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Better Snow Photography (simple tips)

For many of us this winter has been a real nuisance.  Snow piled high blocking driveways, morning and evening commutes extended or even doubled. Even the trains are battling with keeping a timely schedule.   But for those of us who take pictures the snow has actually been a fun subject, especially after the strong winds blew and created some natural sculptures that when the morning or evening light hits them the range of color or tones captured can be a thing of beauty.

For many, photographing snow is a real challenge. Your snap shot images are blown out, or too much white, or there is no detail at all in the snow.  If you like taking snowscapes many of your images start out too dark so you have to make crazy adjustments to make it look good on the back of the camera which is not always the smartest move. Sometimes if you did get the snow to look right the rest of the image is too dark.  This also holds true if you have kids playing in the snow with darker colored snowsuits.

To overcome these issues the first thing necessary is a basic understanding of your camera’s light meter.  The light meter is built into your camera. It reads the light coming into the camera and, in an automatic mode, decides what the exposure formula will be based on the strength of the light. That is the simple description. In fact it’s way more complicated than that but you get the idea.  The first thing that gets hobbyist photographers off the title “hobbyist” and onto the ranks of an advanced amateur is mastering of the light meter and understand how and when it’s actually “lying” to you. The light meter is how the camera communicates to you. Through it’s input you will make decisions on how to expose the image.  In the simple light meter, the light sensitive photocells measure the entire area of the viewfinder and then average the light level to provide you a measurement to use for formulating an exposure.  In DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras this type of metering is called evaluative or matrix metering depending on the brand of camera. It’s  this averaging that makes the camera see all that white and think the scene is too bright so it gives you feed back to darken the shot and usually not very likable. The images below are tough for any light meter. Out for a walk along the Fox River in Carpentersville, Il , the lighting is flat, meaning very little separation between the various parts of the image. Cloudy grey sky, grey/white snow, a dark brown tree line and water that looks black. The top image as read by the light meter is dark over all. The bottom one, same image adjusted via the computer  does lighten the sky and the snow and it could use a little more, but the detail, however little there is, in the clouds falls away and the same for the snow in the  foreground.

snow shots-1


snow shots-2

In the automatic mode the decision is made for you, the settings are made and the photo is taken however in many cases the same results occur. Today’s modern DSLR’s are far better than even 7 years ago with the increase in technology by capturing 90% of the lighting extremes that are out there. However there are some snow scenes out there that an automatic exposure still cannot handle.  The images above would have come out the same in automatic. If you are using a point n’ shoot camera or a cell phone you have limited controls but I have noticed some of them are coming out with a spot meter setting.  A spot meter will only measure the light in the middle of the viewfinder. Depending on the device it could be only the center 2% (usually professional gear) or it may be as much as 40%. What essentially happens is the camera is ignoring the light outside the spot meter and creating an exposure only for the light inside that center “spot”.   DSLR’s have a spot meter but they actually have an even better setting for extreme lighting situations.  Is called center-weighted.  This is a combination of the two, spot and evaluative. The light meter is reading all the light in the viewfinder, however instead of creating a straight average its reading the center 30-50% of the area and weights it on a 2:1 ratio with the remaining area in the view finder.  In a sense it doesn’t allow the fringe lighting whether light or dark, to influence the center as much as it could in evaluative.  The result is a better exposed subject that resides more in the middle of your view finder.  Now the secret to this working is of course your subject cannot be larger than 70% of your view finder as a rule of thumb.  But you may still like the results especially if it’s sunny and a snowy scene.

Another “trick” is use a circular polarizer filter. One of the only filters than cannot be replicated in post production editing software, this filter is a must in every camera bag for anyone who shoots outside. The job of the polarizer is two fold, it acts like sunglasses to your camera, so think of when you wear sunglasses and you’ll know when to use the polarizer. The tinted lenses block 30-70% of the brightness. The other is glare or reflection removal/ reduction.  So think of white snow on a sunny day and the amount of glare created and you can imagine the effects a polarizer may have.  Now there is a whole 30 minute class I can give on picking the right type of polarizer but that’s only critical if you trying to become an advanced amateur, or someone who may want to compete or even sell images.  But if your looking for better snap shoots of the kids or ski trip memories just pick one that fits and enjoy.

For those of you who are looking to shoot snowscapes, there is a little more work involved.  Light of course is critical but light source and time of day is also critical. Most snowscapes are shot in available light, so then you have to decide if you want to shoot when it’s cloudy, sunny, a little of both or what.  If the sun is out, shooting snowscapes between 11:00 am and 3:00 PM is not your best choice, if you have the luxury of choosing.  The high sun will create powerful reflections and glare making shadows very dark and highlights very hot or bright or “blown out”. There are some subjects that could look good in this light but it’s a tough task. The lower the sun angle, the better your picture will look because that angle will produce shadows that give the photo dimension and eliminate a lot of the reflection that hide details of the snowscape. In combination with a circular polarizer as mentioned already you can get great tonal separation and refection removal to help break out the darker parts of the scene.  The circular polarizer does it’s job best when you are perpendicular to the sun, or  have the sun off to the left or right of the direction you are pointing the lens.  Having the sun directly behind you or in front of you is ok but you will not get the polarizing effect, only the light reduction effect of the filter. (A polarizer generally blocks 1.3 to 2 F-Stops of light, you can see that by viewing a scene though your camera with the filter on and with the filter off and note your meter readings for each scenario.)  Below are a few samples of the different metering and with or with out the polarizer.  You can see how in spot meter, the detail on the can is better but the snow is blown out to almost no detail. The polarizer does bring some that detail back however the best mode for this composition was the center weighted so some of the snow is metered as well as the black can. Add a polarizer to eliminate the glare and it’s a decent shot.

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Lastly the one thing that may drive you nuts is that snow rarely photographs white. You may not have noticed that because your brain is telling you it’s white. But really it’s reflecting color around it, and in the shade or on cloudy days it’s usually some shade of light blue.  For those of us printing you see real fast that by upping the contrast the blue fades more and almost looks white but at the expense of loosing the detail in the snow it self.  To the print viewer it’s easier on the eyes to see light blue and good snow detail. Upping the contrast creates an almost pailful viewing experience.

I hope this little lesson made sense to you. Please feel free to leave questions here since it’s a blog. Feel free to comment as well.  Just remember this was written to mostly novices so you working pros you’ll know higher level of detail was left out. That’s done on purpose to bring the skill levels up with out scaring them off.


Shooting and creating images since 1984, Keith French has had the opportunity to shoot on 4 continents and the islands of the Azores, as well in the South Pacific. A one time camera store owner Keith worked his way around the photography industry and has developed a unique perspective from the view point of a photographer, a photo lab technician, an equipment retailer/salesmen, and commercial studio owner. An award winning photographer who loves to teach and share his passion with others. Keith is currently the local camera club president as well.
  1. Keith Reply

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