The weather outside may be frightful, but that doesn’t mean you need to leave the camera behind during winter outings. In fact, just the opposite is true. There are great images waiting if you take a few simple precautions before heading out into the cold with your gear. Here are a few important things to remember: Allow your camera to adjust to the temperature so you don’t have fog issues with lenses or viewfinder; carry a dry lint free cloth in case you do. Glass fogging is a real problem coming back inside from the cold, so let the camera warm up slowly. Keep spare batteries and memory cards tucked in an inside coat pocket so they stay at peak performance condition. Dress for the weather and head out to your winter wonderland.
The biggest obstacle for successful winter exposures is the snow. The bright white can fool your light meter and what you see isn’t what you will get. Exposures in snow generally mean you will have to make exposure corrections, because camera light meters see the world as a middle shade of-gray. So you have to use the exposure compensation function. Check your dreaded owner’s manual if you need a reminder on how to make the exposure compensation changes.
When shooting in snow, set your camera compensation to the “+” position, experiment to see what works, but generally about a “+1” compensation is a good starting point. This will cause more exposure to reach the sensor or film. So instead of getting bland-looking gray tones, your snow images will be crisp and white. Bracket your exposures so you go home with plenty of possibilities to choose from. Don’t overexpose so far that you lose all the detail in the snow - that’s why bracketing is important. The great alternative for easily fooled in-camera metering is to use a good old handheld incident light meter. Point the incident dome toward the light source falling on the subject; take the reading; set the camera to manual; set the speed and aperture according to the light meter readings and away you go. If the light changes again, re-meter and reset.
Additionally, you would THINK your white balance, such as the “auto white balance” setting on your digital camera would take care of itself and give you correct color… Not necessarily.
Snow and other extreme exposure conditions are the perfect time to experiment with the RAW file format. Even if you don’t think you are ready to use the files yet, consider shooting RAW files in addition to JPG formats. RAW files give you more control in fixing any color balance or exposure errors made in the field. With RAW files, it’s easier to fix mistakes later if you need to. Even if you don’t use the RAW files right away you will have them for later experimentation. RAW files record all the information your sensor captures, so you have more info to play with later (or to fix things if you need to.). Always be prepared. Mistakes happen. But if you make the correct settings in the field, the less you will need to fix in post. In addition to proper metering, also always use at least a preset manual color balance for the light conditions. That way you won’t end up with blue snow, especially in shady areas. If you have time and the tools, consider a custom white balance setting for more precise color, too. Many easy-to-use custom white balance tools are available - such as the Expodisc, and Ba Lens - to make this task quick and easy for you. Remember - correct settings in the field equals less time “fixing” in post.
Remember; get the whole scene and the close up details.
For more complete winter shooting tips see my March 2009 post “Cabin Fever”.