Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to meter and expose images of snowy areas in the fourteenth article of his fifteen-part series on landscape photography.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
Wintry landscapes present a unique challenge to photographers. The problem is exposure. All light meters, whether they are built into the camera or handheld, are programmed to interpret light as it bounces off middle-toned subjects. Middle tone refers to what Ansel Adams called "Zone V" or "middle gray." It is a tone halfway between black and white. The color isn’t relevant; middle red and middle blue work, too. When the meter sees this tone, the shutter speed/f-stop combination it dictates to the camera will be correct. A typical summer shot of the Grand Canyon, for example, where the sky is blue and the distant cliff faces are red/purple to brown, will be exposed correctly because the predominant areas of the composition are middle toned.
The problem is that when you shoot in the winter and the landscape is covered in snow, the meter sees the white expanse and gives you a reading based on middle gray—but of course the snow isn’t gray. The result is that the picture turns out underexposed because the meter is trying to turn the white snow into gray. An underexposed winter landscape does, in fact, look gray.
Therefore, you have to compensate for this reduction in exposure. How much should this compensation be? Many photographers suggest a +1 1/3 or +1 2/3 f-stop compensation. In other words, using the exposure compensation feature on the camera, they will set the camera to automatically overexpose by this amount (each hash mark on the scale represents 1/3 f-stop, either plus or minus). The problem with a general guideline like this is that there are many types of snowy conditions. You can have bright sun on snow, sunrise or sunset lighting on snow, overcast wintry conditions, or patchy snow where a certain portion of the land can be seen through the white covering. You can also compose photos such that the bottom third includes a snowfield but the upper two-thirds show a stand of bare trees with gray bark and no snow at all.
The top image and figures 14.2 and 14.3 were all taken with snow on the ground, but you can see that different amounts of the images are covered with snow or ice, and in the case of the sunset lighting on the snow capped mountains the muted lighting obviously requires a different metering approach.
It is impossible, therefore, to make one exposure compensation suggestion for each of these situations. Each one is unique and the in-camera meter can be relied upon in some of these scenarios but not all of them.
Digital technology has made shooting on snow less of a challenge than with film. The reason is that you can look at the immediate feedback on the LCD monitor to judge your exposure. From there, if it needs tweaking, you can use the exposure compensation feature to do this. Shooting in raw mode is a must, because more than anything else, this is your first line of defense in protecting the highlights. The one thing that you have to watch very carefully is that you don’t overexpose the vulnerable highlights—i.e., the snow—because once the detail is lost it can’t be regained. Even in soft lighting, you can lose definition in subtle highlights. In a picture like 14.4, for example, it would be easy to lose detail in the distant fog-enshrouded mountain. In addition, while LCD monitors are good, it’s hard to assess whether or not subtle detail exists in some areas of your landscapes. Therefore, I err on the side of caution.
The way I approach exposure when shooting snow is to use no exposure compensation at first. I look at the results as I shoot, knowing that the snow will cause underexposure. I then lighten the images as needed, first trying +1 and then going from there. However, I prefer to leave the images slightly underexposed in the camera—by 1/3 or 2/3 f-stops—because I know in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom the images can be tweaked without sacrificing quality. It is easier to lighten images and bring up the detail in the snow, as opposed to working with pictures that are overexposed where it’s necessary to darken them in an attempt to recapture lost texture and detail.
As I lighten the digital files in ACR, I watch carefully the highlights in the snow and at the same time I am also monitoring what’s happening in the shadows. Figure 14.5 has significant contrast between the snow and the dark shadows in the foreground. In a picture like this, it’s desirable to show as much detail as possible in the shadows, but it is the highlights that have first priority. I never lighten the picture so much that the highlight detail is compromised. Shadows are acceptable even if they are dark and devoid of detail. Highlights, on the other hand, can’t get blown out or else the photo is ruined.
One thing to avoid when shooting in winter is mid-day sunlight. The contrast is so extreme between the sunny highlights on snow and the rest of the picture that no exposure technique (except HDR) can give you detail throughout the image. Note that all of the pictures in this section were taken under overcast conditions or at sunrise or sunset. Not only are the results more artistic, but exposure and contrast issues are minimized.
Shooting in the cold means that you must protect the electronics in your camera from the possibility of malfunctioning. I’ve been shooting when it’s 20 degrees outside, and modern digital cameras perform without any problems. When it gets colder than that, I recommend you buy chemical heat packets and put them in your photo backpack. At the same time, I would Velcro one of the packets so it lies next to the battery compartment in the camera. When I took image 14.6 of a baby harp seal in Canada, it was 45 degrees below zero. The additional heat enabled my camera to continue working without incident. The chemical packets are also invaluable in protecting fingertips and toes from bitter cold. You can get one that is made for your chest, too, and not only does it keep your torso warm, but when you are not shooting you can place the camera inside your coat against the heat packet for additional warmth.
In whiteout conditions like the Montana snowstorm in 14.7, a technique you can use to meter is to use a piece of middle-toned fabric that can be sewn onto your camera bag. In other words, buy a gray card at a camera store and take it to a fabric store. Buy a small piece of fabric that matches the card and sew that onto your photo backpack. Assuming the fabric is placed in the same light as the subject, you can take a light reading on the fabric and then set the camera’s shutter speed and f-stop according to the meter. This is a very accurate way of reading the light in a snowstorm. Alternatively, you can use a handheld meter like the Sekonic L-758 and set it on ambient light mode. This is accurate to within 1/10th of an f-stop.
Read the full series:
- Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset
- Dominant Foregrounds
- Mid-Day Lighting
- Shooting into the Sun
- Black and White
- Aerial Perspectives
- The Human Element
- Overcast Weather
- White Balance
- Depth of Field
- Shooting Snow