Snow Photography: How to Get a Perfect Digital Exposure!

Get successful digital camera settings when photographing in winter

by Jim Zuckerman

The number one question I am asked regarding exposure is how to expose correctly for snow. If you don't understand exposure and you take pictures of snow scenes without any kind of compensation, the pictures will be dark. The reason this happens is because all light meters are programmed to read middle-toned subjects like green grass, blue jeans, red flowers, rich blue sky, etc. These subjects will give consistently good exposures. However, if the subject is primarily white, like snow, the meter sees it as middle gray and consequently underexposes the photo which makes the snow gray. Obviously, this isn't what you want.

© Jim Zuckerman
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Digital Exposure: No Formula for All Conditions

Some people suggest that you compensate for this underexposure by overexposing the pictures by a certain amount - i.e., 1 1/3, 1 1/2, or 1 2/3 f/stops. But there can't possibly be one remedy for all snow situations. After all, there are snowy scenes in diffused light, in sunrise and sunset lighting, and in mid-day sunlight, and one compensation formula can't work for all of them. In addition, there are situations where only part of the frame is white, such as when a meadow is covered in snow but the upper portion of the image consists of primarily bare trees or blue sky. Other times, you may be shooting in a snowstorm where everything is completely white.

There are two effective ways you can expose for any kind of snow situation and be consistently correct with your digital SLR camera. This includes white-out conditions like the cottonwood tree I shot in Montana, the mountain lion shot in which the center of the frame is middle-toned while the periphery is white, and landscapes like the old barn in front of the Grand Tetons.

© Jim Zuckerman
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Digital Exposure: Use Spot Metering

1) Set your camera's meter for spot mode and read a middle-toned portion of the scene in front of you. In the barn photo, you could use the weathered wood or the deep blue sky. For the tree in a snow storm where there is no middle area at all, I use my middle-toned camera backpack or a gray piece of fabric sewn onto a photo vest. Lock that reading in place using the AE lock button on the camera and then shoot. After the first shot, the camera unlocks the meter and you can then read another scene.

© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved

Digital Exposure: Check the LCD Screen

2) Take a shot and then look at it on the LCD monitor on the back of the camera. If it is too light or too dark, simply tweak the exposure using the exposure compensation feature on the camera in 1/3 or 1/2 f/stop increments. If you don't know where this feature is, consult your instruction manual. It is one of the most important features on your camera.

More about Jim Zuckerman

Jim is a top stock photographer who teaches at BetterPhoto's online digital photography school. His interactive Web courses include
Perfect Digital Exposure, Eight Steps to More Dramatic Photography, and Techniques of Natural Light Photography.

Photo How-To Books

Jim Zuckerman is also a top contributor to two new BetterPhoto Guide books (both co-authored by Jim Miotke and Kerry Drager):

About Author Jim Zuckerman

Author: Jim  Zuckerman

To learn more about photography, explore the photography classes offered here at BetterPhoto.