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How to Capture Winter Scenes in Photography

Winter Nature Photography Tips

Good winter nature photography begins with a grasp of the basics of good landscape photography. With this in mind, let's go over a few essential techniques for successful outdoor shooting, and then turn to the tricks and traps of winter snaps. We'll begin with another Ansel Adams quote: "A good photograph is knowing where to stand."

  • Once you've found your scenic subject, try approaching closer to it or retreating a bit from it. Cars, motorcycles and snowmobiles make this much more practical at the large scales that landscape photography encompasses. Another useful technique involves using a zoom lens to change the spatial relationships and relative sizes of your foreground and background elements. Simply zoom in on the subjects while stepping away from them.
  • Try moving from side to side as well. Modify your viewing angle while also looking for unusual ways to frame your subject. Stand up, sit down, crouch or even lie down.
  • See with your eyes instead of your mind. Find your focal point and look for distracting elements to exclude from the photo. Remember, once you flatten three dimensions to two, the viewer's eye will be easily distracted and will tend to wander around all but the most well composed photos.
  • Finally, when you have trouble conveying scale and distance, such as when you're photographing a mountain, place people or objects in the photo to provide a sense of scale. Also, compose your scene with objects at different distances to create depth.

In winter shooting, especially in snow and ice conditions, light presents your principal challenge. Good lighting is hard to come by and bright snow creates a high dynamic range that can play havoc with your exposure levels.

Most cameras come equipped with a built-in gizmo called a through-the-lens (TTL) exposure meter that detects light levels and calculates the appropriate shutter speed and aperture based on the mid-tones of the scene in frame. The problem is, the brightness of snow can overwhelm or confuse automatic exposure modes: The meter will average the light levels from the entire scene and therefore underexpose your shot, resulting in a gray and dingy photo. Shafts of light penetrating clouds may confuse even external meters.

To get truly brilliant snow, you'll need to use your camera's exposure compensation to manually "overexpose" the photo (you're not really overexposing -- you're simply making a correction). Remember, the proper exposure level is the one that gets you the result you're looking for. Most cameras have a control that allows you to offset the automatic exposure level by a series of stops called EV units. Each step of EV adjustment changes exposure by a power of two: +1 exposure compensation means twice as much exposure, whereas -1 means half as much exposure. As a rule of thumb, a setting between +0.3 and +1.0 EV should work well for snow.

The advantage of the offset is that the camera still does most of the work, with you merely providing a nudge in the right direction. If you prefer, you can also manually expose the photo. When in doubt, expose for the highlights, since you can never recover blown out details.

Alternatively, you can take multiple exposures in quick succession and combine them using a computer program or your camera's built-in function, if it has one. Similarly, you can take a number of exposures at stops above, at and below the camera's calculated exposure and then combine them. This is known as bracketing.

Note that you cannot rely on a digital camera's screen to accurately show you what you've shot (they usually aren't calibrated) so use a histogram (which is really just a bar graph that indicates how the luminance values in your photographs are distributed) to get at the truth and don't delete any photos until you get home and can see them on a full-sized monitor.

Now that you understand a bit more about exposure levels, let's take a look at some general tips for shooting in snow.