It is said that the Inuit tribes of Alaska have 50 words for snow.
Though this old chestnut is said to be exaggerated, it is likely that the vocabulary of a people who live in the arctic would offer many nouns and adjectives to describe varied forms of winter weather. Shooting thoughtfully, I think the photographer has the same number of options to visually express the beauty of the winter world, particularly when snow is falling.
2014 is turning out to be an unusual winter. From the standpoint, of one that loves winter sports, it has been extremely frustrating. In the mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania we have had good snowpack, record-breaking cold, only to be followed with periods of extreme warmth and heavy rain. It’s been a meteorological roller coaster.
We have had some interesting snowfalls this year, and assuming they will come again, I thought it would be interesting to write about techniques that over the years. I have stumbled upon for photographing snow. Not necessarily just the white stuff on the ground, but more importantly some thoughts on capturing photographically, the actual fall of snow.
A Google search on the terms “photography and snow” yields many articles that tend to discuss issues related to exposure settings, which need to be tweaked because of the uniform whiteness of the winter landscape. Let me cover that quickly: Without exposure compensation, most cameras metering systems attempt to adjust exposure to create tones approximating neutral gray. If you capture a snow scape without any exposure compensation, the camera will reduce the exposure so that the snow, if it is the predominant feature in the field of view, will look gray on the resultant image.
To deal with this, photographers have tended to use positive exposure compensation, meaning that for instance, in aperture priority, the shutter speed will be slightly slower with, than without positive compensation, and the snow will be white once again. Even with digital files, it is useful to have as fairly accurate exposure, so the strategy, to an extent, makes sense. I still prefer a snowy image to be slightly under exposed, so, that I do not risk losing the details in the image. Often there is some detail in the snow of the foreground, which needs to be preserved. In other settings though, it may be artistically appropriate to “white out” the foreground so as to create contrast with a more distant subject. Still, I’d rather do this in Photoshop so again; I do tend to underexpose snow scenes.
Enough said about that. There are many places on the web where you can read about exposure issues related to snow (and by the way white sand beaches, which have some same challenges).
What I want to address is techniques to capture actual falling snow, which I do not elsewhere see much discussed. Some of this has to do with choosing the appropriate shutter speed. There’s a particularly nice series of images here revealing the effect of shutter speed on the appearance of falling snow.
This is where, as photographers, we need to make a creative decision. For some scenes, seeing the individual snowflakes conveys a sense of the soft, quiet, snow falls depicted in holiday cards. I find that shutter speeds around 1/500 second reliably depict snow in this way. Slower shutter speeds can be used to increase the sense that the snowfall is a heavier event and/ or that the weather is more severe. They allow a sense of motion, and if snow is falling at an angle, an appreciation for the wind present at the time of the image (if you freeze the individual snowflakes, it’s difficult to tell in what direction they are falling).
There are some other issues to consider. At whatever shutter speed you decide to shoot, snowflakes that fall close to the camera lens will either appear as big out-of-focus blobs or streaks, likely detracting from the image. Though you can remove them in post-processing, the results can be imperfect. I find it helpful to avoid them altogether. This requires photographer to somehow prevent snowflakes from falling near to the lens. A minimal gesture is to use a lens hood, which would least prevent snow from falling within a couple of centimeters of the lens.
A better option is to use a sun shield, extending out, perhaps 6 inches from the lens. This is still far from perfect. The best option is to shoot from cover, optimally so that you have several feet of clearance between you and the nearest snowflakes. Shooting from under a porch, or from within an automobile can be helpful in this regard. In the wild, standing under a hemlock tree can offer useful shelter,
Shooting with a fairly tight aperture of one can reduce the number of out out-of-focus flakes, but of course may necessitate decreasing your shutter speed. Obviously, in some circumstances, increasing your cameras ISO setting may be necessary to compensate for all of this. Happily, image noise is reduced when the camera is cold. Anyway, in snowy scenes, noise tends not to be a big problem anyway.
I also find it useful to set the camera “drive” on a continuous setting, and then take multiple images of the same scene sequentially, particularly if you have no shelter from the falling snow. If you take 5-10 images continuously, hopefully one will be free of out-of-focus snowflakes in the immediate foreground.
It goes without saying, but a snowy day, can be a harsh environment for photographic gear. Particularly if snow is falling and air temperatures just below freezing, the environment will tend to be rather wet, as will be your gloves and your clothing. Hiking in the woods during such an event brings the additional risk of snow falling from the pine and hemlock boughs you disturb along the way. It is really helpful to have some degree of weatherproofing of the camera gear utilized during such conditions. Ideally, if I anticipate the weather, I will utilize my “splash-proof” Nikon bodies and lenses. I find it particularly useful, to have a lens with internal focusing, so that snow falling on an extended lens barrel, does not get dragged back inside the lens, when it is retracted (most pro-level Nikon zoom lenses, and most prime lenses have internal focus).
That having been said, I have used my Fuji X bodies during snowfalls, most recently, my XE-1 with the 18-55 mm F2.8 lens. I did exercise some care, to avoid getting it too wet, but I had no problem with camera function, even when things got pretty moist. It is helpful to bring a small towel in this circumstance, so that you can dry the camera frequently, preventing moisture from seeping in to the electronics or the lens body. Of all the Fuji’s, I feel perhaps the safest with X 100s, with its fixed lens and hopefully somewhat weather-sealed connection between the lens and the body (I have no idea whether this is a valid impression). At any rate, with any gear, be careful with moisture.
A final word, on this topic regards treatment of the camera, once the shooting session is over it goes without saying that bringing a cold with camera into your warm and cozy photo studio is a bad idea. It can create condensation within the body and the lens, possibly damaging or even destroying them. Most of the time, when, I’m shooting, I’m driving to my destination, so I let the camera gear warm up gradually, as the car does. As I am typically wearing a warm coat, I typically keep the interior temperature relatively cool.
On arriving home, if the camera gear still feels chilled, I may leave it in my semi-heated garage for several hours. This hopefully avoids any troubles. Just be careful.
As a winter sportsman, I genuinely enjoy seeing the snow fall. I do realize that some of my faithful readers may not experience the same joy that I do. Nonetheless, I believe a “snow day” offers unique photographic opportunities regardless of one’s affection for the “white stuff”.
So get out there and show the Inuit how it’s done