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Photography- Mastering Snowy Scenes

Updated on January 18, 2013

Winter is a wonderful time for photography. When snow blankets the ground, views that you area used to seem fresh and new. Everything seems more clean and different under a blanket of snow. Unfortunately, when you try to snap a picture of a scene that has a lot of white snow in it, the resulting picture often looks grey and drab. What happened to that beautiful landscape that you saw? The problem isn't a physical defect in your camera, but rather the way your camera sees what you see. Even the most advanced cameras today still can't "see" a scene the same way your eye does. Let's take a look at why the camera makes your snow scenes grey and what you can do to get bright, white snow in your pictures.

Underexposed and dark
Underexposed and dark | Source
Bright, snappy looking picture, just what you want to see in a picture with snow.
Bright, snappy looking picture, just what you want to see in a picture with snow. | Source

The Camera Light Meter

If you use your camera to tell you what your exposure should be, there is something that you should know about your camera. Camera meters look at the available light in the scene and determine what shutter speed and aperture to use to get a proper exposure. Newer cameras are getting smarter every year about doing this, but they are still not as smart as you are.

Since a camera does not know which part of the scene is the most important, it has to make a guess. Traditionally, cameras were designed to meter to 18% grey. The thinking was that in an average picture, with maybe a couple people, some grass and some sky, the overall scene was about 18% grey. This results in a pleasing picture in most situations, but if your scene is predominantly white or black, it will still try to average the scene out to grey. This means your whites look grey and boring and your blacks are light, not dark.

Changing The Scene

When you recognize that your seen is mostly white, you will have to plan your adjustments ahead. This will depend on your camera and can be made easier with a digital camera. If you aren't familiar with some of the advanced features of your camera, you should break out the manual and see how to do these tricks with your camera. Each one is a little different, but other than lower end cameras, most should have the adjustments you need to take better pictures.

Since your camera is trying to underexpose your image to make it look grey, you will need to slightly overexpose the image to make them look white again. Check to see if your camera has an exposure compensation mode. This will let the camera choose an exposure for the scene, then you can shift it up (overexpose) by about a stop to make the whites look brighter. If the sun is out and the scene is really bright, you might need to use two stops of adjustment. You can use a manual mode the same way, let the camera tell you what exposure it thinks you need, then make your adjustments until it says you are over exposed by a stop or so.

You can use this when photographing other bright scenes, such as sandy beaches, reflective buildings, or anywhere else you notice that your images seem dark and dull.

Using Exposure Compensation For Blacks

As I mentioned above, your built in camera meter will also try to make a predominantly black scene grey. You can use the opposite adjustment from white scenes. If you notice that scene that was supposed to be black, looks grey, compensate by under exposing your picture. Instead of adjust the exposure up, you adjust it down. This should make those blacks look black!

If you have a digital camera this is made easier, because you can look at the picture on the LCD display and see how it turned out. Just remember that in a really bright or dark environment, the LCD may not look quite the same as it will on your computer at home.

Hopefully this will help you with your own photos. Next time you get a snow pictures that looks grey and lifeless, don't worry about it, use these tips to make it look fresh and bright, just like the scene you actually saw.


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    • Adventure Colorad profile image

      Adventure Colorad 6 years ago from Denver,CO

      Thanks for reading, I'm glad you liked it. Make sure you look through your manual as well, often you will learn that your camera can do things that you didn't even know of.

    • barbergirl28 profile image

      Stacy Harris 6 years ago from Hemet, Ca

      Great advice. I am always messing with the different settings to see what will happen. I will have to try this technique to see if I can get my pictures to snap a little more!