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Shooting snow

edited December 2014 Posted in » Canon 60D Forum
What setting should I put my Canon 60D in while photographing people in the snow? Thanks!


  • edited December 2014
    The key is to expose for the faces of people rather than the snow. You'll likely have a lot of blown highlights but it's better than having dark faces.

    To do so, user exposure compensation to over expose. Try +1 stop first and adjust from there.
    Alternatively, if your camera allows spot metering, then use that and you won't even have to mess with exposure compensation.
  • edited February 2015
    Thought I was going daft for a moment as I read the last answer to your query about shooting snow scenes. So I got my camera out to remind myself of the settings. As I recall from a wedding photographer, his advice for avoiding over exposure with all the white dresses around, was that you keep your Exposure compensation stopped down one third. Surely +1 stop, as you have suggested, would make your exposures brighter and more likely to result in blown out images. Stopping it down, just a third of a stop, will result in images under exposed or darker. As a novice myself I always stand to be corrected. One of us is wrong so I would suggest you try both and check your histogram after each one.
  • edited February 2015
    Ohyeahar is quite correct for almost every situation. The camera's meter is geared to make the average shade medium gray. Because of this, in a very snowy scene, it will underexpose considerably, trying to make the snow gray. It's difficult for a digital camera to cover the entire dynamic range, so when you expose a person correctly, much of the snow will likely be blown out. If what you want is the person, you must settle for a very high key picture.

    Back in the days of film, the general rule was to go +2 in a snowy scene. That's just right for say, a Velvia slide, but even then, if you're doing a skier on a big field of snow, the skier will be pretty dark. Whether +2 is too much may depend on your camera's dynamic range, how it renders shadows, and how much shadow you can open up in post. With the Nikon DSLR, I find 1 or 1 1/2 about right depending on how much dark area is showing, and how brightly lit the snow is. On a very sunny day, you may need +2.

    If it's hard to guess, and if you are aiming at a specific subject and are not concerned about how the background is rendered, or prefer that it be washed out, then spot metering often works very well. You meter for the object, and the meter just ignores everything else.

    Since the camera is digital by all means try it all ways, but the general wisdom is to overexpose in snow (and bright light beaches), unless your intent is to make the scene look dark, and the figures in it silhouetted.
  • edited February 2015
    As a very quick and dirty example of the above I took my camera out with the compost, and shot a piece of the back yard. There is rather more shadow and tree visible in this than in a pure snowscape, but you will see in the attached JPG that the left hand straight from the meter is dark and blue, and the rock pile lacks shadow detail. The right hand shot is +1 stop. The histogram for the left hand shot was seriously short of the right hand edge. The histogram for the right was up to it with a tiny bit of blowing out. When I went two stops over it was too much for the general scene, but the rock piles, storm damaged trees, and distant woods were nice and bright. If I were doing a portrait, I'd come closer to +2, and let the overall key be high so as to avoid dark shadows in the subject. For the overall balance here, +1 is about right despite the blueness of the shadows.

  • edited February 2015
    Well, as I said, being a novice I'm always prepared to submit to more experienced photographers. Perhaps it's the way my mind works. It just doesn't seem to make sense to me that if the scene you're looking at, such as a white dress or a snow scene, which is already bright, needs the brightness or exposure compensation increased. Unless that's it. Upping the exposure compensation is compensating for what is already a bright image. No, I'm not convinced and I'm certain the Wedding photographer suggested stopping down a third to avoid burn out. Think I'll stick to my original idea of trying both sides of the center Exposure Bracket.
  • edited February 2015
    What you are not taking into account is how the camera's meter and sensor see things. The meter does not interpret the contents of a scene as we do. It sees light. If it sees too much light, it lowers exposure. If it sees too little it raises it. It works, in a sense, backwards from your brain. You want to see white snow and black shadows, but the meter does not; it likes gray.

    Meters are all sorts of smart and computerized these days, but in the end, the meter presumes that a scene in front of it will be a mixture of darks, lights, and in-betweens, and that the average of this scene should add up to gray. A matrix meter will do all sorts of tricks and compensations, but it can only work on details that are there, and it can still easily be fooled.

    If you aim your meter at a scene that is highly dominated by shade, the meter will try to lighten it. Take your camera, indoors on a sunny day, set the lens wide and put it on auto without flash. Find a dark wall with a window at one side, and aim at the wall. The wall will be light, and the window blown out. The camera has overexposed the scene making the dominant dark wall lighter, and sacrificing the view in the window to limited dynamic range.

    Now take your camera out into a snowy field, and place a small medium-shaded object in the snow. A teddy bear, perhaps, a stone, or a docile gray cat. Now take a picture with the same setup as before, wide with mostly snow. The snow will be dark in color, blue-gray, and the teddy bear will be black. The camera has underexposed the scene. It has made the dominant light snow darker and sacrificed the deep shadows to limited dynamic range. If the teddy bear is your subject it has underexposed it drastically.

    The sample picture above, sloppy as it is, illustrates this. The left hand half was shot with a matrix meter that is very accurate, and you can surely see that it is underexposed. Snow is not blue gray to us. The right hand half was shot with the exposure boosted by a stop. A "blinkie" analysis of the image reveals that only a few very small portions, where the sun was hitting snow directly were blown. The histogram is nearly perfect. Even so, the dynamic range of the camera is somewhat limited so that the stones are a little dark, and the snow shadows a little bluer than we see it. This is partly due to exposure, and partly to a difference in color balance between the camera and our eyes.

    With regard to the wedding photographer, one might indeed need to reduce exposure somewhat, assuming that the white dresses and their details are the important content of the picture but not all that is in it. Unless the picture is wholly dominated by the white, the camera's meter will try to put the middle tones in the middle of the histogram at the expense of the light and dark extremes. Since in digital photography a blown out highlight is unrecoverable, you don't want any dress details to hit the right side of the histogram. It's worthwhile sacrificing shadows to keep the histogram from bumping into the right hand wall.
  • edited February 2015
    There’s a huge difference between photographing a snow scene and a wedding dress.

    When you’re photographing a bride in her dress, you want to preserve the details in the dress. That’s why you should underexpose to keep the highlights from blowing.
    When you’re photographing a snow scene, most of the time the snow is not the subject. Often the subject is a person, an object, or whatever. If you don’t overexpose, your subject will be lost in shadows. If you overexpose, you’ll bring out the details of your subject. Sure, you blow out the snow, but again, the snow is not the subject.
    If the snow is the subject, then sure, you’ll need to underexpose.

    And the best thing you can do is shoot RAW to maximize your ability to manipulate the exposure, highlights, and shadows in post processing.

    By all means, don’t just take my word on this. Go out and try it. Shoot a snow scene at -1.0, 0.0, and +1.0 exposure compensation and see which you prefer.
  • edited February 2015
    I think I get what you mean. Here is one of my examples where I was sooting in to the sun on a sunny day. As you suggest, by stopping down to compensate for the snow as I thought was the correct way to combat the brightness, the snow looks grey.
  • edited February 2015
    In the scenery shot shown we can see the principle, and also a good instance of why rules should sometimes be broken. Here, the dark elements, the barns, fence, and even the tractor itself are shape elements whose role in the picture is fulfilled by their position more than their content, so it is fine that they are almost black. What we want detail in is the tracks in the snow, and it's clear that parts of those tracks are close to being overexposed even when darkened. Because this is an image in which harsh shadow is a compositional element, I suspect that HDR or post processing to open up shadows would weaken it. Since the implication of the picture is that this is the end of the day anyway, dark snow is little problem, and the price we pay for detail.

    If you were out at the same time intending to shoot a portrait of the farmer on his tractor, I think you'd find that unless you were up close with the dark subject dominating the scene, it would be unacceptably dark unless you overexposed.

    Here, for example, is one from a recent trip. In this case, I did not compensate exposure, but spot metered on the penguin. In order to get the penguin, the snow field is almost entirely blown. A "blinkie" view of this would have all but the penguin flashing.
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