How to fix dirty-looking snow (and other grungy white scenes)

We’re late enough into spring now that, if I were to hazard a guess, photographers across the land are finally getting around to sorting through their winter photos. (Coloradans have an excuse, of course, in that we just got our traditional late-May final (?) snow. I hope you all got a chance to get out there and enjoy it!) If you read my collection of tips to improve your snow photography, you already know that you need to tell your camera to over-expose significantly in order to get a balanced exposure of a bright, white scene, but even the best of us miss the shot sometimes. What do you do if your snowy scene came out looking grungy and gray?

Fortunately, there are a few ways to fix the problem, and none are especially difficult. I’ll be using Photoshop Elements 2018 for this tutorial, but the concepts should translate to other editing programs, whether Adobe (Lightroom, Photoshop CC, etc.) or not (GIMP, Affinity Photo, etc.).

A quick note on what’s going on inside your camera

Automatic exposure systems adjust the camera’s settings based on a standardized middle point. Traditional, black-&-white-only metering used 18% gray as the ideal average point—a printed gray with 18% reflectivity in visible light, chosen because it lies perceptually in the middle of a scale from pure black to pure white.

While that is still a useful standard and the process is the same in a very broad sense, a more useful way of looking at modern auto-exposure for color is the histogram.

The easiest way of starting with histograms is looking at the RGB-average, but your camera is assessing the relative luminance of each of the three color channels independently as well as together, with the aim of making a nice bell-curve histogram: not too much on the bright side, not too much on the dark side. Many cameras have a live histogram display option for objective/mathematical creation, and you can analyze your images objectively on the computer by using a histogram analysis of your image in your favorite post-processing program. The most important thing to remember is that, when shooting a scene that is unusually bright/white (a flower in the snow) or dark/black (a candle in a dark room), the histogram should skew to the right or left, respectively. Your camera is still not quite smart enough to figure out when it’s supposed to stray from the comfortable middle-zone, so you’ll have to watch out in those scenarios, otherwise the automatic push to the center will leave you with murky whites or faded blacks.

Back to the point: let’s take those dark and gloomy snow-shots and make them as clean and bright as you originally intended them to be!

Method 1: Automatic

Automatic? Automatic! Automatic is great. Why do extra work if someone has already put in the effort to program a permanent shortcut? Satisfactory adjustments at the stroke of a key combination are especially useful when there are quite a few photos you’d like to process. The automatic options are never 100% effective, of course, but they’re always worth trying first unless you have an extremely specific look in mind.

There are two relatively universal automatic processing commands which are extremely useful for day-to-day sprucing-up of photos, and they’re the two we’ll look at here:

Auto Levels: Ctrl-Shift-L (PC) / ⌘-Shift-L (Mac)
Auto Color Correction: Ctrl-Shift-B (PC) / ⌘-Shift-B (Mac)

These are both in the “Enhance” menu. (There are other automatic processes in the same menu which may work just as well—e.g. Auto Smart Fix, Auto Smart Tone—but they are specific to certain versions of PSE.) Here’s our test subject:

Taken at 10:49 AM on a bright day. Yikes!

Using Auto Levels and/or Auto Color Correction requires nothing more than pressing the appropriate key combination or selecting the item from the menu. The results can be seen below; click to look closer.

Auto Levels
Auto Color Correction

As you can probably tell, there is a slight difference in the results, but both are infinitely better than the original. As you process your own photos, you will be able to get the best possible results by experimenting with using one or the other, or both (and yes, the order makes a difference in the result). Here’s a close-up comparison of the results on this photo. We’ll talk more about manual color correction a little later, but in this case the Auto Color Correction managed to balance both the brightness and color of the original image. Slam dunk!

Auto Levels at left, Auto Color Correction at right. Note the shift from slightly bluish snow to neutral white.

Method 2: Semi-automatic

Sometimes, of course, the fully-automatic processes don’t quite get you the results you were hoping for. Fortunately, there’s a tool built to allow you to bleach those grays with the smallest amount of manual effort possible! Open up your image, then hit Ctrl-L (PC) / ⌘-L (Mac) or select Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Levels… from the menu bar. This is where you can make manual adjustments to your image based on either the aggregate histogram or each individual channel’s (red, green, and blue). It’s one of the most basic and versatile adjustment options in Photoshop—remember it!

Extra credit: to work non-destructively, use an adjustment layer instead. Rather than altering the pixel data of your image, you’ll be applying an effect which can be altered at any point in time independently from any other manipulation you may do. You’ll find the option under Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels… in the menu or by clicking the little half-filled circle above the layers pane on the right side of the screen. I have a bad habit of editing destructively, but the adjustment-layer method is the “correct” way to go. After creating the adjustment layer, the steps are the same as those detailed below.

Once you’ve got your levels adjustment panel open, click the white eyedropper. This tool will allow you to choose a pixel in the image which should be pure white. From there, the program will adjust the rest of the image relative to that white point. As you may have guessed, the two eyedroppers next to the white one allow you to do the same with a black point and a middle-gray point. Go ahead and click somewhere you think should be white and see what happens!

Your goal is to find the absolute brightest spot in the image. In this case, I clicked a spot that was a little darker than others. See how the whole thing is too bright now? Erasing the definition between the hill and the sky in the background is definitely not what I was going for. If you overshoot it like this, click around in the spots that are now completely white until you find an acceptable high point.

Much better! Having selected the right point, the program was able to compensate for my incorrect exposure without erasing details like the texture in the snow or the line between the horizon and the sky.

If you still can’t quite nail the exposure using the white point tool, well… you’re already where you need to be! Manually adjust the black, gray, and white sliders underneath the histogram in the levels adjustment pane to manually correct your image. These sliders set the darkest, average, and brightest values in the image, respectively, and you can either adjust based on the groundwork laid with the white point tool or start from scratch by clicking Reset.

Method 3: Manual RAW adjustment

If you’re shooting RAW regularly, you probably don’t need this guide, but it’s worth noting that you’ll have a lot more leeway to correct under-exposure without blowing out your highlights if you have RAW photos with which to work. Check out the comparison, below, of the “auto” RAW exposure option and one I manually adjusted. You can see how I adjusted the settings to the right of the image.

Auto RAW settings (the little button next to Default between the white balance and exposure settings)
Voila: higher exposure, contrast, highlights, and whites, plus a little tweaking of the white balance, and my image looks much better!

Don’t forget to fix the color!

Aside from coming out dark, photos of the snow tend to come out a little cold and blue-tinted rather than the pure white you’re used to perceiving. As noted above, Auto Color Correction is frequently very effective at fixing the problem, but it’s not always the solution. If you need to adjust manually, Photoshop Elements provides a very robust color adjustment tool which should get you taken care of in no time.

Adjust Hue/Saturation: Ctrl-U (PC) / ⌘-U (Mac)

With your image open, hit the keyboard shortcut or find Enhance > Adjust Color > Adjust Hue/Saturation… in the menu bar. (NB: this can also be done non-destructively. Select Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation, then proceed as below.)

You can shift the hue, saturation, or brightness of the image as a whole, but the real power of this tool is in selectively editing the color in your image. Click the dropdown menu which defaults to “Master,” then select your target color range—”Blues,” in this case. You can further refine your target range by clicking points on the image and/or adjusting the sliders that appear on the color bars at the bottom of the adjustment panel. Lower the saturation and increase the brightness for the color cast you want to remove, but be careful of spillover—if you’ve got a nice blue sky or other blue details, you’ll want to select the snow first so that only the unwanted color is adjusted. (Or, if you’re using an adjustment layer, just adjust as needed then use the eraser tool to eliminate unwanted adjustments.)

That’s more like it!

That’s pretty much it. The same methods apply for photos with excessively grungy skies or, in reverse, of black subjects on black backgrounds which come out faded-looking.

Left: as shot. Right: Auto Color Correction applied.

If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to sign up for our free email newsletter or watch our class schedule so you don’t miss our editing courses! You can also call your local store and schedule one-on-one support with a photo expert.

If you’re successful with these tips, I’d love to know! Show off your handiwork on our Facebook page, or drop a #mymikescamera tag on Instagram.

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