We have an obsession about snow on Christmas Day. All the snowy Christmas card scenes and the seasonal chart hits featuring the white stuff have given us an unrealistic expectation of snowfall on the big day. That said even if we don’t see snow at Christmas we are all quite likely to get some during the winter and when it happens there will be a fair number of us heading out with our cameras to capture the moment. But how often have your images of snow been a disappointment, maybe you have a problem with the white stuff looking a little grey or even blue? Here are a few tips to help.
Why does snow often look grey in photos?
To understand why some snow scenes come out looking a little grey it helps to understand how your camera actually works. The camera has a light meter built which assesses the brightness of the scene and, put simply, it expects the light and dark areas to balance each other out giving an average which it can use to allow the correct amount of light onto its sensor.
In some snow scenes, particularly when there is no sunlight, this light meter fails to get it right. Imagine you are standing looking up at a snow-clad tree against a white sky. It might be that 90% of what you are looking at is white. When your camera assesses the scene it doesn’t know what the content of the picture is but it does assess it as being very bright so it lets less light onto the sensor and that has the effect of making everything in the photo darker than it should be, so the snow comes out grey, as seen below.
Here is a snow scene taken when it was cloudy, the image is dominated by white so the camera was fooled into making the exposure too dark. Notice that I composed the bale of straw to the lower right and the dominant tree to the left.
The best settings for snow
You can solve the problem of grey snow by lightening the photo in software but the quality of the image will always be better if you get it right when you take it. To do this you need to instruct the camera to make the image lighter before you press the shutter button, this is known as exposure compensation. On digital cameras you need to find the correct button, usually marked with a +/- symbol and dial-in a positive number (maybe +1). On phone cameras, when you touch the screen to focus on the tree, say, you can usually slide a scale beside the focus point to make the photo lighter (or darker).
Here is the same scene as above, but for this photo I had dialled in an exposure compensation of +1.5. This sort of compensation is most useful for snow scenes when there is no sunshine.
Getting the lighting right
Even with the exposure correctly adjusted the photo of a snowy tree on snowy ground against a white sky might not be very striking. White skies lead to flat light and this will make the snow on the ground look featureless, almost like a sheet of plain paper which isn’t always desirable. This can be avoided by taking the photo when the light is better.
As well as understanding how the camera works a photographer should try to understand how different types of light can affect the view. A bit of sunlight can transform a snow scene and many landscape photos are better if the sky is blue or contains moody clouds, for example.
More than this it is important to understand that the lower the angle of sunlight the better the scene will be lit. A low angle of light emphasises the undulations in the landscape by creating areas of light and shade, this is true even on a very small scale, picking out the contrast within the snow thus preventing it appearing as a sheet of white paper. With this in mind it is best to get out early or late in the day to take snow photos and be prepared to wait for the light and the sky to work in your favour.
Blue snow is created where the snow isn’t directly lit by the sun but instead reflects light from a blue sky. So it is best to wait until the sun lights up the foreground of your image meaning that the majority of the snow will be warmed by the sunlight. Even then the snow will appear blue in the shadow areas, for example where the shade of a tree falls on the ground. It is difficult to avoid this happening but the impact of it can be minimised by composing the foreground of the image carefully.
Read David Chapman's tips for photographing garden birds
Composing snow photos
The placement of elements within the photo is known as ‘composition’. The rules of composition for snow scenes is the same as for any other. Try to put the main subjects off-centre, roughly on the thirds. If you have a person or animal in your photo put them to one side and have them facing into the space. Generally make your photo approximately two-thirds land and one-third sky, unless there is a special reason not to.
Foregrounds are very important to compositions. I often look for linear features such as paths, walls, shadows or rivers to lead the eye into a photo and I find that patterns in the snow can make very dynamic foreground features. To emphasise the foreground use a very wide-angle lens (i.e. zoom out) and get the camera lower to the ground.
For now I recommend playing with your camera so you know how to adjust its exposure, practice some of the techniques for improving your composition and try taking photos when the sun is low in the sky. Then when the snow falls you will be ready to get out and take the sort of masterpiece that won’t leave you feeling blue!
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