Photography in the Snow & Mist
It’s been quite a while since I last posted anything here and so I have been racking my brains for an idea. This is the result and I hope you enjoy it.
As we come out of winter (some, but not I, would say “finally”) my mind casts back to the many happy hours spent trudging through the snow, looking for new images to capture in my newly-strange surroundings. I often came back with some striking monochrome, or subdued-colour shots. However, taking good images in such conditions requires a little adjustment to ones photographic approach and, so, I thought I might share some of those images here whilst talking a little about the technical, and logistical difficulties involved.
The most important thing, technically, to consider is the way the camera meters for the light; basically, it will want to average the world through the lens to an average, 18%, grey. This means that, when confronted with a snowy scene where most everything is white, the camera, in its' average-grey wisdom, will see it as overexposed and adjust its' settings to reduce the exposure. If, then, you take a picture in the snow using the cameras' interpretation of a good exposure, your snow will be grey and your shadows very dark (see below for an example of an image where I didn't pre-empt this phenomenon).
Overcoming this is easy, though. In fully-manual mode, you simply over-expose by at least one full stop; two when mist is also prevalent. In manual mode, this is simply a case of adjusting one of your three main settings (shutter speed, aperture or ISO; but usually the former) to move the exposure indicator to the right of centre. In any other mode, you will have to programme in a factor of exposure compensation to override the cameras meter.
Also, make sure the focus is as sharp as you can get it – even when mist is softening everything, as this will help solidify your subject in the scene. Oh, and don’t get too close to your subject, at least not until you have decided on your composition, lest your footprints become part of the scene (and, if you have a dog with you, make sure he stays behind you).
With the technical stuff out of the way (and that really is it), your eyes, and mind, can turn to matters of subject and composition. For me, the best use of fresh snow and misty conditions is the classic minimalist shot and the best (or, at least, easiest) subjects for this are the trees. After fresh snow-fall, the branches of the tree will be laden in snow which helps reduce the complexity of the trees’ architecture. The mist acts to isolate the subject from its surroundings, giving a normally familiar object a whole-new life.
As well as looking for a main subject, look also for distinctive lines or curves in the landscape as they will be naturally emphasised by the general lack of detail and colour in the scene.
And don’t think it all has to be black & white – the general monochrome nature of the winter scene can really make subtle colours, like a patch of blue sky or the orange-brown tones of bark, stand out.
Fallen trees make good snow-subjects, maybe because of the way the snow lies on the surfaces, emphasising form and texture.
Take a tripod, especially if you are photographing whilst the snow falls, as you’ll want long(ish) exposures to capture the movement of the snow (but not too long as the falling flakes will just blur out of view).
Also, take advantage of the conditions by looking for scenes where perspective will help emphasise the concealing nature of the mist and snow, with leading lines disappearing into the unknown.
And, on really cold mornings, the frost on branches can create some beautifully eerie effects.
Whilst, thus far, the focus has been on the more intimate detail shots, don’t forget the grand vistas, when the opportunities arise. When the mist gets burned away by the winter sun, and the clouds begin to part, some very impressive and classic landscapes are revealed.
And, for those epic mountain shots, try using the overexposure approach to blend the mountain into the sky.
In post-processing, you’ll want to emphasise the contrast between the bright snow and the shadows but don’t darken the latter so much that you can’t see the details of the subject.
So, there we have it; 12 pictorial reasons why I love the winter. Obviously, if you’re going to snub convention by wondering out into the frigid winter landscape, wrap-up warm and pay special attention to your feet and hands. Once you find a good composition, you may be standing in the same spot for quite some time; toes and fingers will get very cold very quickly and suddenly the whole experience loses its’ magic.