In winter landscape photography, there are two important challenges you have to deal with. If you have photographed snow, most likely you have experienced these two issues.
Either your images become too dark, or they have a blue color cast. Or both. You can avoid both these issues if you know the tricks.
What you will learn:
- How to get the exposure right
- Dealing with blue color cast
- Composition tips
- Other helpful tips
Too dark images in winter landscape photography
Challenge - how to get the exposure right
A snow covered winter landscape is among the brightest scenes you can shoot as a landscape photographer. The camera light meter is calibrated to measure neutral gray color.
A landscape scene covered with snow basically is white and thus very bright. The light meter in your camera will read this as the scene is way too bright. So the meter decides to make the exposure dark(er).
In other words, the camera get confused by this bright scene and mess things up. You have a few options to deal with this problem.
1. Auto settings
If you use any of the automatic settings the camera will increase the shutter speed (shorter exposure time) or increase the aperture (to a higher f-number). Both these changes will allow less light on the sensor and create a darker image.
2. Exposure compensation
When you use the Auto settings, you can overrule what the camera selects with Exposure compensation. Typically with snow you have to dial in a compensation of +1/3 to +2 stop depending on the scene.
By doing this, you tell the camera “this scene is not as bright as you think, it is snow). Because, how can the camera know it sees snow? You do and have to take necessary actions.
3. Spot metering
Another way of dealing with underexposed photos in winter landscape photography is to use spot metering. If your composition have dark elements you can tell the camera to measure on any of these darker areas.
Often when you photograph winter landscapes you have trees, rocks or mountains in the frame. When you point the (spot)meter at any of the darker parts, the camera will ensure these are exposed correctly.
Depending on how much contrast it is between dark and light, you run a risk the snow will become too bright. Snow is supposed to be white so some overexposure of the snow is OK. There are no details in the white snow anyway.
4. Manual setting
If neither of the suggestions above, work the last option is to switch the camera to Manual exposure mode. Now you have the full control and responsibility for a good exposure.
Manual is my preferred setting in all situations when the light is challenging. In winter landscape photography I very rarely use any of the auto modes.
If you prefer, and it is a good way to learn, do a test shot in Aperture priority first. Then check on the LCD what shutter speed your camera suggested.
Now set the exposure metering back to Manual. Set the aperture to the same setting as in your test shot. If the snow is to dark you need to dial in a longer exposure time (e.g. from 1/125s to 1/60s).
5. High contrast
If you can’t get an evenly exposed image if you use Manual mode, you probably have a scene with too much contrast. On a bright sunny winter day, it can be almost impossible to get a good exposure from one shot. In particular, if you have a composition with a lot of shadows.
6. Bracket - HDR
The way to go if the scene has too much difference between the light and shadow parts, is to shoot two or more exposures of the scene. Later you blend these different exposures in your preferred image editing software. This technique is called High Dynamic Range (HDR). Here is an easy to read article to get you started with HDR.
7. Watch the histogram
If your camera has a histogram feature, you should check the histogram on the LCD. You have to make sure shadows and highlights are not cut off at the left and right side of the histogram.
As snow is white, most of the histogram will be distributed to the right side. Slightly blown highlights is not a problem as there are few details in white snow anyhow.
Challenge - blue color cast
Snow is a reflective surface. On an overcast winter day the snow is not getting any direct sunlight. As you know over the clouds the sky is always blue. The snow works like a reflector. The snow will bounce sunlight reflected from the blue sky into the shadow areas. You will see this as blue color cast in your images.
If you dialed the White Balance to Auto, your camera was tricked - once more. Why? Because your camera have now clue snow is supposed to be white. You do, and again you have to come to rescue. There are several ways you can deal with blue color cast in your snow images.
8. Setting white balance
As you have understood by now, setting White Balance to Auto when you do winter landscape photography might not be the best option. In situations where the blue color cast gets to dominating you have to adjust the White Balance manually.
Adjusting the White Balance to “Cloud” or “Shade” or something similar depending on your camera will warm up the photo. The “Flash” mode White Balance will also have a similar effect. You have to try and see what works best for you.
The problem when adjusting the White Balance this way is other elements in you composition might get unwanted color shifts. The White Balance issues in winter landscape photography is only a problem when you shoot and save your files as JPG.
9. Save in RAW
I recommend you set the camera to shoot in RAW or if you prefer also to have a small version JPG, set the camera to RAW+JPG.
A RAW file contains a lot more information and gives you much more room when you edit your photos. In winter landscape photography saving as RAW files is extremely useful.
With a RAW file, you can correct the white balance when you are back at your computer. This is so much more convenient if your camera failed the White Balance.
10. Dealing with the blue color cast in Adobe Lightroom
One of the most common editing software among photographers is Lightroom. If you shot your winter photos in RAW format you can easily remove some of the blue color cast in Lightroom.
There are at least two ways to do this.
- You can adjust the white balance to a warmer color
- You can selectively reduce the blue color in the HSL panel.
This removes any blue color cast in your image. It is about taste but I do not remove all the blue color cast in snow. Snow will naturally have some blue colors from the sky on an overcast day.
11. If colors are difficult - try Black & White
If you can’t get rid of the blue color cast and get the image to look the way you want. Why not try to convert into B&W. High contrast snow images are great for monochrome conversions. Give it a try.
Composition is as always important, and winter landscape photography is no exception.
Look for contrasting colors to the snow to add interest to your composition. About any color will work nicely with snow. The colors are crisper on a cold day so don’t stay in because of cold weather.
12. On cold days
If it is a really cold day, you can photograph ice crystals forming on the ground and trees or any object for that matter. If the sun is up, you can get some interesting effects with ice crystals.
14. If it is snowing
Don’t put down your camera because it is snowing. Try to position yourself so you have the sun in front of you. A backlit scene with snow falling can be beautiful.
15. No steps
When you arrive at a scene, you should pay attention to where walk. An otherwise great composition might be destroyed because of your footsteps in the snow. Take a look around you for some possible good viewpoint before you start to walk around.
Other winter landscape photography tips
If your camera is cold, and you bring in to room temperature, the lens will condensate. If you have to take the camera in and out it is a good idea to keep it in a zip lock plastic bag while inside. The bag prevents the condensation.
17. Battery life
Batteries drain fast when it is cold. Especially if you user the LCD a lot. Always take spare batteries with you. Batteries not in use last longer if you keep them in a warm place. An inside pocket under your jacket will be fine.
18. Tripod in deep snow
Be careful when you set up your tripod in deep snow. You can easily damage the tripod if you try to force it down in the snow. Do not spread the tripod legs all the way before you place it in the snow. Extend one leg at a time as you place the tripod deeper. This way you will also have a much more stable tripod set up.
Unfortunately too many photographers are reluctant to go out when it is cold and snowing. Don’t. You miss a lot of opportunities for great photography.