Taking Good Snow Photos

About 1.5 million of us across the Baltimore region have already snapped at least a dozen pictures of this historic snowstorm. The trouble is, most of us are also a little frustrated about the quality of the pictures we’re taking, especially if they have people or objects in them.

Chances are, your camera allows you to adjust the settings to get a better shot.

As a default, most digital point and shoots (and even some of the digital SLRs) are programmed to underexpose your pictures. That means that the shutter is clicking a little faster than it should be, and less light is getting in to create your image. As a result, your pictures are slightly darker, and there is less definition in areas with shadows (including details on individuals). This is not usually an issue, as most pictures have a balanced variation of light contributing to the overall picture.

The problem with shooting pictures in the snow is that most of the light coming into the camera is bright white from the snow, and it tells your camera’s shutter speed to go even faster, letting even less light in for a balanced picture.

This can be easily corrected by manually changing the exposure settings. First, two examples:

The picture below was shot without any exposure compensation. The shutter speed was 1/2000 of a second.

before EC comp

A little dark, but overall not a bad picture.

When we increase the exposure time by one full stop (1/1000 of a second), the shutter is open for twice the time, allowing more of the details in Madelyn’s face to appear.

after EC comp

There are three easy ways to do this manually.

First, most cameras will tell you what the shutter speed is going to be when you are in auto mode and you depress the shutter release button halfway. This information may be displayed through the viewfinder when you look through the eyepiece, or it may appear on the back of your camera on the LCD panel. Whatever that reading is for the shutter speed (let’s say it’s 1/500), switch to manual mode and increase its length by one step (change it to 1/250) and take the picture.

The second way to change this setting is if your camera has an Exposure Compensation (EC) mode. Most digital SLRs allow you to adjust your exposure in 1/3 increments. Simply find the setting on your camera and increase by as many increments as you wish for a better exposure. Most of these cameras also allow you to “bracket” your photos by taking 3, 5, 7, or even 9 photos in succession, each at a different increment (some cameras also allow you to change your increments from 1/3 of a step to a full step). You can then look at the different exposures and determine which might be best for that specific photo. Generally, though, if you are taking pictures of the snow, it’s best to increase your shutter exposure time by at least 1/2 step.

The third way is to get close to the subject you want to shoot and depress the shutter release button halfway to get an exposure reading. Then, when you recompose the shot, make sure you change your shutter setting to that original reading. That way, the exposure will be correct for the subject, while the rest of the picture will be slightly overexposed.

What makes all of this tricky is that the terminology seems contradicting. We increase our shutter exposure time, but the actual number seems as if it decreases (1/500 to 1/250). Underexposed means that some parts of the photo are too dark, while overexposed means that some are too light. Also, adding a full step means that you are slowing down the shutter.  It’s all very confusing.

The bottom line is this: In snow pictures with subjects, slow your shutter speed down. Take a few practice shots at different settings and see which ones you like. It just takes a moment to adjust your settings to get a better picture, and it opens up endless possibilities as you begin to experiment with the settings, making the pictures unique and artistic!

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