further columns.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Happy shooting, and remember to leave the environment as you found it.

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