The chill factor - photography in cold weather (Part two)
This is part two of a two part series on photography in cold weather. You can read part one, which covers gear and clothing suggestions here.
The photographic process
Photography in the cold doesn’t always feature snow or ice, but hopefully it will from time-to-time for you because it is so much fun to be out in.
However, these elements do force creative decisions to be made because there is often an extreme of contrast in the scene. We want the snow (and other elements) to look ‘right’ in the final image and to try and include whatever detail there was present in the original scene.
In the days of film, some guesswork and experience was needed to get perfect exposure in high contrast situations especially with transparency (slide) film. In the era of digital capture immediate feedback of our images is available in the field, which makes this task so much easier.
Our eyes can perceive detail in shadow and in bright areas within the scene that our cameras cannot. What the camera can record is represented by a histogram which is a graphic representation of the dark to light spectrum of light (from left to right) captured for each photo.
Find the menu option for turning on the histogram on your LCD screen either in Live View or on the photo review screen to give you feedback – just watch that battery life!
The lightest part of your photo, which, if present, will be snow or ice, will register as high points on the right of the histogram. The key to expose for it correctly is to get that edge of the graph to extend to the far right without ‘peaking’ beyond what the camera can record in the light part of the spectrum – a tall line that extends to the top of the histogram will appear on the right if this occurs.
If you can avoid this, detail in the whites will be retained. In the field, I also monitor this by using a menu setting that causes any overexposed areas to ‘blink’ when I review an image on the screen – just about all digital cameras will offer this.
Getting exposure right in-camera is important because camera sensors inherently gather more tonal detail on the right-hand side of the histogram than the left.
This means any detail on the left side can’t be as easily recovered by post-production software ‘shifting’ of the histogram without compromising the quality of the final photo. Or think of it this way - an underexposed file is not the basis for a high-quality photo with snow and/or ice as a main feature.
Your light meter
The camera uses a light meter to help set the exposure at the time you press the shutter. And, as advanced as it is, the meter doesn’t know if there is snow or ice in the scene, it just knows what is bright and light and what is not. It will try to average out the scene to a mid-tone.
If white is the predominant tone in your image and you let the camera ‘decide’ on the correct exposure, the histogram may not have much information on the right side at all and any snow or ice will look more grey than white in the photo as a result. Some cameras may offer a snow setting for white balance, but this is only useful if shooting JPEG.
Assuming you want to take full control, you will need to manipulate the exposure reading generated by the camera, which can be made with an adjustment to the exposure compensation, typically up (+) a stop or two of light.
Given time to set the shot up, I will often experiment with just how much I increase the exposure compensation and fine tune it based on histogram feedback – if I adjust it too far, I’ll see the ‘blink’ and know I need to dial it back. The advantage of this is once set it can be left while shooting in that environment.
Just don’t forget to adjust or turn off exposure compensation later on, or you’ll find your next set of photos might be way overexposed!
It’s also worth remembering that in all snow and ice situations, photographing at the end of each end of the day means there will be less contrast in the scene. This will allow for more latitude in your exposure settings and is a good time to photograph people and other darker subjects in the environment.
Finally, if you’re shooting in the snow, shoot RAW. JPEG’s have already been interpreted and processed by your camera and if you do make a mistake with the exposure on a unique, one off shot it’s very difficult to fix it afterward.
When shooting RAW I can on occasion ‘push’ my exposure to the right allowing some minor ‘blinking’ of highlights on my LCD screen, confident that when I open the file in Lightroom I will find I was still within the range of highlight detail that the RAW file could record, even though my camera was telling me otherwise.
Photography in cold environments can be fun and very rewarding and with careful planning you and your camera can perform flawlessly so get out there and be creative. ❂
About the author: Dr. Andrew Peacock is a widely published nature photographer based in Queensland (admittedly not the coldest of places!). More of his images, many from warm climes, can be found at www.footloosefotography.com or Instagram @footloosefotography.