Snow Photography: Filter, Shutter Speed, Focus and More!

Posted on 1 January 2018


Snow photography can be a real challenge. Digital cameras are designed to capture light, and they can be overwhelmed by the blinding whiteness of freshly fallen snow. There’s nothing more frustrating than beholding a beautiful nature scene and finding that your pictures do not do it justice. This blog will help you understand some basic photography terms, troubleshoot your problems and get the most from your snow photography!

When to use a Polarizer

As far as filters go, polarizers are among the most popular regardless of the time of year. They give blue skies a dark and powerful blue hue. They add definition and layers to clouds while eliminating glare and giving colors more saturation. Use the graduated neutral-density filter when it is necessary to equalize variations in exposure in different parts of the scene, say between the brilliant blue sky in the background and the fields of snow in the foreground. A three-stop (No. 8) gray graduated neutral-density filter is useful for many snow photography scenes.

When to Use Manual Focus

When big, fluffy snowflakes are falling right in front of your lens, or when there is extreme overcast or fog, use manual focus. The problem, of course, is that there is so little contrast that the lens cannot find anything to lock onto. Your camera’s autofocus feature will naturally flutter as it tries to decide what your subject is: the snowflakes or fog in front of you or the family of deer in the background. Use manual focus to get the shot you want. If you are waiting for wildlife and will need to take a shot at exactly the right moment, keep your manual focus on so you are ready to shoot when your subject presents itself.

When to increase your shutter speed

Heavy snow is falling but you want to stop motion and clearly capture a scene, like a bear scratching his back on a tree, or a wolf drinking water from a stream.

When to decrease your shutter speed

Snow is falling, or there is another object in motion, and you want to emphasize the movement of the snow or the movement of your subject (a rabbit rushing through the snow, for example). That’s when you use long exposure by decreasing your shutter speed.

When to Play with White Balance Settings

If your snow is coming out with a bluish shading, play with your camera’s white balance (WB) setting to give it a truly white appearance. White balance settings control the “temperature” of the color. While “cooling” filters give snow (and everything else) a blue color, “warming” filters do just the opposite. If your snow is coming out blue, try out a warming filter to balance it out. Some WB settings come with options for “shade.” These also work well.

When to add positive compensation (overexposure)

Achieving the correct exposure is one of the greatest challenges of snow photography. Your camera’s metering system is calibrated to base their exposure on a neutral tonality, a neutral gray. A landscape dominated by white snow will throw your metering system haywire as it attempts to compensate for the brightness. The result will be dull grey now, not brilliantly white snow. To get your camera to truly capture the scene before you, you have to add positive compensation (overexposure). On an overcast day, overexpose by +1 stop exposure value (EV). On a bright and sunny day, +2 stop EV may be required. Anything beyond a +2 stop EV may result in the image looking whitewashed with little detail. If your camera has an Exposure Warning setting, your camera will automatically highlight or point out areas that are overexposed. If the picture looks great but there are a few spots of overexposure you want to smooth out, try increasing your shutter speed.   Don’t miss our blog about the world’s most majestic winter photography locations!

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