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Winter landscape photography can be challenging for several reasons but capturing those snowy landscapes as an artful image makes it worth all the effort.
The main reason snowy landscapes may seem difficult to capture properly is primarily due to exposure issues. When we leave our camera on automatic or even when using manual but relying on the exposure meter, we won’t get an exposure that renders the snow properly.
Other issues are dealing with the cold, problems with moisture, and operating controls that are designed for bare fingers. As a bonus feature, we’ll also discuss tripods and shoes. You read that right, shoes.
How To Expose for Snow
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It is a basic fact in photography that exposure meters are designed around reading a middle gray value. When graphed out on a logarithmic scale, middle gray has a value of 18 percent. This 18 percent gray metering means that anything outside of this expected value will likely not be exposed properly.
A large expanse of something extremely dark or extremely bright filling up a lot of the image area will not be metered correctly without some sort of exposure compensation. The meter will try to turn either of those two extremes into the middle gray it's calibrated for.
What’s happening is that the meter is overexposing the large dark areas to turn it back into middle gray and it will underexpose the large bright area to make it middle gray, too. So if we want that snow covered field in front of our lens to show as white in our photo, then we will need to change the exposure.
Snow Photography Settings
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Now that we know that our meter is underexposing the snow, then we know we want to add exposure to the suggested meter reading. A general rule of thumb for a bright sunlit expanse of snow is to add 2 stops of exposure.
There are multiple ways to do that. If you are setting shutter speed and aperture (f-stop) manually, then you can either open up the aperture 2 stops or slow down the shutter speed by 2 stops. Alternatively, you get that 2 stops of over exposure by changing both shutter speed and f-stop to get that same plus 2 stops. Using the exposure triangle will give us the settings we want for that.
We’re not stuck with manual control only to find the best camera settings for snow photography. Any of the automatic exposure modes are available to us if we use the camera control called exposure compensation.
Our camera exposure compensation feature works with programmed auto, shutter priority auto, and aperture priority auto modes. It generally isn’t available in the full auto “green dot” mode, but you might want to check your camera’s instruction book about that.
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Many cameras have a smart metering capability that can automatically compensate for many out of the ordinary exposure situations. Evaluative metering might also be labeled matrix metering, smart metering, honeycomb metering, or ESP metering.
The way evaluative metering works is the camera manufacturer has a computer program built-in to the camera’s metering system with thousands of possible situations of light and dark that the camera then “evaluates” to decide if it wants to change exposure up or down and by how much.
This works fantastically for many, many photos, and all the brands claim it works perfectly for winter landscape photography. In my experience, I find that evaluative metering won’t always compensate properly for bright snowy landscapes. This is not a knock against technology, just my experience.
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Instead of relying on evaluative metering, I prefer to change to regular metering and compensate myself. After taking thousands of winter landscape photography images, I have determined that the old school rule of thumb used by generations of photographers works more often than not and then I’ll simply overexpose by 2 stops.
The best camera settings for how to expose for snow are just that simple. If I am using all manual controls, I add 2 stops to my meter reading. If using an auto or semi auto mode, I add 2 stops of exposure compensation.
Bonus Feature: Tripods, Shoes, Etc...
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When out capturing those snowy landscapes, a few items can make a huge difference in our comfort level which can also affect our photography.
Though the winter air may feel dry, it always has some moisture in it. When going in and out from warm interiors to chilly exteriors, our equipment can have issues with condensation. This will fog up lenses and filters but it can also gather on our electronics. Keeping a canister of silica gel in our camera bag will help minimize the issue.
As landscape photographers, we end up outdoors in a lot of weather conditions. For capturing those snowy landscapes, the weather is cold enough to have us wearing protective clothing such as hats, gaiters, and gloves. Regular gloves make it difficult to operate some camera controls such as tiny buttons or touch screens. Specialty gloves made for outdoor activities are excellent for landscape photography.
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One of the best accessories for outdoor photography is a good sturdy tripod. Many fine tripods are now made from carbon fiber instead of aluminum. A lot of active photographers enjoy the weight saving of carbon fiber over aluminum, but the material also makes it a lot easier to operate and carry a carbon fiber in subfreezing temperatures instead of ice cold metal.
Keeping your feet warm and dry is vital for winter landscape photography. Trust me, if your feet are cold and wet, you won’t want to stay out in the great outdoors if you’re uncomfortable. That means you may not get the best pictures from your trek because you were either distracted or you quit to go inside and warm up your freezing feet. I may be wearing thrift store Wranglers, but I have learned never to skimp on outdoor footwear.
Snowy Landscapes, Here We Come!
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As the temps fall and the snowpack rises, pull out your outdoor winter clothing. Charge up your camera batteries, clean up your lenses, and find some snowy landscapes. Overexposure is the key. Avoid overexposing your feet or fingers but make sure to determine whether or not to overexpose your camera settings.