Whatever type of photography you prefer, if you’re shooting outdoors weather is always a major factor in the success or failure of your images. However, few conditions can have as much impact as snow. A brief dusting of this magical white stuff can transform a mundane scene into a winter wonderland, but it is also cold, wet, slippery and will play havoc with your camera’s exposure!
Considering the colder conditions we have been experiencing, we thought it might be useful to run through our thoughts on the advantages and pitfalls of shooting in snow.
Why we like snow in images
If we open the curtains in the morning, look out and see snow, the instinctive reaction is to reach for our camera, but why is that. What is it about snow that makes photographers excited? Well, this is probably not an exhaustive list of reasons, but here are some of our thoughts on why it appeals so much.
It sets subjects in a highly distinctive setting
There is no doubt that snow has more effect on the way a scene looks than just about any other weather-related conditions. It literally covers up the old and adds a white, shiny ‘veneer’ straight over the top of everything. This has the effect of placing principle subjects (whatever that might be) immediately into a radically different setting. This not only physically looks very different, but also comes with lots of associated interpretations from the viewer. Snow means winter, snow is cold, snow is present in more northern locations, snow is pretty etc, etc.
Now, this characteristic isn’t going to automatically work well for everything. Photographing Lions in the snow for example, (as we have done on the odd occasion), might not ‘feel right’ because of our knowledge of that species. Wolves however, would be a totally different story and they would somehow feel perfectly placed on snow covered ground. It is therefore perhaps about considering how a subject fits within snowy conditions and how those conditions effect the story that the image tells. Whilst the Lion might look a little out of place and make the viewer question if it is cold, a Wolf would seem perfectly at home, literally in its element.
So, of itself, snow can transform a scene and the setting of our subjects and if we consider carefully how this effects the story in the picture, it can be a highly effective element in our images.
It simplifies messiness
The ability of snow to ‘cover things up’ is also very attractive to simplify messiness. Imagine a well-trodden trail covered in mud and debris, suddenly being transformed into a pristine white pathway, along which our person or animal strolls. Snow just has a habit of making scenes less distracting. Simplicity is often our friend in terms of finding compositions and snow is an ally in this endeavour.
It is for this reason, we might seek out not only appropriate subjects (wolves not Lions), but also subject that could do with simplifying.
It can add a different beauty to light
Perhaps a less obvious benefit is the ability of snow covered ground to act as a giant reflector. We are normally used to seeing subjects heavily lit from above (the sky) and certainly in sunny conditions this can lead to heavy shadows. Whilst overcast light improves this situation, snow covered ground adds an entirely new level of ‘fill-in’ illumination by bouncing the light from the sky back up into those shadows.
This characteristic varies depending on the level of snow on the ground, the type of subject we are shooting and, of course, the type of light in the sky, but there is no doubt that snow can add some really interesting effects to the way our subjects are lit.
It can evoke an emotion
As we have already said, snow has a habit of kicking up associated interpretations in our viewers. These reactions might be quite superficial, like “it looks cold” but these thoughts can run deeper and invoke a more emotional response. For example, the fact a subject looks cold might make the viewer feel concerned about our subject, or even feel uncomfortable about the subject’s situation.
Not all of these emotional reactions will be negative, however. A sparkling, sun covered snow scene with people or animals playing might feel fresh, fun, natural or even invigorating. Considering the possible emotional reaction of our audience can be a useful thought as we consider what the image we are making will ‘say’.
The Problems of snow
Sadly, for all those positive attributes, snow can also bring its fair share of difficulties. Naturally, there are some simple, logistical problems. Snow can be wet, cold and uncomfortable to work in, but hopefully these obstacles are easily remedied with a little preparation and appropriate clothing. Let’s take a moment however, to think about the technical issues it might cause us as photographers.
First up, and most obvious is complications with correct exposure. This is a very common problem, and many photographers are unsure how to tackle it. Before we dive into potential solutions, we should look at what causes the issues in the first place.
If we take a quick and simplistic view of how a camera assesses correct exposure, we might propose the idea that the camera works on the notion that everything is, on average, average in tone. If we think about it, we photograph subjects with light tones, dark tones, whites, black and a lot of various ‘mid tones’. The camera can’t actually know what tone a part of the scene should be, but it can bring all those tones together and average them. And, actually this works a surprising amount of the time. However, snow does not quite play to these rules, as it is most definitely not mid-tone. How often have you seen images where the snow hasn’t been recorded as pristine white, but somehow looks a little ‘dirty’ or ‘grey’? This is almost certainly the result of the camera mis-calculating its exposure.
Sadly, there isn’t a simple answer to this issue. The problem lies in the fact that every time we compose an image, there might be radically different amounts of snow (very pale tones) and main subject (mid or darker tones). This uncertainty will lead to some pretty unpredictable results if left unchecked.
Here are 3 techniques that might help manage and overcome this issue:
- a) Checking each image on the camera and then taking corrective exposure steps
If you are shooting subjects in the snow that are relatively slow paced, you will likely have time to take an initial frame and check the cameras exposure as a ‘test’. If this initial image shows your subject too dark or the snow as pale grey rather than white, it is then fairly straight forward to correct the error in exposure with ‘exposure compensation’. This sequence of actions; shot, check result, adjust exposure, check result, should enable you to fine tune the exposure until it exactly meets your requirements. Using the cameras Histogram, will also significantly improve the accuracy of your adjustments.
- b) Pre-emptively adjusting exposure with a ‘+’ to make images brighter
If the subjects you are shooting are very dynamic or fast moving, you might choose to pre-emptively adjust your exposure brighter, normally by dialling in a ‘+’ on the exposure compensation. The more snow in the frame there is likely to be and the smaller the subject, the more compensation you might need. Starting at something like +1 or +2 stops would be a good start point if you are not sure. As above, you can still of course, check the results on replay using the Histogram as you go along. Whilst this technique might not give perfect results, it will often reduce the margin of error from an uncorrected image.
- c) Using spot metering on the main subject
Spot metering is a slightly controversial tool. In essence it allows you to take very precise exposure meter readings from a relatively small (often central) area of the frame. Providing the ‘spot’ where this reading is taken is over your subject, this means the meter reading will ignore whatever is around it, in this case the snow. The theory therefore suggests, correct exposure on the subject (assuming of course it is roughly mid-tone in nature) regardless of that bright, white snow around it.
This Technique is controversial because it depends on the photographer fully understanding how the system works and not only ensuring the spot reading area falls within the right area of the frame, but also them having a clear expectation of the tonal value of this main subject.
Crudely, if you have a mid-tone subject sat in the middle of a load of whiteness, give spot metering a try and see how it works out.
AF difficulty if it is snowing
So far, we’ve talked a lot about snow on the ground, but what if it is actually still snowing? Well, this can cause big problems for auto focus. Unlike rain, which is relatively small and fast moving, snow can literally ‘get in the way’ of the AF system seeing the subject. There really isn’t any clever auto focus work around here, there’s just too much going on. So, if we find ourselves shooting images as it is snowing, we will definitely start by using AF but then make sure we are regularly checking the sharpness of the resulting images. If the snow gets too thick and focus starts to pick up on the flakes rather than the subject, the only option is to switch to manual focus. Whilst this seems simple enough, of course, we have the same issue as the AF system, in as much as it can be just as hard for us to see the subject as it can be for the camera. One technique to combat this might be described as ‘focus through’. This isn’t really that technical, it just requires us to take a burst of shots as we subtlety shift manual focus ‘through’ our subject. We would start by guessing the focus being slightly forward of the subject and then ‘push’ focus until we get something just behind looking sharp. If we take a series of quick shots as we do this, hopefully at least one of them will be correctly focused.
Again, this is not a perfect technique and can lead to loads of very similar and out of focus results, but if you get just one frame right it can make the effort worth it.
Creates high contrast especially in sunlight
We all know that bright sunny conditions can lead to high contrast, which in turn, is hard to get right with exposure. Well snow and sunshine just compound this problem, leading to extremely bright highlights and potentially very dark shadows. Solutions to this dilemma are tricky. We could potentially, shoot a set of images to create a high dynamic range ‘HDR’ result but this will only work if subjects are static.
For moving subjects, we would tend to adjust our exposures to make sure that highlights do not ‘burn out’ or overexpose, even if this means very deep, under exposed shadows. This technique, whilst not really addressing the basic issue of capturing high dynamic range subjects, will at least prioritise highlights over shadows for a more pleasing, natural result.
Low temperatures and battery drain
One final difficulty is not directly related to snow but is often associated with shooting in these conditions. Low temperatures can not only lead to a surprising drop in our camera’s battery efficiency, but they can also, even effect the operation of the camera itself. This is not likely to be an issue with UK temperatures but if you are visiting colder destinations it should be something to consider.
We would always head out with a spare battery or two and ideally, we would keep these somewhere warmer like an inside pocket under a jacket. If conditions get very cold, we would also try and manage the equipment itself, possibly by using a cover or by keeping cameras inside bags wherever possible.
As a final thought on kit and temperature, remember to warm cameras up slowly and avoid condensation from indoor warm, moist air. We tend to bring bags in and not unpack cameras for some hours to allow everything to slowly adjust to room temperature.
So that’s snow. It is beautiful, inspirational, dramatic and enormous fun, but being prepared for the pitfall’s as well as the opportunities can improve our pictures!