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Why is my snow gray?

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Hoar frost on trees and snow covered prairies

Hoar frost on trees and snow covered prairies

In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration. – Ansel Adams

One thing I have noticed as I review pictures posted on photo forums, is that a lot of folks that are new to winter photography have pictures with the snow a slight shade of gray or blue and it is often dark.  Sometimes, they are surprised when this is pointed out to them that their snow is not as white and crisp as it might be or should be.  This is the challenge of shooting in the snow, whether it is a winter landscapes or children tobogganing on a snowy hillside.  I know that a few years ago, when I was just starting out in digital photography, I noticed that a my pictures of snow-covered landscapes were all coming out darker than what I had seen with my naked eye.  The question then was – why is this happening?

It all comes down to understanding how your camera’s meter works.  Cameras are calibrated to see everything as a neutral gray or technically – 18 percent gray.  When your camera sees the snow scene, it assumes that you are trying to photograph a gray subject that has a bright light shining on it and it underexposes the image, making it look gray and dark.  There are a number of ways to resolve this situation.

Exposure Compensation

Tree in winter

Tree in winter

This is probably the easiest approach to getting a good exposure for your snow scenes.  Shooting in aperture mode, you should set your exposure mode dial to AV for Canon cameras and A for Nikon cameras.  Other manufacturers will have similar settings.  For snow scenes, an exposure compensation of between +1 and +2 is recommended.  This will over expose the snow.  You may have to experiment a bit to determine which actual setting best captures the scene you are shooting.  For example, I often find that a setting of 1 1/3 is best for some of the winter scenes that I shoot.  Your scenery may be different, so experiment until you find the setting that works.  Remember, shooting digital images does not cost you anything except a little time.  If your camera does not have Exposure Compensation, then one of the following methods may work.

Use something gray

Ideally, this would be an 18% gray card.  If you are not familiar with the use of a gray card, then a quick Google search will bring up a number of references for you to check out.     For example,  Basic Gray Card Tips provides a quick overview of the subject.

Simply meter your camera off the gray card in the same lighting as the scene you are going to shoot and this should give you an exposure to start with.  Then, switch to full manual mode and use this exposure.  Your camera may try and tell you that this is too high, but ignore it, it isn’t always right.  If you don’t happen to have a gray card with you, then meter off your bare hand as this can often be close.  Another accessory that will work is a ColorChecker Passport (X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Overview).  This handy unit has a small gray card as one of its colour targets.

Meter the sky

If you are fortunate to have a blue sky where and when you are shooting, then turn on the spot metering in your camera and take a reading from the sky.  If you do not have spot metering, then try an exposure with partial metering and see how that works by snapping a test image.  You can then use this image to adjust your exposure for the scene at hand.

Multiple exposures

If you have a tripod to set your camera on, then try taking a set of exposures such as you might take if you were doing an HDR image.  If you do not have a tripod, then make sure that your shutter speed is fast enough to eliminate any blur or fuzziness in the final image that could be the result of hands shaking while holding the camera.  For those of you not familiar with HDR, then a quick web search will give a number of references.  Alternatively, your multiple exposures can be combined in Photoshop, or Photoshop Elements to produce a final image.  One of many tutorials available on the web can be found here – Combining Images in Photoshop

Post- Processing adjustments

Mule Deer in the snow

Mule Deer in the snow

If you have taken a shot with a lot of snow in it and you did nothing in camera to prevent the “grey snow” problem, then you can probably fix it in post-processing in either Photoshop (Camera Raw), Photoshop Elements or Lightroom.  If you shoot in raw, then it may be as simple as taking the “eye dropper” tool and using it to select an area of snow that is white.  This process should give the software the information it needs to reset the white balance so that your snow is now white.  My preference is to get it right in camera so that I don’t have to spend any additional time at the computer, correcting the white balance in my snow scenes.

Cold Weather Shooting – Some Reminders

When you are out shooting snow scenes, it will invariably be cold.  How cold, depends on where you live.  Exposure compensation is not the only thing you need to think about.  Here are a few other things to consider when you venture out in the snowy landscape.  This list may not be comprehensive and you should consider your own circumstances before venturing out.

  • Remember to dress warmly.  Use layers and keep your fingers and toes from getting cold with good gloves and wool socks.  Hand warmers are also a good thing to bring along.  Good, winter footwear is a must.
  • Batteries don’t last quite as long in the cold air, so carry a spare in an inside pocket to keep it warm.  If you are going to be out for an extended period, then think about carrying more than one spare.
  • Remember to give your equipment time to acclimate when you return to a warmer and often moister environment.  You can leave your gear in the garage for a while before moving it indoors, or you can enclose it in an air tight plastic bag allowing the condensation to form on the bag and not on the camera or lenses.
  • Make sure that someone knows where you are going and when you can be expected back.  This is very important if you are headed into areas that are generally unpopulated.
  • If you are expecting snow while you are out, then take a rain cover or a towel with you.  Anything that you can use to cover your equipment and keep it from getting wet from the snow.

Good luck on your photography in the snow.

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3 Comments

  1. Hi there, just wanted to tell you, I liked this article.

    It was inspiring. Keep on posting!

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