Landscape photography in winter is one of my favorite times to shoot. Winter photography means later sunrises which allows the photographer to sleep in a little longer. Similarly, earlier sunsets enable dinner discussions about that evening’s sunset with enough time before bed to review images while warming up by the fire and sipping some hot chocolate. That’s right, I really embrace winter photography. Otherwise, how else can you tell Old Man Winter’s story through an image if you don’t experience all that winter has to offer?
Despite the winter wonderland that falls to ground each season, shooting winter photography scenes can present many challenges for landscape photographers. Not only can the environmental conditions be harsh and unforgiving, the overabundant amount of white in snowscapes tend to trick the camera’s metering system. All that reflective snow can easily produce an underexposed image, one of the most common field mistakes with winter images. These are my 5 field strategies to ensure you capture everything needed in the camera while in the field for painless post-processing at home.
#1: Shoot RAW
Rather than entering the age-old debate of RAW versus JPEG, let me say this, RAW files are forgiving. A RAW file is the raw, uncompressed, unaltered data directly from the camera’s sensor. It gives you the largest latitude to make adjustments in post-processing.
The rationale is straightforward. Capture as much information as possible in the image file. It’s better to have the data and not need it than lose details in the darks or clip the highlights.
#2: Rely on Camera’s Histogram, Not Your LCD or EVF
The camera’s metering system may have its limitations in winter landscapes; however, a camera’s LCD and EVF can also give a false sense of security. It is near impossible to distinguish between pure white and overexposure by simply eyeballing it. Instead, put your trust in math! Review the histogram for proper exposure. This doesn’t mean that the histogram needs to be a nice round bell curve. The right of histogram shows the light pixel data. If the scene is filled with snow, then the histogram should lean heavily to the right.
#3: Use Exposure Compensation when needed
If the histogram is pushing too far to the right, try setting the exposure compensation value to -1 or perhaps more depending on the scene and light conditions. If it is pushing too far to the left, then move the exposure compensation to +1. This will help the alleviate the issue with the camera’s metering. Whenever the composition or the light in the scene changes, reevaluate the exposure compensation value. This is a quick adjustment tool, not a set it and forget it method.
#4: Use Manual Exposure Mode
Automatic modes make general global adjustments to the settings. The camera can analyze the data, but it cannot see the scene. It doesn’t understand the composition is mostly snow glistening in the sunlight. Therefore, the camera cannot make the proper adjustments for exposure or white balance.
Since the camera doesn’t know how to interpret the scene, the photographer can switch to manual mode and choose the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, thus adapting and overcoming the camera’s limitations.
#5: Use Exposure Bracketing as a Backup
If the histogram still cannot be tamed, then that usually means the dynamic range may be too broad for the camera to handle. If that is the case, then bracket the shot. Bracketing is taking the same photo more than once using different exposure settings. Not only will this provide an opportunity to select the best exposure after the fact, it also ensures that enough data is captured to exposure blend or use HDR editing. Blending two exposures together will make sure there are details in the darks as well as the highlights.
These 5 critical in the field strategies will ensure that enough data is captured in the camera, thus minimizing the post-processing effort to produce a finalized image.
Before setting off on an adventure into a winter wonderland, be sure to check out my article on 5 Indispensable Winter Photography Tips. Stay warm and happy shooting!