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on Dec 22, 2017 in Wildlife Photography

Exposing for Winter, a Thought

Rocky Mtn Bighorn

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With the new snows of the season, I thought I’d answer a common question that floods in this time of year. “How do you (as in Moose) expose for snow?” Of course, living in snow, I have a number of off the cuff answers, but I’ll move past those and get to the heart of the question as I look at it. What color is snow? Unless a Moose or dog has passed by, it’s white, right? The common belief that if there is snow in the scene, automatically dial in +1. A recommendation that comes from the meters of the 1970s. We’re not in the ’70s. I honestly don’t think there are viewers of your snow photograph who wouldn’t recognize the white stuff on the ground as snow. With that being true, then seeing detail in every crystal of the snow (what +1 might does for you) is not mission critical to tell the viewer the white stuff they are looking at is indeed, snow. With that storytelling in place then, how do I expose for snow? Exposure is YOUR greatest tool to express the feeling, mood, and life in your photograph. Just because you see something white, don’t automatically do anything.

Bald Eagles
captured by D5 / 800mm

We have two photos here, both of snow. The feel of both is totally different. The top photo has a bluish-gray cast, the bottom photo the snow is your basic snow white. The top image makes me feel cold, that’s why I underexposed it in camera and did not remove the color cast in post. The bottom image, I exposed normally (no comp) and did remove the color cast in post (using ACR). The key to exposure for both images is the RANGE of light in the entire scene and not the fact there is snow in the scene. I exposed for the subject and not the white stuff. Like with most of my photography, I try to keep the light range within 3 stops. When that’s the case, then I just have to click, the D5, D850, D500 or D7500 meter will do the rest. When it’s outside the 5 stop range, to deal with the greater range of light I shoot with the D5, D850 and overexpose. This is totally ass-backwards from what I did for thirty years but it brings into play the 6 stop range of those cameras. Look at the light between the photos in that post and this. Can YOU see the difference in the light falling on the scene? It is exacerbated by the snow, but not determined in whole by the presence of snow.

SO how does Moose expose for snow? Just like any other scene, it depends on the subject, the light on the subject, the light on the rest of the stage and then the story I want to tell within the confines of my viewfinder. Exposure is way too powerful a tool to just dial in some value of exposure compensation automatically. The world doesn’t need another technically perfect photograph. The world needs another photograph with passion to move the viewer!