Winter Photography and Gray Snow

© Jim Hutchison January 2018

Have you ever noticed that many winter images turn out rather gray and drab looking? This article explains why, and how to compensate for it.

My new first love in photography is using my drone to shoot landscapes. But during winter it's too cold to operate it within the manufacturer's safety parameters. That, on top of the fact that my insurance company would not cover an incident if I did operate it outside of these guidelines and caused property damage resulting in a claim... It has mostly to do with unpredictable battery life. But, terrestial photography is still in the books! Getting a proper exposure in winter does require some forethought though. Here's why.

The engineers that made your modern digital camera included a light meter to control the exposure. Without it, you'd need to know a bunch of theory about ISO ratings, fstops, and shutter speeds, and how they all are interdependent. Nailing all three takes practice, and I encourage everyone to put their camera into "Manual" mode and play with the settings to see how each of the three parameters control exposure and depth of field. But shooting then becomes more of an exercise in math than it does an artistic pursuit... hence the magical light meter to automatically adjust some of those parameters for you.

The issue with anything automated that makes decisions for you is it's not always perfect. With all that snow lying around in winter, it really throws off your light meter. The result is drab, under-exposed images that are mostly grey. Who has ever seen grey snow? The reason for this has to do with the calibration of the camera's light meter... they're designed for flesh tones and greenery. But when presented with a mostly-white scene, it misses the mark.

"How do I compensate for that?" you may ask. The answer is actually easy. It's called exposure compensation, and may mean you have to break out your camera's user manual to learn how to adjust it. The pic below shows how my Canon SX-1000 adjusts exposure.

Once the "+/-" exposure button is pressed, the exposure scale appears. The adjustment wheel is turned to then under or over-expose. Most cameras will actually show the effect it will have on the live-view LCD screen. For most snowy scenes, it may be necessary to over-expose by as much as two full stops. The example at the bottom was exposed at 1 2/3 stops more than the self-metered setting.

Another question you may ask: "Can't you just adjust it in Photoshop or Lightroom?" Valid question, but unless your camera has the ability to shoot in RAW format, you're stuck with JPEG which doesn't keep that much image data like RAW format does. Much better to take the best image you can while you're shooting, than to depend on post-processing with a compromised image.

So, that's the long and short of it... if your scene has a lot of white in it (not just snow), use this little trick to take better-than-average photos you can be proud of.



Jim Hutchison is a full-time aerial, real estate, and landscape photographer who resides in Burnstown, Ontario with his wife Moira. You may vist his aerial photo page at