Editing Tips for Snow Scenes

While I'm not a huge fan of driving into town on snowy and icy roads, I think that newly fallen snow is one of the most beautiful sights you'll ever see on this pretty little globe of ours.

Every winter, I trudge outdoors to shoot some snow scenes--whether it's a close-up of ice crystals on a pine cone, snow clinging to a wombat's thick coat, or just snow weighing down evergreens in my backyard. If you do the same, you may notice that many digital cameras can't quite figure out what the right colours are in such pictures. That's not just your imagination; digital cameras have trouble with snow scenes because they contain so much pure white. As a result, they are notorious for giving snow a bluish cast.

Set the Camera's White Balance

The first thing you can do to fix the colour in your snow photos is to make sure the camera's white balance setting is accurate.

If your camera has a manual white balance adjustment, you should use it when you get outdoors in the snow. Bring a white piece of paper and have someone hold it in the direction that you plan to take pictures, so it gets the same sun exposure as the scene you're photographing. Then change your camera's white balance mode to manual and set it while pointing the camera at the paper. You should check your camera's user guide for details on how to do this. Remember to return the camera's white balance to automatic after taking your snow shots.

If you can't adjust the white balance this way, at least switch your exposure mode to its Sand and Snow mode or a similar setting, which should help a bit.

Detecting a Colour Cast

How do you know if your digital photos suffer from a colour cast? It's not always easy to see. After all, we tend to trust what our eyes show us, and it's easy to interpret off-white as true white in a lot of cases. Look at this photo of a dog in a snowy field, for instance. The scene looks okay, right? In reality, my digital camera shifted all the colours toward blue, so the snow is not nearly as white as it should be. Let's save this photo to our hard drive and then try to fix it; you can compare this first image to the corrected photo later.

Try the Auto Fix

Your first line of defense against blue snow is your image editor. Most programs have a colour and exposure auto fix, and it generally works pretty well.

With the photo open in Jasc Paint Shop Pro, for instance, find the Photo toolbar at the top of your screen. Click Enhance Photo, then One Step Photo Fix. (If you don't see the Photo Toolbar, select View, Toolbars, Photo to load it.) The program will run through a handful of corrections, including colour balance and exposure corrections. Sometimes the change is dramatic. If you like the result, you're done. If you're not happy, choose Edit, Undo One Step Photo Fix.

So you've got a more expanded view of your options, let's try to fix the picture another way.

Tweak the Colour Balance

Sometimes the auto fix tool won't quite be up to the task of correcting a blue tint in snow. For these cases, bring out the big gun: the manual white point control.

In Paint Shop Pro, choose Adjust, Colour Balance, Black and White Points. This dialog box lets you tell the program which colour in the picture should be white. Paint Shop Pro will then repaint the entire picture accordingly. If all goes well, the whites will be white, the reds will be red, and every other colour will be just the way it should be.

Click the eyedropper icon under the white colour box and then in the left window carefully click on a region that should be pure white--like snow in sunlight. The picture in the window on the right should snap into true colour. If you nailed it, click OK. Otherwise, click again until you find the right spot. Here's what happened when I used this tool on the my dog picture.

Keep in mind that this is a somewhat sensitive tool, and you can get a variety of effects--from great to so-so to "what on earth is that?"--by clicking the eyedropper in various places in the scene. As luck would have it, I got excellent results on my very first click; my editor wasn't nearly as happy with his results. If at first you don't get what you like, it's worth experimenting to see if you can do better with a few extra clicks.

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