10 trails to snowy satisfaction

With winter in full swing and snow falling along the Front Range here in Colorado, it seems only appropriate to equip our extended Mike’s Camera family with the knowledge to take full photographic advantage of it. Without further ado, here are ten tips for top shots in the snow!

Start early to capture fragile subjects

Even if the air is icy as can be, the sun is your worst enemy when it comes to fine details in the snow. Set an early alarm if you want to capture individual snowflakes or crystalline frost, as below.

Photo by Russ Hoffman

Gather up the posse for a photo hunt

A pristine, snowy field is just as good as a heavily-controlled studio set at isolating your subject, and all that shiny white works like an all-natural lighting kit. Take advantage of the ideal conditions to make fabulous portraits! Added bonus: things like snowball fights and snow angels are great for bringing out genuine emotion in people’s faces. Turn on your burst/continuous shooting mode to nail the moment of maximum joy.

Photo by Shannon Bress

Snap out of Auto

As dramatically beautiful as a winter’s landscape is to the naked eye, it can be quite tricky to capture something that stands up to reality. You will definitely need to take manual control of a variety of settings to get consistently good results. Here are my recommendations:

  • Overexpose your shots. This is probably the most important one. Your camera automatically sets exposure so that the “average” of a black and white version would come out to be 18% gray. For normal, colorful conditions, this works pretty darn well, but most cameras still aren’t quite smart enough to know when the scene is supposed to be mostly white. The easiest way to prevent muddy-looking snow is to set your exposure value compensation (that +/- icon) higher by at least 1/3 of a stop, though you may need to go as high as +2.0.
  • Widen your aperture to accentuate the natural isolation occurring in the scene by narrowing your focus. White patches in the background will fade into white, creamy bokeh.
  • If you don’t want falling snow to distract from your scene, set a slightly longer shutter speed and it should disappear. Alternatively, if you want to capture them crisply, make sure you’re using a very fast shutter speed. Since a fast shutter speed usually entails using a wide aperture as well, you can even make your picture of the snow itself with a little careful focusing!
  • Speaking of focus, it can be very tricky in the bright white—make sure you know how to use your magnifier, and don’t throw out any photos until you can judge them on the big screen.
  • As with any more extreme lighting scenario, white balance can be tricky. Snow tends to come out a little blue-toned, so try using a warmer white balance preset rather than Auto. Even better: set your camera to shoot RAW photos, as you can carefully adjust your white balance after the fact.
  • Shooting in RAW will also let you get the best possible exposure through post-processing. If you’d rather try to work in-camera, try using an HDR mode, if you have one.

Treat both of your bodies right!

Cameras keep getting more durable, but extreme temperatures can still bring you down if you’re not careful. A good rule of thumb: warm batteries, cool camera. Keep your battery (and your spares) in a pocket or somewhere else warm for as long as possible, and acclimatize your camera as slowly as possible to avoid condensation in critical areas. The classic method: put your camera in a sealed plastic bag, then put it somewhere like a garage to cool it down gradually rather than bringing it straight from a heated house into a freezing shooting situation.

It’s also important to take care of your own body! I am frequently guilty of underestimating the time I spend shooting photos, and I bet that’s true of many of you as well. Dress as warmly as you might possibly need—and good shooting gloves are a must, as holding a chilly metal object for extended periods is a sure-fire way to freeze your fingers off.

Watch out for those footprints

Short and simple: scout the scene when you arrive and tread carefully so you don’t walk all over the snow you’ll eventually want looking pristine… unless you enjoy editing out footprints later, of course.

Perspective is key

As with any photographic environment, it takes a fresh angle to produce truly unexpected results. Get really close, or bring your snow-pants and get low: a tiny flower pushing through the snow can make for a stunning still-life, or an ant’s-eye view of a behemoth snowman can make a great profile picture.

Optimize your optics

On a snowy day, photographers have the luxurious problem of too much light, and there are a variety of ways to manage the way it’s taken in.

  • An oft-undervalued accessory, the humble lens hood (that plastic cylinder or leaf-shaped attachment for the front end of most lenses) can be invaluable on an ultra-bright day, especially since the snow scatters the light and causes it to approach the lens from all directions. The hood reduces lens flares and can eliminate the hazy look that comes from light bouncing around where it oughtn’t and causing glare inside the lens. (Don’t worry if your lens didn’t come with one—there are universal versions available!)
  • To eliminate external patches of glare, use a circular polarizer. Click here for more information on CPLs!
  • If you just want to dampen the light altogether, a Neutral Density filter will allow you to draw out your shutter speeds without blowing out the whole scene.
  • While a blanket of snow is already a great reflector on its own, a reflector kit will allow you to put the light precisely where you want it.
  • And, of course, if you want those up-close-and-personal snowflake or frost shots, a macro lens to allow close-focusing is a must.

A little color, a lot of contrast

The abundance of light also requires a whole different attitude to composition, especially on one of the fine snowy/sunny days that are a hallmark of Colorado winters. The name of the game is contrast! Normally-undesirable shadows become unique design elements rather than inconveniences—try focusing on complex leaf shadows in the bright snow, or using crisp, black shadows to add evocative depth to a portrait.

Contrasting an intensely-saturated focal point with a monochrome background is another time-tested technique. Try combing thrift stores for a brightly-colored jacket to put on your model, or use a bright red heart for a custom Valentine’s Day card photo!

Monochromatic mood control

You can also create that feeling with a lack of color. Black and white photography is ideally suited for scenes rich in contrast. Depending on how you construct the shot, you can show off an ultra-wide dynamic range—a la Ansel Adams—or emphasize the bleakness of winter in a bit of eerie art.

There are two methods of creating a black and white photo. If you process the image after the fact, you can take a high degree of control over the output. (Photoshop, for example, has a black and white conversion menu with a full range of emulated color filters.) On the other hand, you can skip the second step and utilize your camera’s black and white mode if you don’t mind not having a color version as well. Many cameras even have multiple different modes, to provide more control as simply as possible. Experiment with them all and see what works for your vision!

One more unique opportunity

Once you’ve prepped your gear, assembled the photo club, frozen yourself, sifted through your photos, and processed the best, what do you do? Don’t let the end be “the photos sit on a hard drive forever.” Your best work deserves to be seen—and snowy photos have a unique advantage…

They look great in white frames!

Not every photo can pull off that look, as our custom framers can attest, but for a winter landscape, a white frame really opens up the edges and lets the image breathe life into the room around it. And isn’t that what wall art is for?


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