Snow Exposure Tips

Don’t let gray snow give you the winter blues

Is it snowing where you are? Grab a camera and start shooting so you can show how snow transforms everyday scenes into winter wonderlands.  But first, learn how to avoid a classic winter photography gotcha.


Many consumer-level cameras offer a “snow” mode, for a good reason. Left on its standard settings, just about every camera will underexpose a scene that’s dominated by snow. Why? Because a camera’s light meter always wants to the entire scene to average out to 18% gray. If a scene is too dark, the camera will automatically compensate by overexposing. If a scene is too bright, it the camera will underexpose. The Snow scene mode tells the camera to expose the scene a couple of stops more so it’s brighter.

Here’s a photo that I shot  last year during a major snowstorm that was dubbed “Snowzilla” because it dumped about 3 feet of the white stuff:


As you can see, this shot is underexposed and the white snow came out a dingy gray. That’s the camera trying to darken the image to overall 18% gray.


Here is the same scene moments later, when I switched to Snow scene mode.  The snow is much brighter here—as is the sky, which was a light gray and a half-tone darker than the snow. Camera: Canon G11.

You can also use your camera’s exposure compensation dial to get the same effect.


Here’s the metered exposure of my neighbor using his snow blower. It’s too dark.


By choosing a +2 EV in exposure compensation, I got a properly exposed snowy scene. Camera: Nikon D3000 with 18-55mm kit lens.

Let’s say you forgot to change modes or choose the proper EV setting for snow, and you end up with too-dark photos. All is not lost. In fact, this can be easily fixed in Photoshop.


I loved this snow-covered sign but in my rush to get the shot I forgot to compensate for the brightness of the scene. The resulting gray is especially pronounced because the scene is dominated by the bright sky.


In Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 I went to Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Levels, which brought up the image’s histogram. The curve abruptly ended about halfway across. I moved the arrow from the far right of the historgram to where the curve stopped. That’s all this image needed to be brightened up. Camera: Canon 50D with 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM EF Canon lens.

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