Shooting Snow

Everyone has their favorite time of year. For me, it's summer, with its warm days, refreshing lemonade, scuba diving, and nary a driveway or sidewalk to be plowed or shoveled. Indeed, there's nothing I hate more than dealing with heavy, slushy, slippery snow.

But there's nothing quite so picturesque as a fresh snowfall. Snow makes for great photos, so I have an uneasy truce with the white stuff. The deal goes something like this: I'll take pictures of it, as long as my son does most of the shoveling.

Prep Your Camera

If you want to take pictures out in the cold and snow, prepare your camera gear for the job. Most digital cameras handle the elements pretty well--but cold, snowy days can push your hardware to its limits. The most important thing to keep in mind is that batteries conk out more quickly in the cold, so having a spare, and keeping that spare warm, can come in handy. I keep a second, fully charged battery deep inside my jacket, where my body heat can help keep it warm and healthy. If my camera's primary battery dies, I swap them. My body heat revives the first battery while I shoot with the spare, so I can get a few more shots out of it if necessary.

People often ask me if there's a risk of condensation forming on the camera lens. Some photographers even place their cameras inside plastic bags to avoid this problem. But the reality is that such condensation can't form when the camera goes from warm to cold, so you're safe outdoors (just don't drop your camera in a snow bank).

The real problems occur when you return the camera to a nice, warm house after being out in the cold for any length of time. If you have an unheated room--like a front entryway or mud room--leave the camera there for an hour or so for the temperature to stabilize. You might even want to enclose the camera in a sealed plastic bag and leave it in the house for two to three hours; the moisture will collect on the bag, not in the camera.

Adjust for Snow

When you get your camera out into the winter wonderland, remember that snow is a somewhat different kind of subject than most of the things you typically photograph. It is extremely reflective, and it can confuse your camera's exposure sensor. The bottom line is that in the presence of a lot of snow, your camera will probably try to underexpose the photograph.

There are a couple of ways around this common problem. The easiest solution is to set your camera to its snow or beach scene mode, if it has one. This preprogrammed exposure setting takes bright, highly reflective subject matter like sand and snow into account and overexposes the picture automatically.

Alternately, you can overexpose the picture yourself using the camera's exposure compensation dial. Set the control to about +1, which will overexpose the scene by one stop, admitting twice as much light into the photo.

Mind the Time of Day

You probably already know that the colour of light changes during the day; that's especially true when you're shooting snow. If you take your camera out very early or late in the day, you'll end up with warmer photos in which the snow takes on reddish hues. If you stick to midday, you'll get much cooler, bluer photos.

Try Some Close-Ups

When people think of winter photography, they instinctively imagine grand, snow-laden trees and a picturesque row of houses covered in snow. Those subjects are fine, but you can get some really interesting shots by getting close to your subject and shooting in macro mode (which is activated by the button with the little tulip icon). If you get close enough, you can capture individual ice crystals on delicate twigs or encasing pine needles.

How can you shoot images like these? For starters, use a tripod. Since you're so close to the subject, even small amounts of jiggle will ruin the photo. And since it's cold out, it's a lot harder to hold the camera steady. So even if you could pull off shots like these in the middle of summer, I doubt you could in the depths of winter. Also, experiment with the flash both on and off. If the flash is on, the extra illumination helps to freeze the photo, but it can add an artificial, antiseptic look. Better to try shooting with natural light, though you will probably want to increase the camera's ISO setting to shorten the exposure time.

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Dave Johnson

PC World (US online)
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