6 Amazingly Easy Tips to make Beautiful Snowy Images

Porcupine in snowy weather

One of the first questions that I get on my Snowy Owl and Winter Wildlife workshops is; “How do I get a good exposure in the snow?” It’s a simple question, but the answer is a little bit complicated because there are so many things to consider. Here are 6 tips and tricks to help you make amazing beautifully exposed images in the snow.

The reason snow photography is complicated is that your camera wants to see white as gray. You need to adjust your camera to make images with the correct exposure and color cast.

Camera Exposure in the Snow

I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode, but not in winter. In snowy conditions, you do need to think about the process and not only rely on the camera to get it right and taking control of your gear will help you get it right in the camera.

Don’t be scared of manual mode! If you just are not comfortable with that, you can still use these techniques to get your best exposure in the camera and then work on the images in post processing.

Exposure Compensation

Contrary to the conventional logic; you will add exposure compensation to your winter wonderland photos not subtract. Depending on the light this can be as much as +3 stops! You can see what happens to an image when you don’t have the exposure set correctly in this Bobcat photo.

An underexposed image of a Bobcat in the Snow
Bobcat in the Snow without Exposure Compensation
Check Your Highlights

When you are adding that much compensation, you need to be sure to watch your highlights. I prefer to use the “blinkies” and not the histogram for this so that I can see exactly where the image is over exposed and can then decide if I am satisfied with the exposure.

Blue Sky Exposure

If you happen to be photographing on a bright blue day, you can take a reference image of the sky (spot metering) and then read the settings and use them to make a correct exposure of the snow.

Cloudy Day Exposure

Take a reference photo of the snow that is in the same light. In other words, don’t make your reference image in an area that is part in the sun and part in the shade. This technique will give you the proper exposure for the snow. You will need to check to make sure the subject is not overexposed. Read the settings from your reference image and then adjust your camera settings accordingly.

White Balance

[su_pullquote align=”right” class=””]Hint: Daylight is “never” the right preset white balance setting! Well almost never. 🙂
Getting the white balance set correctly solves most problems with winter photography. The reason snow photography is complicated is that your camera wants to see white as gray and this results in images that are either overly blue or a dirty gray. Don’t forget that blue is a natural part of the shadows in a snowy scene, so you should not eliminate it entirely.

In my photography, automatic white balance works great 90% of the time. Snow is one of the times that I disagree with my camera. Depending on the light Auto WB will make your images blue, gray or even yellow.

[su_pullquote align=”left” class=””]Hint: Save this gray card image, and you can use the color drop tool in your editing software to set your white balance during processing.
The most reliable way to set your camera for the best white balance is to use an 18% gray card. You take your handy dandy card on location and take a picture of the card. The look at the exposure setting for that image and change the controls on your camera to match the gray card reference image.

[su_column size=”1/2″]A company called Expodisc makes a filter that attaches to your lens and that makes the process simpler because they can attach to your lens. The downside is they don’t fit all of your lenses.[/su_column]
[su_column size=”1/2″]Check it out on Amazon.[/su_column]

Shoot in RAW

I know most people do shoot in RAW mode, but for those of you “jpegers” out there you are missing a lot of latitude in your editing.

  • In RAW you can have unlimited freedom to find a white balance that suits your image.
  • In RAW you can eliminate color casts such as the blue in the snow with a click.
  • In RAW you can add white, control highlights and contrast with precision.
  • In RAW you can add black, and this will often enhance a snow photo

I was able to make a decent image from the Bobcat photo above because I was shooting in RAW.

Bobcat in the Snow
After editing the RAW file to correct exposure

Snow Photography Summary

When you are working in the snow, you can’t just point and shoot. You need to use your eyes and your photographic tools to make a great image in your camera. Think about the exposure, make a reference image as a guide to setting up the camera, check your white balance and shoot in RAW; easy peasy!

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  1. Amber
      December 29, 2016 at 9:21 PM

    I’m just staring out with winter scenes. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but this post really helps me out a lot. Now I just need some more snow to practice with! ?

    1. Jeff
        December 30, 2016 at 7:00 AM

      Thanks, Amber! With the way this winter is going I don’t think you’ll have trouble finding snow. BTW, there is always snow during my Yukon trip! 🙂

  2. Tammy
      December 30, 2016 at 8:17 PM

    I’m horrible at manual mode!! But it’s something that I really want to accomplish this year. Mastering manual mode will take my photography to the next level!

    1. Jeff
        December 30, 2016 at 9:24 PM

      Manual control is something that you should know how to do, but it’s just another tool in the toolbox. Ultimately it’s your vision and creativity that will take your images to the next level. Manual mode is just one tool you can use to make it happen! Signed Obi Wan Kenobi! 🙂

  3. Nikita
      January 1, 2017 at 5:45 PM

    Blinkies huh?? I need to try this out. My highlights are horrible and I was at a loss on what to do.

  4. Jeff
      January 1, 2017 at 7:08 PM

    I had t-shirts made that said, “I hate Blinkies!”. Actually, there was an expletive in there too. Anyway, now I love them because they really help you get the exposures right in the camera. Thanks for stopping by Nikita! Let me know how it goes!

  5. Andrew
      January 2, 2017 at 11:02 PM

    Easy peasy?? Haha I wish. I’m getting better at it though. Hopefully your tips will get it there. 🙂

    1. Jeff
        January 3, 2017 at 5:50 AM

      I hope so! I’m always happy to help. Let me know if you have a question and I’ll write about it!

  6. Kathy
      January 4, 2017 at 12:19 AM

    After reading your post about half a dozen times I think I’m understanding what I’m doing wrong. Can’t wait for tithe snow this weekend to test all of this out! Thanks for the tips!

  7. Jeff
      January 4, 2017 at 7:06 AM

    Glad to help, Kathy. Let me know how it goes!

  8. Maggie
      January 5, 2017 at 4:33 PM

    Have you tried this lens before? What are your thoughts on the quality?

    1. Jeff
        January 8, 2017 at 6:51 AM

      Hmm, I’m not sure which lens you are talking about?

  9. Nathan
      January 7, 2017 at 5:52 PM

    Love the before and after pics you have here. Testing out all these tricks this weekend since it just snowed again. Can’t wait!

    1. Jeff
        January 8, 2017 at 6:48 AM

      Awesome, glad that you found some help with your winter photography! Sign up for my mailing list and the photography tips keep on coming!

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