This time of year, whether on the slopes or in the backyard, a lot of our photos will be taken in the snow. In a scene where most of the image is white, often the beautiful snow will turn out a dingy grey tone.
Your camera’s meter is reading the scene in a mid-grey tone. If you have ever taken a photography class, you may remember the grey card that you used to set your meter. That card is the tone in which your camera sees light. In an average image, this means your shadows hopefully don’t get too dark causing you to lose detail on the back side of a bush or rock while the clouds or brighter parts of the image don’t get too bright. Because your meter is looking for more or less an average shooting scenario, this ends up working well in most cases. When you step into a scenario like a white snowy scene, your camera is still trying to find that average mid-grey and your entire scene ends up being that grey tone. Don’t fret! There is an easy way to trick your meter and achieve the vibrant look you are striving for in your snowy images.
In the image on the left, the camera’s meter was left to figure out the scene. Most cameras have a scene mode setting for snow – usually labeled with a snowflake or snowman icon. This is still an auto mode, but you have just told the camera what to expect in this atypical scene. If you like to shoot in the program, aperture priority or shutter priority modes, you can use the exposure compensation on your camera. By using the exposure compensation and adding 1 1/3 stops of light to the picture, your snow will be back to vibrant white. If you are comfortable shooting in manual, this is an easy thing to overcome by simply adjusting your exposure to brighten the scene by that same +1 1/3 stops.
Some cameras have a physical dial to adjust the exposure compensation. Others will be set through the menu, usually initiated by a button. The dial on the left is at a neutral setting. The dial on the right has +1 1/3 of exposure compensation added to the picture being taken. This takes the dingy grey reading your meter is using and brings it back to the vibrant white snow it should be. The image on the bottom is from a point and shoot pocket camera. It has the same ability to correct for tough lighting as the more expensive camera with the dials. By pushing the +/- icon, and then using the arrows to add the same +1 1/3 to the picture, the same vibrant snow can be captured.
Pro Tip: When going from a hot car or building to a cold environment, seal your camera and lens into a ziplock bag and do not open it until the temperatures have been able to equalize a bit. This will inhibit condensation from forming within your camera and lens from the dramatic and sudden temperature change.