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Winter photos, Part 2 (09/30/2007)
By Tom Hirsch

As we pointed out last time, there are a few precautions to take when you venture into the world of winter photography. But once you enter that world, you will probably be hooked.

If you were to take a picture after metering off the snow, the image would be underexposed, and detail would be lost in the shadow areas of the scene. With slide film or in digital images, the snow would be grayish in appearance rather than the brilliant white as the scene appeared to you. In all cases, the images would be underexposed. With print film or digital, compensation can be made in the computer, but this isn't always done. Even if some compensation were made, underexposure would still cause image problems.

To get white snow and retain shadow detail when shooting snow, you could meter off the snow, then increase exposure. If the camera has an exposure-compensation dial, set it at +2 on a bright day, or +1 if the sky is overcast. On a camera without the exposure-compensation feature, you can use the backlight button, if one is available. If you have a single-lens reflex (SLR) or any camera with adjustable exposure settings, open up two stops under bright sun, one stop if the sky is overcast.

Another method for getting an accurate exposure is to meter off something of average darkness. Usually, concrete pavement, not blacktop, is about right. Trees in a wooded area are also good. Be sure to lock in the exposure after taking the reading. This can be done by pressing down halfway on the shutter release button, recomposing the shot and taking the picture.

As was pointed out in a previous article, snow scenes are much more interesting and dramatic if the sun is shining. Shadows help provide a feeling of depth, giving the snow roundness, form and texture. On the other hand, if you wish to illustrate the bleakness of a snow scene, there is no better way than to shoot when the sun is not shining. You might also want to take pictures without compensating for exposure. The gray cast to the snow will give added emphasis to the concept of dreariness. With a digital camera, the feeling of coldness can be enhanced by using the "Tungsten" or "Fluorescent" setting in the White Balance mode. Either of these will produce a bluish effect.

To get the strongest effect of sunlight on the snow, use side- or backlighting. Either of these will give the desired form and texture, whereas frontlighting will flatten the scene. The softness of hazy or cloudy bright sunlight is also effective, giving a feeling that is more tranquil than dynamic. Soft lighting is also good if you would like some interesting portraits with snow as the background or as a prop. You'll probably want to use fill-flash to provide detail in the face of the subject.

For the most dramatic snow scenes, go out as soon as the storm clears and the sun appears. Get out before too much snow has fallen from tree branches, and before the sun has started to melt the snow. The fresher the snow, the more intense the glistening effect of sunlight on it. But hurry. The most intense beauty and delicacy of fresh snow is short-lived.

The best time of day for photographing any snow scene is early in the morning. At this time of day the air is the calmest, shadows are longest, and the sunlight is warmest. All of these factors contribute to the effectiveness of a tranquil snow scene.

If you're lucky enough to have everything fall into place, the best day and time for photographing a peaceful snow scene is on a Sunday morning. There will be less traffic to stir the air, and factories will not be spewing smoke into the atmosphere.

Okay, so you want to show in pictures the intensity of a snowstorm in progress. Forget everything you have been told so far, except keeping the camera warm and dry. Now you might want to shoot from inside your car. Try to position your side of the car away from the wind. Roll the window down for brief periods of time and shoot quickly.

If you're using a camera, either film or digital, with shutter speed controls, you can intensify the effect of blizzard conditions by using a shutter speed no faster than 1/125 of a second. The slower the shutter speed, the more elongated the snowflakes will appear, giving a stronger impression of blowing snow. Be sure the camera is held very steady.

However you photograph it, the breathtaking beauty of fresh snow is too magnificent to pass up. Sometimes it means getting up at some outrageous hour of the morning, but once you're hooked on winter photography, you'll overlook this little inconvenience. 


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