Snow Day

By Roger (12 Dec 2013)

The cold weather is here in Northern Virginia – finally. I enjoy the variety and distinctness of the seasons here, but winter has been my favorite for a long time, especially if there is snow involved. Apparently, not everyone up here feels the same as me since, on Tuesday, the Feds shut down government offices over a measly 2-3 inches of the white stuff.

As photographers, however, we can put the snow to much better use than shutting down the government. Snow can be a positive element for your photographs. Snow can help you simplify your composition; it covers distractions under a blanket of white. Most people love to see nice photos of a snowy landscape. If kids are on your preferred subject list, a snowy day is perfect for fun photos. You can be assured of naturally smiling faces. Snow and ice can add an interesting element in your macro photos. In other words, snow is another opportunity.

My favorite castle, Neu Schwanstein, Germany.

My favorite castle, Neu Schwanstein, Germany.

However, when you go out in the snow to make some photographs, there are a few extra things to consider. Battery life is seriously reduced in very cold weather, so make sure they are fully charged before you go out. Keep your spare batteries inside your coat, so they stay warm until you need them. Your camera may be weather-resistant, but it probably isn't waterproof. I cover my gear with the Op-Tech Rainsleeve (link), but there are many camera protection alternatives out there, varying widely in price. I use the Rainsleeves because they are so inexpensive and take up very little room in my camera bag.

Clear, cold days are hard on your camera's battery.

Clear, cold days are hard on your camera's battery.

You will need to pay attention to your exposure. This can be confusing because you need to add some exposure compensation (+1to 2 stops) if you are using anything other than manual mode. Why would you add exposure when the scene is already so bright? The camera's meter is trying to average out the light on the sensor. You have to override the camera's solution to keep your snow bright in the resulting photo. Pay attention to your white balance as well. The snow will tend to a bluish tint, especially in the shade. You can set your white balance to 6,000-6500K for manual shooters, and point-and-shooters should use the “Shade” setting.

As always, set the shutter speed and aperture for the effect you want. Use faster shutter speeds for snowflakes frozen in the air and slower speeds for snow streaks across the image. Set your aperture wide (lower numbers) for a soft, dreamy feel, but be careful to keep your subject in sharp focus. Use smaller apertures for a crisp, detailed look.

The snow is still falling and filling the frame with whiteness

The snow is still falling and filling the frame with whiteness

In post-processing, you can refine the photo to get the exact look you want. If you've done most of your work with the camera, these will be minor tweaks. Make sure you didn't lose the highlights in the photo; check the histogram to find any areas you've accidently let go to pure white. Check your horizon line. For some reason, when shooting in the snow, I seem to do poorly at keeping my horizon line level. You can adjust your white balance, if you didn't get it quite right. If you like to use vignettes, snowy shots are some of the best to use a white vignette. I tend to spend most of my time removing any distracting elements, like twigs poking out of the snow, wires on buildings, etc

Before the debris clean up.

Before the debris clean up.

After debris clean up.  Little things can have a big impact.

After debris clean up.  Little things can have a big impact.

Snowy days can be great days for your photography. Don't sit inside and hibernate. Get out there and shoot some photos. It is loads of fun.

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