Plugged In: Warm up to camera settings to capture snow scenes

By Joe Kashi for the Redoubt Reporter

The recent snow and cold weather remind us that winter’s not quite released its grip, so there’s still time to take late winter photos.

Late winter photography is challenging, both technically and creatively. You’ll need to pay attention to ensuring correct exposure and color balance in those winter landscapes that combine brilliant snow and deep shadows.

The very low sun angle often results in unusually brownish-orange sunlight, especially during those dark days surrounding the winter solstice. Often, winter sunlight is so brownish-orange in color that the automatic white balance of most cameras is unable to fully compensate. At the same time, shaded portions of those same photos usually have a very cool, bluish tone because they’re lit solely by the overhead sky. These color shifts are often very pronounced in light-colored neutral areas, particularly snow. That is unfortunate because snow is the dominant part of almost any winter photograph taken in Alaska.

As a result, if winter photos seem too off-color, you’ll need to do some post-processing to adjust a photo’s white balance to your satisfaction. That doesn’t imply that you need to take away all of the warm or cool color, but simply correct it to your preference. Cool tones imply cold subjects, which is very appropriate for winter scenes, while some tonal warmth to winter sunlight can also be very effective, depending on the subject and situation. Very warm sunlight tones in an indoor scene can feel very comfortable, cozy and reassuring.

To make a global change across the entire photograph, use the white balance dropper on a neutrally colored area. That blanket correction works well if all-important areas of your photo generally have the same lighting and color balance issues. If you need to make more precise corrections, then making color-specific “saturation” and “luminance” corrections with Adobe Lightroom works better.

Serious underexposure is another common winter photography problem. This occurs because camera meters assume that the brightness of every photograph averages to a middle gray. It’s true for most situations but it’s definitely not the case for snow scenes, even shaded ones.

That’s because our brains know that snow should look bright and white, not dirty gray, and see snow scenes as bright and white, even when, physically, they’re not. Correct exposure thus becomes quite important. Underexposure degrades image quality, producing poor tonal quality and a lot of noise. Any significant overexposure causes delicate snowy highlights to lose all definition and texture, which looks even worse. Although your camera’s LCD screen may provide some hint whether exposure is badly amiss, it’s not dependable — camera manufacturers automatically adjust the LCD panel’s display to always look good, at least in miniature.

There are several practical approaches that effectively deal with winter exposure problems. Correct exposure is certainly the best. Get some experience with your camera under these conditions so that you’ll know whether, and how, to compensate its automatically set exposure.

That’s largely dependent on your camera’s overall design. As an example, my Pentax K-5 requires that I adjust the exposure to double its metered exposure under these conditions (usually termed a one-stop or 1 EV exposure compensation) while my Olympus E-P3 nails the correct exposure without the need for any manual change to its automatically set exposure. That’s neither a benefit nor a fault, but simply how each camera is designed to react under various circumstances.

No doubt, making these sorts of manual changes can be daunting for many people who just want to capture a sparkling snow scene. In that case, most good cameras have “scene” settings, a set of balanced corrections that the camera manufacturer believes to reliably give acceptable results in those specific situations. There’s nothing wrong with using the correct “scene” mode if you find that it works reliably for you. In fact, for most people, this is likely the best alternative.

If you want to have the highest probability of correct exposure, though, explore the bracketing options for your camera. Bracketing takes two to five exposures each time that you press the shutter release, with each image at different user-defined exposures. Some exposures in the bracketing sequence will obviously be bad, but at least one should nail the correct exposure. Later, when reviewing your shots, simply delete the obviously bad ones.

Winter landscapes, especially sunny scenes, are often a mixture of brilliant snow and deep shadows. They’ll usually have a very wide tonal range, perhaps as much as 12 to 13 EV, a much better fit to bright winter scenes. Cameras with an inherently high dynamic range that can save images in an RAW file format have by far the best chance of fully capturing the wide range of tones in winter landscapes.

However, even with cameras capable of a wide dynamic range, that capability is wasted if you shoot your images solely in the default JPEG format. The tonal range of every JPEG is inherently limited to a maximum of eight EV intervals, usually inadequate for crisp winter photos. If you want a JPEG image right out of the camera on occasion, then set your camera to save every photo in both RAW and JPEG. That way, you’ve covered all bases.

Personally, I prefer to combine several of these approaches in order to improve my odds. In winter landscape situations, I prefer to use my Pentax K-5, which has an exceptionally high 14 EV dynamic range. I’ll set the camera to its DNG RAW format and to its ISO 100 base sensitivity where dynamic range and image quality are always highest, a sensible setting in any event because sunny winter landscapes are so bright. Then, I’ll set up a three or five shot exposure bracketing sequence with the exposure changes set at +/-  .7 EV to 1.0EV. I’ll usually set the exposure meter to center-weighted metering and compensate by increasing first exposure by .7EV, at least when most of the photo is bright snow.

  • For under $40, you can buy a small digital microscope from Amazon, the Celestron 44302 Deluxe Handheld Digital Microscope 2MP. This device is basically a complete macro-focusing digital camera in microscope form that connects to your computer through a standard USB port, capturing microscopic images as JPEG still images and as 320-by-240 video files. The Celestron 44302 ships with its own USB connector, built-in LED lights, a CD with the necessary software and a small metal base. Amazon seems to sell this same device under many different brand names, ranging in price between $24 and $80.

Granted, it’s not exactly “deluxe,” its sensor is noisy, the focusing ring is stiff and awkward, it doesn’t really have direct optical zoom and resolution is a mere two megapixels. It’s certainly not going to produce macro photographs whose image quality approaches a top-end macro lens mounted on a good digital SLR camera. Still, for the price, you can hardly go wrong, and it’s both fun and a good instructional tool for students.

Figure 1. A penny photographed with a digital microscope.

Figure 1. A penny photographed with a digital microscope.

Figure 1 today shows a portion of a 1-cent piece, which was the full-frame of the image that I captured at standard magnification. I can see having a lot of fun using this device hand-held outdoors while connected to a notebook computer’s USB port.

The March 1 deadline for the Alaska Contemporary Art Bank’s 2013 purchase program is fast approaching. There’s no application fee and the juried purchase competition is open to all Alaska residents. Apply through http://www.callforentry.org, a nonprofit consortium of Western states arts programs that provide a central clearinghouse for art competitions and purchase programs.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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