Snowstorms and Sunstars

A beautiful snow scene in Dorothy's orchard just west of our house, made with my old Minolta DiMage 7i. This camera has an excellent lens with a seven-blade aperture.
A beautiful snow scene in Dorothy’s orchard just west of our house, made with my old Minolta DiMage 7i. This camera has an excellent lens with a seven-blade aperture.

With a bountiful snowfall in Oklahoma again this winter, I have had more opportunity to photograph beautiful snowfields and snow shapes here in our own pasture, as well as making news images for our newspaper.

Other people have taken advantage of the situation, though with less satisfying results. There have been whole photo albums on Facebook, loaded with blueish-grey blobs that are supposed to be their kids building a snowman or the impressive drift in front of their garage. My photographer friend Wil C. Fry asked me if it might be time to talk about why the “Auto” setting on your camera gives disappointing snow pictures, and I think he’s right.

So here is the deal: snow is white. I know that seems obvious, but it’s not obvious to your camera. When your camera sees a snow scene, it sees a very bright area and adjusts accordingly. If snow makes up the majority of the image, it will look grey. If the white balance is set to automatic, most of the cameras will make the image a little too blue. It’s a mess, and it doesn’t express the beauty of snow.

Exposure compensation: your best friend in the snow.
Exposure compensation: your best friend in the snow.

It’s time to take control of your camera. (Actually, it’s always time for that, but it’s still not happening, so do it, people.) Move the exposure dial off of that green AUTO setting and move it to P (for Program). Next find your exposure compensation control. On DSLRs it will be a button with a plus and a minus, like this: +/-. On your point and shoot it could, quite honestly, be anywhere, but there may be a button on the back or an item in the menu. Camera makers are constantly reinventing the wheel, and they keep moving controls, sometimes just to make the cameras look more interesting to buyers.

I know that amateur and prosumer cameras have a “beach and snow” scene mode, but even these efforts by manufacturers fall short sometimes, often because the mode just isn’t aggressive enough. You need to crank up that exposure compensation, to +1.3 or higher. Then shoot a little and look. Does the snow look nice and white, but still like snow? If it’s still grey and lifeless, crank it up, to +2.0 or more, and look again. On the other hand, if the snow is one big shapeless white area with no details in it at all, back off a little. Try +0.7 or so. Photographing snow requires some fairly delicate finesse. Once you get your exposure fine tuned, your snow images will be much more satisfying, since snow is an exceptionally beautiful phenomenon.

The aperture blades of a 50mm lens.
The aperture blades of a 50mm lens.

One element I use in many of my outdoor images, and in many of my snow images, is the sun. Much of the time a somewhat lifeless image can be improved by adding the sun, which in my view can help the viewer understand character of the light. In winter scenes with snow, the sun shining in part of the frame can make a dreary or dull image appear more optimistic, more inviting, more beautiful.

Typically when including the sun in images made with a wide angle lens, the sun will have lines radiating from it, known as sunstars. This star-like appearance can really work to your advantage, giving the impression of brightness while still preserving the exposure values elsewhere in the scene. The number of lines radiating from the sunstars is governed by the number of aperture blades in your lens. If your lens has an even number of aperture blades, your sunstar will have the same number of lines; for example, a six-bladed aperture produces six-lined sunstars. If your lens has an odd number of aperture blades, it will produce a number of lines equal to twice the number of aperture blades; for example, if your lens has seven blades, it will produce 14 lines in the sunstar. Straight aperture blades tend to produce sharper sunstars, which rounded blades make less-distinct sunstars.

Adding the sun to an images, particularly with beautiful sunstars around it, is a great way to bring the reader into your snow scene.

Our bare Rose-of-Sharon bushes lining our driveway, with the sun shining through. This image was made with my 10-17mm fisheye, which has six aperture blades.
The bare Rose-of-Sharon bushes lining our driveway, with the sun shining through. This image was made with my 10-17mm fisheye, which has six aperture blades.
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1 Comment

  1. Nice. I knew you’d say it better than I could have. 🙂

    I have been amazed at the number of forum posts on Flickr about this over the years. “Why are my snow pictures too dark?” (or “too blue?”)

    As you said, there are still too many people shooting on Auto. Of course, Av and Tv would miss it just as badly in the snow, without compensation.

    Great article, Richard. 🙂

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