Shooting in the Snow

Everyone has their favorite time of year. For me, it’s summer–warm days, refreshing lemonade, scuba diving, and nary a driveway or sidewalk to be plowed or shoveled. Indeed, there’s nothing I hate more than dealing with heavy, slushy, slippery snow.  On the other hand, there’s nothing quite so picturesque as a fresh snowfall. Snow makes for great photos, so I have an uneasy truce with the white stuff. The deal goes something like this: I’ll take pictures of it, as long as my son does most of the shoveling.  

Prep Your Camera 

If you want to take pictures out in the cold and snow, it can help to prepare your camera gear for the job. Most digital cameras handle the elements pretty well, but cold, snowy days can push your hardware to its limits. The most important thing to keep in mind is that batteries conk out more quickly in the cold, so having a spare, and keeping that spare warm, can come in handy. Here’s what I do: I keep a second, fully charged battery deep inside my jacket, where my body heat can help keep it warm and healthy. If my camera’s primary battery dies, I swap them. My body heat revives the first battery while I shoot with the spare, so I can get a few more shots out of it if necessary. People often ask me if there’s also a risk of condensation and fog forming on the camera lens. Some photographers even place their cameras inside plastic bags to avoid this problem. But the reality is that such condensation can’t form when going from warm to cold, so you’re safe outdoors in the snow (just don’t drop your camera in a snow bank).   

Adjust for Snow 

When you finally get your camera out in the winter wonderland, remember that snow is a somewhat different kind of subject than most of the things you typically photograph. Snow is extremely reflective, and it can confuse your camera’s exposure sensor. In the presence of a lot of snow, many cameras will try to underexpose the photograph. There are a couple of ways around this common problem. The simplest solution is to set your camera to its Snow or Beach “scene” mode, if it has one. This is a pre-programmed exposure setting that takes bright, highly reflective subject matter like sand and snow into account and overexposes the picture automatically.  Alternately, you can overexpose the picture yourself using the camera’s exposure compensation dial. Overexpose the shot by setting the control to about +1, which will overexpose the scene by one stop (which admits twice as much light into the photo).  

Mind the Time of Day

You probably already know that the color of light changes during the day, and that’s especially true when you’re shooting snow, which will add up to a predominantly white scene. If you take your camera out very early or late in the day, you’ll end up with warmer photos, in which the snow takes on reddish hues. If you stick to midday, you’ll get much cooler, more blue photos.  

Try Some Close Ups 

When people think of winter photography, they instinctively imagine grand, snow-laden trees and a picturesque row of houses covered in snow. Those subjects are fine, but you can get some really interesting shots by getting close to your subject and shooting in macro mode (which is activated by the button with the little “tulip” icon).  If you get close enough, you can capture individual ice crystals on blades of grass or the edges of pine cones.

How can you replicate these kinds of images? For starters, it helps to use a tripod. Since you’re so close to the subject, even small amounts of jiggle will ruin the photo. And since it’s cold out, it’s a lot harder to hold the camera steady. So even if you could pull off shots like these in the middle of summer, I doubt you can do it in the middle of January. Also, experiment with the flash both on and off. If the flash is on, the extra illumination can help freeze the photo, but it can add an artificial, antiseptic look to the shot. Better to try it with natural light, though you will probably want to increase the camera’s ISO setting to shorten the exposure time.

Check out a somewhat longer version of this story in my Digital Focus newsletter for PC World.

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