Winter photography

Ahhh, the perfect winter’s day – crisp and cold, a pristine layer of snow accenting every twig – a great day for a photographic expedition.


Keep two things in mind as you venture out into the chill. They will help you capture the scene and also save your equipment.


They are temperature and light.

TEMPERATURE


Low, especially negative numbers on the thermometer can have a profound effect on your equipment. Batteries, for example, will drain much more quickly in the chill. So, keep your equipment that contains a battery and your spare batteries close to your body where they will benefit from your body heat. If you plan to be out shooting for a while, rotate your batteries every half-hour or so, keeping the spares as warm as possible when they are out of the camera (in an inside pants pocket, for example.)


Keeping your digital camera in an insulated pocket when you are not taking pictures will not only help to keep its batteries and its mechanism warm, but will also protect it from falling or blowing snow. Film photographers used to have to keep in mind that, in very low temperatures, it could become brittle quickly. Film needed to be kept as warm as possible, then when it was exposed to the cold in the process of changing rolls, the would be as brief as could be accomplished.

When you are ready to return indoors, seal your equipment in an airtight plastic bag before entering a warm environment. The bag will keep out the moisture from the warm interior air, preventing it from condensing on (and in) your colder camera, your digital memory cards or your film. Open the bag only after your gear has reached room temperature, thus avoiding the potentially damaging effects of condensation. It takes about an hour or so, but it’s worth the wait.


One advantage to the landscape photographer of winter’s frigid temperatures is that fewer people venture outdoors, leaving many popular locations free of the crowds that would be there during the other three seasons. A scene that is normally speckled with picnickers, hikers or tourists may be devoid of people, and produce an unusual image of solitude. Because such popular places are typically photographed in warmer weather, a coating of snow may give it a look that is not normally seen by many people, adding the charm of winter to your picture.


LIGHT


One of the beauties of winter photographs can also be one of its pitfalls – all that pure white, gorgeous snow reflects an extraordinary amount of light, and because the scene your lens takes in is often dominated by snow, your light meter can be overwhelmed and give a false exposure, especially in bright, sunny conditions.


The best way to compensate for the excess light is to take your light meter reading close in on your subject. This way, the snow does not dominate the frame and your camera’s meter is reading the true light reflected from your subject. You can then step back and use the close-in exposure reading when you shoot.


One advantage to the landscape photographer of winter’s frigid temperatures is that fewer people venture outdoors, leaving many popular locations free of the crowds that would be there during the other three seasons. A scene that is normally speckled with picnickers, hikers or tourists may be devoid of people, and produce an unusual image of solitude. Because such popular places are typically photographed in warmer weather, a coating of snow may give it a look that is not normally seen by many people, adding the charm of winter to your picture.


The best way to compensate for the excess light is to take your light meter reading close in on your subject. This way, the snow does not dominate the frame and your camera’s meter is reading the true light reflected from your subject. You can then step back and use the close-in exposure reading when you shoot.

If that proves impossible, try a reading from a nearby object that is lit similarly to your subject. Ideally, this would be a photographer’s gray card in the same light as your subject, but you probably don’t have one with you, so take a reading from any available neutral gray subject (a light-colored backpack or a gray parka) in that light.


If there is no neutral gray object available, take a meter reading of your hand in the same light. Light skin reflects approximately one stop more than a gray card does, so adjust your camera to give one stop less exposure than the reading indicates (e.g. change the aperture setting from ƒ/5.6 to ƒ/11, or increase the shutter speed from 1/60 sec to 1/125 sec). If the image is important, be sure to bracket your exposures.

Another means of overcoming the high snow-reflectance problem is to take a reading of the ambient light – the actual light falling on your subject – not the scene’s reflected light. For that you need a separate meter that reads ambient light. (Don’t happen to have one? No problem. You can make an ambient light meter using your camera’s light meter and a standard kitchen product – a styrofoam cup. See Makeshift ambient light meter.


WHAT IF THE SNOW IS YOUR SUBJECT?


Exposure meters read the world as if it were a middle gray. Why? Because that’s what the average scene “looks” like to a light meter. This is why your snow pictures seem to come out overly gray and dull. But snow is white, not gray.

To make your film or digital memory card capture it the way you see it, you need to override your meter, giving more exposure than it asks for. It’s difficult to say just how much, but try a full stop to begin with. For example, if your camera’s meter says 1/500 second at ƒ/11, then open your aperture by one stop to ƒ/8 while keeping the same shutter speed, or change your shutter speed to 1/250 second while leaving your aperture at ƒ/11. If it’s a scene composed entirely of snow, or snow and ice, and not much else, you might open even one more stop.


Finally, a fairly reliable exposure can always be made using the Sunny 16 Rule.


Bracketing your exposures, especially if the shot is important, will ensure a properly-recorded image when you are in doubt.


Be sure to view your digital pictures on your camera’s viewscreen to check for proper exposure immediately after taking them. Adjust your exposure and reshoot the scene if you notice that the snow seems either too bright or too dull.


PHOTOGRAPHER’S LIGHT


During the summer, that magical, warmly-lit time of day when the sun approaches the horizon, just prior to sunset, that we call “photographer’s light” or “magic hour,” seems to last a brief time. It appears, provides its special “glowing” illumination that makes so many landscapes and other outdoors scenes so beautifully-illuminated, then all too quickly, it is gone. In winter, though, photographer’s light, when it occurs, lasts longer, although generally with less intensity.


Finally, a fairly reliable exposure can always be made using the Sunny 16 Rule.


Bracketing your exposures, especially if the shot is important, will ensure a properly-recorded image when you are in doubt.


Be sure to view your digital pictures on your camera’s viewscreen to check for proper exposure immediately after taking them. Adjust your exposure and reshoot the scene if you notice that the snow seems either too bright or too dull.

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