5 Tips for Shooting on Snow
Since my job has me regularly traveling to locations with year-round snow, it’s easy to forget that back here at home, we’re at the mercy of the seasons. This time of the year that means patiently waiting for the temps to drop and the clouds to roll in. Is there anything quite like that first big snowfall?
For me, a mountain of snow is not just a playground. It is the backdrop, the foreground and sometimes the subject of a photo all at once. It can also be a b!@$# to shoot in if you’re unfamiliar with alpine light and working in cold conditions.
In preparation for this year’s winter season, here are some of my tips for shooting on snow. I hope they help.
1. Coddle Your Gear. It should go without saying that you should dress appropriately for the colder weather. (Warm hands in particular are vital, so gloves that let you shoot but also keep those fingers from freezing up are a good investment). Your gear needs to be protected, too — particularly those batteries. I suggest carrying them as close to your body as possible to keep them warm.
When you get a break in the shoot, rotate a warm battery in for the one being used, to keep it from dying on you mid-shoot. Side tip: Your camera and gear want to warm up gradually post-shoot, so keep it far from that crackling wood stove when you do come in from the cold. One mistake people make is leaving their camera / lenses in a damp bag from the shoot the day before. If you don’t let it dry out completely, you’re likely going to be dealing with a fogged up interior element which is a pain to deal with the following day. Make sure you dry out those damp bags and leave your lenses and cameras out in a place that allows them to dry out over night. Then pack them in the morning. Lastly, add a lens cleaning cloth to your gear list if it’s not there already.
2. Proper Exposure. If you shoot on auto mode in the snow, there’s a damn good chance you’ll see a lot of grey in the final shot. That’s because the camera gets a bit overwhelmed by all the white and tries to find that mid-tone middle ground. To correct, try overexposing the shot by a stop or two. You can use the camera’s histogram to get it right — literally — by adjusting the “hump” (all that white) to the right (over-exposing). Just don’t overdo it, or you’ll blow out all the highlights in the shot.
3. Time of Day. One way to deal with the harsh light bouncing off the snow is to shoot early morning and late afternoon: Magic hour, magic light. With the sun at a low angle, you’ll be picking up cool shadows and contrast in your shot, and the light is much softer. Experiment with location of the rising/falling sun in relation to your subject. However, remember that mountains cause different areas to fall into the shade at radically different times, so think ahead.
4. Timing. Whether you’re shooting your buddies, your kids or any sort of action, timing is critical. Off-the-cuff moments aren’t impossible, but you have a much better chance of nailing the shot with an ounce or two of preparation. If you have directorial control over the scene, work with your subject to determine where you are going to sit, where the subject will drop in, and where he/she will pass you. Quiet that voice in your head telling you that you sound too bossy and controlling. Know the shot you’re after, communicate your vision and be patient during re-takes. Side tip: While some autofocus features are fast enough to both focus and capture the action, it’s a good idea to test your camera out ahead of time to determine if yours is going to get this job done. You can always use manual focus or focus lock and position your subject (or a subject) in the spot where you’ll be capturing the action.
5. Contrast and Composition. Winter sport action shots benefit from a built-in contrast — the subject almost always stands out in form and color against the white snowy background. Keep this element of contrast in mind when you are shooting a snowy scene. Look for contrasts in color and find at least two cool features in the scene — a tree, interesting shadows, rocky outcropping — to play against all that white.
Bundle up, get out there and have fun!
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