The last few weeks the UK has been assaulted with heavy snow storms and driving winds causing the usual excessive disruption to the country. The storm front was dubbed ‘The Beast from the East’ by the media, a childish, almost vindictive title given the current political issues but that’s an aside. But what it did bring with it was the chance to get some photographs with snow, and not just in the areas of higher land but also down by the coast where I live.
In this post, I want to have a look at taking photos in snowy conditions and some of the issues you might encounter.
It goes without saying that snow is potentially treacherous for many reasons so make sure you equip yourself with suitable clothes and supplies if you are going to be driving about and trekking in snow.
Keeping you lens clear
In terms of your photographic equipment, I would recommend you fit a lens hood if you have one. Those big flakes of falling snow can make for great photos but can also spoil many photos if they start landing on the front of your lens. Although a lens hood wont guarantee snow doesn’t get on to the front of your lens, it is better than nothing. Following on from that, a decent cloth for wiping your lens would also be helpful to bring along.
Keeping your camera safe
Snow is wet, and water and electronics don’t get on too well together. Thus, you don’t want to damage your camera and lenses by getting water into them. If your camera is weather sealed then it should be ok with some snow landing on it but be mindful, even if your camera is weather sealed, it doesn’t mean your lenses are as well. If you are going to be shooting in snow showers, it is probably best to take something along to protect your camera. There are specific covers for this, but an umbrella or even wrapping your camera in a plastic bag should be enough as long as it stops water getting into your camera.
Another thing to be mindful of is windchill. Although the temperature may not be too low, the windchill can be much lower if the wind is strong. During this latest swathe of snow and winds, the temperature was about -4ºC, but the windchill was getting as low as -20ºC. These excessive temperatures can potentially damage your camera. My friends compact camera just totally shutdown in strong, freezing cold wind. Thankfully, it started working again much later but it shows that brutally cold wind can cause damage. So again, don’t expose your camera too much to the elements and try to keep it covered if you can.
Exposing in Snow
No, not that type of exposing (that might be a bit chilly), I am talking about ensuring you get well exposed photographs when shooting snow.
Camera’s light metering systems can tend to underexpose in snowy conditions. The whiteness of the snow can fool it into thinking the scene is brighter than it is and it can compensate for this by reducing the exposure leaving you with photos which are too dark. Thus, when shooting in snow, keep an eye on the histogram and compensate as necessary if the photos are underexposed.
The photo below was taken on a relatively bright day. The camera’s exposure compensation was set to -0.3EV which usually gives a good exposure but in this case it has underexposed the majority of the photo significantly due to the snow. This can be seen in the histogram from the photo.
Snow, and more so ice, can act as a potent reflector of light. On a sunny day snow and ice can reflect the sun causing over exposed blowouts in certain parts of your photo. Again, keep an eye of the histogram and make the suitable adjustments to the exposure to make sure your photos are not being ruined by these reflective blowouts.
Because of the two points mentioned above exposure problems can occur more frequently in snowy conditions. So be mindful of this when shooting and don’t assume that exposure settings for non-snowy weather will also suffice when shooting in snow.
Artistry in Snow
I have had a look at some of the technical aspects when shooting in snow, I now want to look at some of the artistic challenges it can pose.
A Blanket of White
Heavy snow covers everything in a blanket of white. This provides a challenge and an opportunity when taking photographs. When taking photographs of heavy snow you can be left with large areas of white with little contrast or tactility in them. This is not always apparent when taking the photos. Because of the additional information your brain receives when standing taking the photo, such as the perception of depth, and even the sounds and smells of the areas, you can be tricked into believing the scene is more detailed than it is. When you then review the photo later, you then see these flat and uninteresting blocks of white.
The photo below shows this problem. The foreground area at the foot of the mountain has no texture or tonal definition to it, and the mountain itself becomes just dark or light patches, leaving the photo looking flat and quite boring.
When you are taking photos in heavy snow you must be mindful of this and if required, look for elements with greater tonal variation to help break up these flat, white blankets.
The photo below was taken in heavy snow. However, it was taken at an area which has objects still exposed through the snow which creates tonal variance in the image and stops large parts of the photo appearing flat and lifeless.
Following on from this, the flat snow can also cause photos to lack depth. The depth perceived when taking the photo is not suitably translated into the image because of the snow’s flat, untextured appearance. The example below shows this well. It was taken in a huge corrie which had a staggering sense of scale and depth. However, this has all been lost due to the flatness of the snow.
Here is another photo of the same location but taken in spring. The photo has more depth because the landscape features are not hidden under the flat snow.
Be mindful of this and look for prominent elements to help create depth in your snowy photos such as objects protruding from the snow, areas where there is no snow, and shadow texture in the snow.
The example below shows this. A sense of depth is created from the prominent footprints in the snowy path which pierce through the snow exposing the path beneath. They also have texture because of the shadow detail in them. The bushes along the edge of the path are also exposed through the snow and their distance recession adds to the feeling of depth.
Snowy conditions can throw up a number of contrast problems. Firstly, the snow itself can lack contrast because it is a flat uniform colour leaving areas of the photo lacking texture. This is similar to the problems discussed above and can be overcome in a similar manner.
Another contrast issue that can occur in snow photos is a duo-tone effect. The areas of covered in snow are one uniform tone and the areas without snow become another flat uniform tone. This is more likely to occur in dull, overcast weather.
The photo below shows this and it is also seen in the histogram with a spike in the darks which represent the areas not covered in snow, and a cluster in the lights which represent the snow area. Areas with other tones are sparse. This gives the photo a posterized effect.
There is not much that can be done about this other than wait for the lighting conditions to change.
Where is the Colour?
Snowy scenes can often tend to look monochromatic due to the blanket of white snow. If you look at the images posted above most of them seem to lack colour variance. This means that elements within the photo that do have vibrant colour will stand out significantly. This can be used creatively by adding vividly coloured objects into a photo to add emphasis to them such as in the photo below.
Turning Negative into Positive
All the issues discussed above can be seen as problematic but if you understand them, they can also be seen as an opportunity to create interesting artistic effects. Here are a few examples below.
I hope this post has been useful in helping you understand the challenges and potential opportunities that snow can give the photographer.
Thanks for Reading,