Shooting In The Snow – 6 Tips For Beginners!

Remember the scene where Indiana Jones enters ‘The Raven’ tavern in Nepal (Raiders Of The Lost Ark)?  A light dusting of snow on his Fedora; Indy has a rocky reunion with Marion, then later shoots-it-out with the Nazis who show up looking to steal the headpiece of The Staff of Ra.

TheRavenOutside
Image Source: Indiana Jones Wikia

Our adventures can take us anywhere – even on long inhospitable treks through cold, unrelenting blowing snow.  And wherever the trail leads we need to be ready for whatever comes our way. And there’s always, always, a shoot-out!

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Image Source: Indiana Jones Wikia

This week’s post features 6 Tips For Shooting Snowfall, and snow in general.

Please feel free add more tips in the comments!

1.  KEEP YOUR WHITES WHITE… UNLESS YOU DON’T WANT TOO

One of the most beautiful things about a fresh snowfall is its brilliant, sparkling, untainted purity.  It can even be cathartic in a way making you feel that all is right in the world, at least for a moment. This is true of white snow. Not so much for grey snow.

Why do we see so many images of grey snow? Is snow grey in some parts of the world??  Discounting the effects of pollution and other impurities the answer, in general, is ‘no’. When it comes to colour, snow doesn’t discriminate – it reflects all wave-lengths back to us equally, producing a beautiful white light.

The problem is the camera or, more specifically, the camera’s metering system.  In trying to create a ‘proper/even’ exposure (not too bright, not too dark) the camera naturally tones down very bright scenes… and brightens up very dark scenes. This works well most of the time – but not in the case of snow where we WANT the image to be bright (brighter and whiter than your typical photo/selfie).

If ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ has taught us anything, it’s that a machine must be turned off, or at least over-ridden by human intervention sometimes (yes, I’m mixing metaphors but Harrison Ford was also in Star Wars which shows many influences from A Space Odyssey, so…). Now is the time to over-ride your camera’s metering system, and take control.  I usually dial-in +1.5 to +2 using exposure compensation. Because I use a mirrorless camera with an EVF that shows exactly what my exposure is I adjust it just the way I want it (I love being able to see ‘real time’ exposure!)  If you use a DSLR you might need to take a few trial-and-error shots first and chimp, and/or use the camera’s histogram etc. to get the correct exposure. +1 to +2 is a good place to start.

On the topic of keeping your whites white you’ll also want to either shoot RAW, or adjust your white balance in-camera. If, like me, you’re crazy enough to shoot at night and under different artificial lighting conditions you can get all sorts of different coloured snow. This can be used creatively (blue snow for example can help portray the ‘cold of winter’) but if you want to keep your whites white you’ll need to adjust the WB. Just shooting during the day? In natural sunlight?? Even natural sunlight can have (slightly) different hues at different times of the day.

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2. THERE IS NO YANG WIHOUT YIN

As noted above, snow is, generally, white. So it makes sense that if you’re photographing falling snow it will show up better if it’s contrasted with a dark background. Dark buildings, trees, and other structures make a nice ‘canvas’ on which to capture falling snow.

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3. COMPRESS THE SNOW

Snow can have a lot more impact when you compress it… and pack it into a tightly formed snowball aimed squarely at… Oh wait – I meant to talk about lens compression here, sorry.

When we see a beautiful snowy scene I think it’s natural to want to grab the wide lens. 28mm, 24mm or an even wider field of view can produce a beautiful land-or-city-scape photo. But… if you want to photograph falling snow, then a longer lens (such as a 50mm, 70mm, 100mm or longer) can ‘compress’ the scene and add emphasis to the (falling) snow. If you’re predominantly a landscape shooter who’s not use to shooting longer lenses then shooting a snow-scape with a telephoto lens can seem counter-intuitive I know  – so I’ll just ask you to trust me and give it a try. It’s always fun to experiment!

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4. SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS? OR SNOWPOCALYPSE!? 

As mentioned last week (The Four Types Of Snow) there are a number of ways that snowfall (and a plethora of ways that snow) is portrayed through photography. The effect can vary wildly, one style looking like something out of ‘The Matrix’, another like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Knowing up-front what story you want to tell, or at least what mood you wish to convey, helps immensely.  Not the least because they are accomplished in very different ways.

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4a. SHUTTER SPEED

Yes, 4A – I wanted to keep the list to 6 item in-line with the ‘shoot-out’ reference and the six-round Smith & Wesson M1917 revolver used by Indy in ‘Raiders’. Incidentally, did you know that each snowflake has six sides? Did you know that I often digress?

I shoot in aperture priority about 70% of the time. But when shooting movement, I switch to Shutter Speed priority. Falling snow is movement so I typically shoot in Shutter priority (or occasionally Manual).

I mostly shoot snowfalls handheld, and so for longer / streakier (Normal Rockwell) snow I’d shoot at 1/60th, 1/100th, 1/400th, etc.   I still want the rest of the image to be sharp, so I don’t shoot slower than 1/60th and when shooting during the day, in bright light, exposure will often dictate that the shutter speed be faster. If the scene is too bright for the shutter speed you want you can always use ND filters or simply look for a more shaded area or shoot later in the day.

For freezing flakes (Matrix Snow) I’ll typically shoot much faster: 1/1000th, 1/1600th, or higher.

Actual shutter speed will vary depending on the speed of the wind (/blowing snow) and even the focal length of the lens. Some experimentation is required.

4b. OTHER ELEMENTS

I think snow itself can certainly be the subject of a photo but regardless of whether it plays a ‘leading’ or ‘supporting’ role, other elements almost always add interest and help with the composition. What those other elements are, again, depends on the story. Yes, this is obvious but it’s something that warrants fore-thought… maybe a little more-so than some other photos considering that travel and getting around in the snow and cold can be a little more difficult than, say, strolling along the boardwalk on a beautiful summer’s day.

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5. COOKING THE SNOW

If you shoot RAW (highly recommended for snow photos) you’ll likely want to make a few adjustments in post processing. White Balance and Exposure (and highlights and shadows) are a couple of the key adjustments to keep your whites white and your colours bright (sounds like a detergent commercial!) Snow photos, especially minimalistic ones and/or ones with strong geometry or patterns can make for interesting B&Ws. Other adjustments such as contrast and saturation are often ‘done to taste’ as with any other photo but one thing worth mentioning is that snow images may be one of the very few uses for a reverse (white) vignette. If you make a print, it’s also a good opportunity to use a white photo mat.

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6. DRESS FOR SUCCESS

What am I, your Mom, that I’m going to tell you to bundle up and wear a hat?? Errr… well… maybe just a little. But only because I’ve been caught myself in a too-thin jacket when the weather turned cold, or without gloves when the freezing wind picked up out of no-where, or cold damp socks on a far too long hike. Me, who should know better. Like many who have grown up ‘North Of The 49th’ (or for that matter anyone North of the 39th parallel actually) I’m no stranger to snow and ice. In cold weather it’s just hard to overstate the importance of preparedness is all.

Common sense dressing-for-winter aside though, there are a few special considerations for photographers. I’ve already made this post far too long, so let’s just quickly run through some of the key ones:

BATTERIES don’t do well in the cold. Bring extras and store them close to your body to keep them warm / CAMERAS can be subject to condensation when thrown through quick temperature changes. Don’t tuck it inside your jacket next to your body – let it stay cold while shooting, and warm it up slowly when finished for the day (on the car ride home, inside the camera bag or zip-lock) / LENSES – avoid changing them and getting moisture in the body in heavy snow or wind / FLIP-TOP GLOVES – many photographers swear by these – gotta get me some! Currently I use thin driving gloves / LENS CLOTH – self-explanatory / BAGS – gloves and-or frozen fingers can make accessing equipment more clumsy. A good bag or pouch with sufficient space and easy access is very helpful here. I’ve had to re-trace my steps more than once, and dig through snow, to retrieve a lens cap that fell out of my pocket (I know I could buy a replacement for $10 but it’s the principle…) / WEATHER PROTECTION for both you and the gear, especially if the snow is wet – weather sealed camera and lens or rain cover or shower cap or plastic bags or umbrealla (you know the drill) / A FEDORA – again, self-explanatory

Image Source: Smithsonian Press
Image Source: Smithsonian Press

Indiana Jones to his students: “We do not follow maps to buried treasure and X never, ever marks the spot.”

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