How To Process Winter Photographs

Here’s how to make perfect exposures and develop them in Lightroom

Are you ready? It’s the time of year for shooting winter scenes, determining whether landscape conditions are naughty or nice, making an outdoor gear list and checking it twice and finding and developing those iconic winter wonderlands so you can walk away with memorable photographs. All year we’ve known—winter is coming. But are you ready, now that it’s here? If you’re ready or not, my hope with this article is that you walk away with a deeper understanding of how to approach your winter scenes confidently, so you can expose and process winter photographs with a sense of mastery.

A snowy scene used to illustrate how to process winter photographs.

Figure 1. A winter landscape overlooking Yosemite’s iconic El Capitan.

The Challenges Of Winter Exposures

If you’ve never done it before, shooting snowy landscapes offers its own set of challenges. Contrast can be extreme, and highlights can be off the charts. Moreover, if you’re coming from a film background, how one approaches that “good exposure” is very different. For starters, the film photographer’s main tool for exposure is the light meter, and light meters today are quite sophisticated. However, a good exposure on a nice piece of colorful slide film is very different from capturing light data with a digital exposure.

With film, we need to visualize our outcome and get it right the first time, in-camera. If we over- or underexpose a full stop with, say, Fujichrome Velvia or Kodak Ektachrome VS, there’s no going back unless you scan the film and use Photoshop to correct the error. With digital, on the other hand, we have the potential for a great deal more latitude. But more importantly, with digital, our goal isn’t to “get it right,” like it is with film. Instead, our goal is to maximize the amount of collectible RAW data without blowing out highlights in critical areas of our composition.

Confusingly, or even counterintuitively, the result is often a preview image on the camera’s LCD that looks far from “right,” or the way we want it to look (Figure 2). In fact, our digital RAW data requires time in a RAW converter such as Capture One, Lightroom or Adobe ACR. What we are shown on the back of our cameras should be considered an intermediate step. Allow me to explain.

Processing winter photographs: An exposure that looks overexposed prior to processing.

Figure 2. Although this image at first glance looked overexposed on the back of my camera, and not very pleasing, it’s exactly what I want.

ETTR & Histograms

Hopefully, you are all already practicing ETTR. It’s a tried-and-true technique of the digital photography age. But whether you are or not, it’s important to understand why photographers practice it. Once you understand why it works, you can not only master exposing your snowy winter landscapes but any landscape in front of you to infinity and beyond.

ETTR stands for Expose To The Right, and it’s an approach to capturing digital images that ensures one maximizes the amount of collectable light data. Why is this important? Simply put, our cameras take in light and turn it into data that make up all of our textures, details and tonality in an image. So, if we don’t maximize our amount of collectable data, then we sacrifice much of what makes our images great, such as good details and textures in our shadows, color variety throughout and smooth tonal gradations. The key is in understanding what the histogram is and what it’s telling you.

Essentially, histograms are graphs that display the exposed pixels along a range of luminosity. Or, to say it another way, histograms show the tonal distribution of an image ranging from black to white. Histogram data comes in all kinds of shapes, and if you know how to read a histogram, you can tell if an image is bright or dark, flat or with high contrast, or over- or underexposed, without even looking at the actual photo.

The x-axis of a histogram represents the range of luminosity from black to white. In turn, the y-axis represents how many pixels in the photo are at a certain level of brightness, as shown in Figure 3. Therefore, the histogram we see on the back of our camera shows us how much collected data represent shadows, mid-tones and highlights.

Processing winter photographs: A histogram revealing how data is captured by your camera's sensor.

Figure 3. A histogram graphs the data captured by your camera’s sensor throughout the tonal range from pure black to pure white.

Bearing all this in mind, the ETTR technique maximizes our light data potential by guiding us to set our exposure to push the histogram as far to the right as possible without clipping highlights in critical areas of our composition. I say “critical” because sometimes clipping is just fine. You have to take it somewhat on a case-by-case basis. But speaking generally, you want to preserve your highlights, especially with your winter landscapes.

Clipping is a technical term for blowing out a highlight or underexposing a shadow to the point that either end of the luminosity scale lacks any discernible detail. Again, in the case of snowy landscapes, we want to be extra careful not to clip our highlights. I can’t say that enough. The best way to control highlights is not with your meter but by either keeping an eye on your histogram or turning on a feature that virtually every digital camera sold today has, and it’s what I refer to as the “blinkies.”

The blinkies are terribly useful. While histograms can tell us if our highlights are going off the charts, the blinkies show us where in our composition that’s occurring. If you want to find out how to turn on the blinkies feature, look to your camera’s playback menu for a feature that’s usually labeled “Highlights.” Once you’re sure it’s on, look at an image on the back of your camera and scroll through your available data overlays until you find your Highlights displayed. In this case of what I’m showing in Figure 4, my Nikon camera is blinking a black-colored overlay in a section where my highlights are clipped. Some cameras use other colors, and some even use a zebra pattern instead of a color altogether.

An image illustrating the "blinkies" displayed by cameras as an exposure warning.

Figure 4. Most digital cameras have a Highlights feature that I affectionately call the “blinkies.” This feature will flash a color overlay on areas of your image where your highlights are clipped. When you are trying to get your digital exposure right where you want it, I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to watch where clipping is occurring in your composition.

With film, good snowscape exposures are best achieved, again, with the camera’s meter. The trick when shooting snow, typically, and depending on how sophisticated your meter is, is to meter on the snow and then increase the exposure by 2 to 3 stops if shot during the day. With digital, I almost never use my meter to get my exposure where I want it. Instead, I use my meter as a tool to get me in the exposure ballpark, but then I fine-tune my settings by keeping an eye on my histogram and blinkies to know where my highlights are being clipped. If you’re using any auto shooting modes, such as Program, Shutter Priority, or Aperture Priority, you can adjust your exposure—making your image brighter or darker—using exposure compensation. And if you’re shooting in manual, well, then you already know what to do.

Wait! This Doesn’t Look Right

Practicing ETTR requires a bit of faith. As mentioned before, oftentimes the image we see on the back of our camera is far from what we envisioned or what we want. It can look drastically different, in fact. It’s logical to shoot and expect something on the back of our cameras that’s exposed well, that offers pleasing color and well-balanced tones. The faith part comes with the knowledge that what you’re looking at on the back of your camera is not the final version. You have to accept it as an intermediary step in your RAW file workflow.

RAW files are unprocessed. Even though we see a pic on the back of our camera, we are not seeing our “RAW” data. Instead, we are seeing a representation of that data as processed by our cameras. RAW converters offer you the opportunity to cut out the camera maker’s interpretation and create your own look, style and feel. With RAW data, individual pixels are not yet defined as any particular shade of red, green or blue, or any color at all. The time we spend in the Lightroom allows us to direct those pixels toward a particular look before it’s officially processed.

When does that happen? When we export our files out of Lightroom or a given RAW converter as a TIFF, JPEG or PSD, or go to print with it. Lightroom, or whatever RAW converter you use, is again a required phase of RAW file workflow.

An example of an image captured with ETTR technique prior to processing.

Figure 5. When practicing ETTR and pushing your histogram as far to the right as possible without clipping highlights in critical areas of your composition, things may not look right. Have faith. All of your information, good color and tones are all there. They just need to be coaxed out in the RAW development phase of your workflow.

Look at Figure 5 to see what a snowy landscape RAW file looks like exposing to the right, compared to the developed version after I’ve normalized the file’s tones. See what I mean by “faith?” The before image of the snowy landscape is far from desirable. It’s too bright, and there’s little color compared to the developed version. But when I made my exposure, I checked my histogram. I looked to make sure my blinkies were not flashing on my snowy highlights. And I knew that as soon as I got my RAW data into Lightroom, all the color, contrast and mood that I didn’t see on the back of my camera were there. I just needed to coax it out with some development. I had faith, and so should you when using ETTR, checking your histogram and blinkies—and checking them twice.

An image captured with ETTR technique after processing.

Figure 5b. The final image after processing in Lightroom.

Top 3 Lightroom Tips To Process Winter Photographs

1. Tone down your highlights first. The highlights for a snowy landscape are what make it precious. So, don’t waste any time. Go right to your Exposure and Highlights sliders and dial those in first. Don’t worry about what’s happening to the rest of the image as you take this first step. If it looks like other elements of your composition go dark as a result, you can take care of those later, but if your beautiful snowy highlights aren’t exactly where they look their best, you’re arguably overlooking your image’s most important feature. This first step is the leading aesthetic guiding the direction of the remaining developments. Look to Figure 6 to see how I achieved just that.

An example of a snowy landscape photograph with strong lighting contrast.

Figure 6. As a first step when approaching a snowy landscape development, try toning down your highlights to exactly where you want them first. They are arguably the most important aesthetic and will further guide the rest of your development. From left to right, the first image shows the original RAW capture, the middle image shows just the highlights toned down, and the last image shows the final result after the shadows have been brought out. Photo by Paul Zaretsky.

2. Bring out your shadows. As you perform the first step, everything else gets darker. I suggest a couple of things as you try and keep your shadows looking their best.

Begin with the most obvious. Use Lightroom Classic’s Shadows slider as much as you need to bring out the shadows. Don’t be shy when using this slider. If you need to push it all the way to the right, then push it all the way to the right. There is little danger of over-using this slider, technically speaking. Try using your localized correction tools as well. The shadows slider may only take you so far, being a global tool. Local adjustment tools allow you the control to lighten shadows exactly where and how much you want to in your frame.

Your localized correction tools in Lightroom Classic are located above your Basic Panel, as shown in Figure 7. They are represented by the three icons on the right. You have, from right to left, the Adjustment Brush, the Radial Filter and the Graduated Filter. When applying an adjustment to the shadowed areas of your images, focus on using the Exposure sliders and the Shadows sliders.

Screen shot of tools available for processing in Lightroom.

Figure 7. Use localized corrections to help bring out your shadows in select areas of your image. You have three tools to do this: the Graduated Filter, Radial Filter and Adjustment Brush.

3. Use HDR. Another obstacle in photographing snowy landscapes is they commonly offer up scenes with extreme contrast. Yes, we can bring out shadows. Yes, we can reduce the noise in our shadows. But keep in mind what we just went over regarding why it’s advantageous to use the ETTR technique. Light is data, and we want that data in our shadows if we can get it. The alternative is shadows that are too dark with little to no discernable detail. HDR helps us overcome that. With your camera mounted on a tripod, shoot some frames of the scene targeting your highlights, some targeting your midtones and others targeting your shadows.

How many frames should one shoot for HDR? Ideally, you want to shoot enough images so that you have good exposures of everything in the frame and across the scale of luminosity. Personally, I shoot somewhere between three and five frames that are 1 stop to 2 stops EV apart. How many you shoot exactly, of course, depends on how wide the tonal range of light and shadow are in the scene in front of you.

Blending HDR images in Lightroom Classic is simple. Just select the images you want to blend together, then go to the Photo Menu, then to Photo Merge, and finally to HDR (See Figure 8). Lightroom, unlike any other program that I know of, will generate a RAW file from your blended HDR images. Then do as you normally would to develop your new HDR RAW file.

Screenshot of Lightroom tools to blend images into a final HDR file.

Figure 8. To blend a set of selected images to create an HDR file in Lightroom, go to the Photos Menu, then to Photo Merge and finally to HDR.

Remember this: As you develop your snowy landscapes—with or without HDR—the snow and your highlights set the stage for where the rest of your development goes. Dial that in first. Then use your localized correction tools and Shadows slider to fine-tune the rest. Practice good ETTR to maximize the amount of collectable light. Use your meters to get you in the ballpark and pay close attention to those blinkies to make sure you’re not clipping those crucial highlights.

Most importantly, enjoy the whole creative process as we end this crazy ride that has been 2020, and start off the new year focused on the outdoors, on nature and on what’s beautiful and fun about our craft.

Jason Bradley has a unique set of skills. He specializes in nature and wildlife photography both underwater and above; he’s the owner and operator of Bradley Photographic Print Services, a fine art print lab; he leads photographic expeditions around the world, and is the author of the book Creative Workflow in Lightroom, published by Focal Press. Visit BradleyPhotographic.com to see more of his work and find info on his upcoming workshops and expeditions, and BradleyPrintServices.com to learn about his fine art printing services.