The Colors Of Snow

Like a fresh white canvas, a new blanket of snow is a perfectly primed medium for painting with the subtle hues of winter

Atmospherics are a wonderful tool for creating mood in your snowy scenes. Gray mist softens the entire scene, and you'll usually get a slight separation in tones from the mist to the snow on the ground. This is subtle, and you frequently need to process and print carefully to bring it out, but the effect is magnificent when it's done well.


We always think of snow as being plain white, but the reality is that it's a malleable element that can take on any of several colors depending on the conditions in which you're shooting. The lighting as well as how you make use of your camera controls have a profound impact on the color of water when it goes from a liquid to a solid.

Control over the colors of snow begins with your exposure. Historically, inexperienced photographers had a lot of trouble with snow because it can fool the in-camera meter so easily. All reflected-light meters want to make the subject they're metering render as middle gray—Zone V, if you're using the Zone System. With the simple meters in old film cameras, it was very easy to underexpose snow on a bright day because the meter would lead you to an exposure that would render it gray when in reality you were trying to make it bright white. Today's DSLRs have more sophisticated meters and incredibly powerful internal processors, but even these modern marvels can get it wrong, so anytime you're shooting in snow, pay careful attention to the histogram when you review the shots.

Frontlight tends to flatten the perspective in the scene by reducing the texture in the snow; however, that warm sun usually will create a pleasant, warm look in the snow. If you position yourself just to the side of the sun's axis, you can add a touch of dimension to the scene without going for a full sidelit effect.

Overcast conditions can vary wildly. A flat sky with high, thick clouds is pretty much just a dull gray. It's the classic bleak winter look. However, lower overcast is more like a combination of clouds and mist, and when you're out in these conditions, the sun can break through from time to time to create soft colors. In these conditions, be patient and keep looking because the light can change very fast and unpredictably.

Sidelight is your best friend for showing texture in the snow. Photographing snow-covered trees in these conditions gives them dimension, as well as colors ranging from warm where the snow is lit to cool where it's in shadow.

Dawn and sunset are the times of day when you can really start to have some fun and create interesting looks. It's at the edges of the day that the sky has a range of different colors in it. Around dawn, when you get the orange glow just before the sun pops over the horizon, most of the sky is blue and purple, and it's those cool hues that will be reflected in your snow. Wait a few minutes for the sun to actually come up, and you can create a beautiful backlit scene with richly colored snow.


Beware Of Your LCD
Your DSLR's LCD can fool you in any conditions, but be particularly wary when you're shooting in snow. Your eyes become accustomed to the bright conditions of a full-sun day, but when you look at the LCD, it can lead you to think that you're underexposed. Similarly, around the edges of the day, when you look at the LCD, it can convince you that you're overexposed. These issues are especially problematic with snow because your in-camera meter can be misled by it. Always pull up the histogram as you review images, and if possible, use a shade of some kind so you can clearly see what's happening in the frame.When looking at the histogram, if you're trying to show the snow as bright white, a histogram that's pushed to the right is probably what you want. On the other hand, if you're shooting snow in shadow, a more normal-shaped histogram will be the proper exposure.

Because snow can be tricky, we highly recommend that you shoot RAW images and that you bracket, if possible. If nothing else, this will give you some insurance, and you can experiment with HDR, as well.

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