Jan 21 2017
Ever wish you could discover a new world? Do you think those days are over, at least here on Planet Earth? Well, I’ve got news for you. Every winter storm remakes the world, if only for a little while. Just be the first person out the door and down the trail after a fresh snowfall, and you’ll be sure to make a few discoveries. Of course you won’t get your name in the history books, but you can get some great photos. It’s not quite as simple as pointing and shooting, though. All that fresh, white stuff on the ground can easily throw your camera’s sensors off. The result? One of two polar extremes: Your shots will either be blown out (overexposed, or too bright), or—and this is more likely—they’ll be a dull, dispiriting, uniform dark gray (underexposed).
OK. That’s the problem. What’s the cure? Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula. Most automatic cameras have a “Snow Scene” setting. Often these work. But sometimes they don’t. Then you have to rely on trial and error. Needless to say, this is a lot easier than it used to be back in the Age of Film, when you had to wait for your prints or slides to come back from the lab before you could see how the shots turned out. Today it’s as simple as hitting the Playback button. Now here are some tips to make the process even easier:
Start With a Test Shot Then study it carefully in your camera’s LCD screen. Your eyes will tell you if it’s too light or too dark, and the image’s histogram—the camera’s manual should show you how to interpret it—will tell you even more. Once you’ve analyzed the test shot, you’re ready to…
Adjust the Exposure Value (EV) Most cameras let you set this to ±2.0, usually in 0.3- or 0.5-stop increments. I typically begin by setting EV at +0.5 for snow scenes, and I’d suggest that you do the same. Then take a second test shot. Too dark? Up the EV by half a stop and try again. And again. Until it’s right. Too bright? Back off half a stop (to 0.0, say, if you started at +0.5) and shoot a test shot. Still too bright? Back off another half stop and shoot another. And so forth. Till it’s spot on. Then you’re good to go.
Or are you? The tiny LCD screen on most cameras isn’t big enough (or bright enough) to display images to best advantage. What looks good in the field may look less so on your desktop monitor. Which is why it pays to…
Bracket Your Photos This just means shooting a succession of photos at EV numbers above and below the EV value you arrived at through trial and error. Don’t get carried away. It’s usually enough to bracket one full stop up and down, in half-stop increments.
So far, so good. Care in choosing the EV should give you what you want in most instances, and bracketing will take care of most of the rest. But super-bright conditions—full sun on a high-altitude snowfield, for example—warrant special measures, like…
Mounting a Polarizing Filter These common aftermarket accessories subdue highlights and reduce reflections, preventing “wash out.” They can also reveal hidden textures in superficially uniform surfaces. But be warned: If a landscape includes areas of shade or shadow, a polarizer will further limit what can be seen in those dark places. Here’s an example:
The polarizer brings out the fine detail in the expanse of snow, but the forest beyond is now preternaturally dark. (To see larger images in new windows, right-click on this photo and those that follow.) Now here’s a similar scene. It was shot with the same lens, but I left the polarizer off:
Spot the difference? The forest fringe looks less gloomy—and you can see individual branches, too—but there’s a price to be paid. The granularity of the snow isn’t as pronounced. Note, too, that I’ve tweaked both photos in my electronic darkroom, by…
Using Post-Processing Software Darkroom magic is no longer a game that only big-name pros with big-time budgets can play. It’s now open to anyone with a digital camera and a computer. And no, it’s not cheating. Photographers—famous and unknown alike—have been spending long hours in the darkroom to make their work look its best since the mid-19th century. Now you can, too. With a few adjustments to saturation, levels, and contrast, you can bring out details you thought were lost in shadow, take some of the dazzle out of distracting highlights, and work other minor miracles. But no amount of post-processing can make a bad picture into a good one. So always do your best in field, where the effort counts most.
Are you ready to discover new worlds? You’re in luck. Or at least you are if you live where it snows. Just wait for the next storm to blow through. And while you’re waiting, get your photo outfit ready. Then head out the door and start shooting snow scenes. Each storm remakes the world, creating new landscapes to be explored. But only for a little while. It will be summer before you know it. There’s not a moment to be lost!
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