By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Bright, clear, late winter days will soon return and they’re definitely picture weather in Alaska. This week, we’ll discuss some basic ideas about making outdoor winter photos.
First, though, I’d like to remind our readers that Kenai Peninsula College’s Gary L. Freeburg Gallery at the Kenai River Campus is again hosting Alaska’s annual statewide fine art photography exhibit, “Rarified Light 2014,” from Jan. 14 through early February. The opening reception is Jan. 15 between 4:30 and 6 p.m. It’s free and open to the public.
Winter exposures can be tricky. Use the slowest ISO sensitivity that allows a fast-enough shutter speed at your desired lens aperture. Low ISO settings tend to have more dynamic range and leeway for later corrections. That’s important when photographing outdoor winter scenes.
Give yourself as much leeway as possible by saving all image files in an RAW format, because you’ll need the extra dynamic range to retain detail in bright, snowy scenes. RAW image files, when processed in Adobe Lightroom, often allow you to recover a fair bit of detail in those highlights, using the “Highlight” slider, or provide extra brightness to highlight areas when needed. You don’t want snowy scenes with blown highlights devoid of any significant detail. JPEG image files do not retain any recoverable highlight detail because the JPEG compression process discards highlight detail, among other losses.
Many consumer cameras have a variety of “scene modes,” special automatic settings designed for specific kinds of photos, such as beaches, snow scenes, etc. If you are unsure about the best way to set your camera for a particular situation, then start with an appropriate scene mode. These are comprehensive settings determined by the camera’s manufacturer to work reliably in those specific situations. Snow scene modes tend to work rather well and might be the best starting point for beginners.
When you’re ready to go beyond a camera’s basic snow scene modes, you’ll need to be fairly careful about correct exposure as bright winter subjects often fool a camera’s metering system. Because highlights predominate in most winter scenes, it’s often wise to base your exposure upon the highlights and then compensate. If you choose to make spot meter exposures, then add a full +1EV to +1.3EV with the exposure compensation dial or button. Set the camera’s metering to “spot,” point the viewfinder’s central metering spot at the brightest highlight area in which you want to retain full detail, and then lock in the exposure using the camera’s Auto Exposure Lock button, if you have one. If you don’t have an AEL function, point your camera to that highlight and depress the shutter release button halfway to lock focus and exposure, recompose the picture with your LCD screen or viewfinder, and then fully depress the shutter release to take the photo. If you use matrix or center-weighted metering for snowy landscape scenes, then add +.7EV exposure compensation to the basic metered exposure set by the camera.
Bracket your photos and save only the best exposures, assuming the focus and camera shake are also acceptable. Most cameras have a setting that allows you to quickly take three or more different images of the same scene, one at the calculated exposure, one less exposed and one more exposed. Bracket by 1EV intervals.
Although many digital cameras now include sophisticated image analysis and exposure features, the camera’s automatic metering system still assumes that it’s measuring an 18 percent medium gray scene. This is accurate under most circumstances but very dark and very bright situations often require that the camera’s calculated exposure be manually modified in order to correctly capture the image as your eye sees it. That’s the reason for adding the exposure compensation to bright snowy scenes.
Because bright winter scenes tend to require as much as 1EV or 2EV exposure compensation, start your exposure bracketing range at 1EV brighter than normal by adding in the exposure compensation. That way, your darkest bracketed exposure will be at the normal setting. Remember to reset your camera to normal exposure settings after making these sorts of adjustments or all of your later photos will be similarly exposed and probably not very good.
Learn how to use your camera’s “histogram” feature. It’s basically like a visual exposure meter, telling you whether you’ve correctly exposed the scene. Ideally, a histogram would show most of its exposure broadly in the middle. If the histogram seems crowded to the left, then you’ve likely underexposed and will lose shadow detail. That might be a problem unless your image is intended to be primarily dark. If the histogram seems crowded toward the right, then the image may be overexposed, with lost detail in “blown” highlights. Again, this could indicate an exposure problem unless you intend the image to be very bright.
Histograms are generally multicolor images that also show the distribution of colors in dark and bright areas, and a definite excess of a particular color in dark or light areas indicates a dominant color in the corresponding tonal range. Our first illustration is a photograph of shattered ice at Skilak Lake. The histogram for that photo shows a normal exposure, with a strong spike of midrange tones and a full range of tones from the left side shadows to the right side highlights.
Illustration 2 is a detail of frosted grass that is predominantly shaded and thus dark except for a small highlight area. The corresponding histogram shows dark tones strongly crowding the left side. This would be a correct histogram for very dark scenes that have a few bright areas but otherwise would indicate underexposure.
Illustration 3 shows proper exposure for a winter scene comprised mostly of midbrightness tones. A majority of the tones tend toward the middle of the histogram, with prominent blues. A histogram of this sort would usually indicate a good basic exposure without a lot of blown highlights or featureless shadows.
None of these histograms show inherently right or wrong exposure. Instead, they indicate the distribution of dark, medium and bright tones in the image. Whether it’s right or wrong depends on your subject and image.
The winter sun is low in the sky throughout the day. As a result, it tends to cast very long shadows from the side. Dramatic lighting often results, showing strong textures and details. Subjects in low winter sunlight usually look very warm in color, sometimes nearly orange to brown.
Shaded areas in the same photo often look too intensely blue because they’re lit by the blue overhead sky. Such lighting can sometimes result in very interesting images that simultaneously have a warm, yellowish color balance in some sunlit areas and a very cold, blue color balance in other parts of the same image. Foggy or cloudy weather also tends to make photos too blue. The intense blue of snow in shadows may seem harsh and unnatural.
These color balance problems are easily fixed in post-processing with a program like Adobe Lightroom using any of several methods. I usually prefer to correct the excessively saturated blue areas using Lightroom’s Develop Module “Tools-target adjustment-saturation” menu item on the overly blue areas or to make localized color balance adjustments using the Develop Module’s adjustment brush.
Winter photos require a bit more care in the field but are a great reason to get outdoors. I frequently read of Lower 48 photographers traveling thousands of miles to experience the same low winter sun angles and revealing light that we too often take for granted.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received 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.