How to Get White Balance and Exposure When Photographing in the Snow

Winter White Photography: Technical Skills to Get Amazing Portraits in the Snow

As a follow up to my original post on the MCP Actions blog called “Winter White Photography: How to Get Amazing Portraits in the Snow”, this next post provides you with some strategies and tips on exposure, white balance, and lighting when the white stuff is on the ground. Each of these elements is equally important, as one without the other brings an image out of balance, and they are all closely linked to one another.   In my third and last post on photographing in the snow, I will walk you through some great tips and tricks for caring for and using your equipment outside during the winter weather.

Let’s get started. First off, I am going to talk about some generalized approaches to exposure and white balance when shooting in any environment (but particularly snow) and I’ll offer some suggestions for more accurate results:

Disclaimer: All of the images included in this post are unedited in order to illustrate my points.

IN-CAMERA METERING:

Many of us use an in-camera meter to find the proper “exposure” for an image when shooting. While this is generally an effective way to go about things, there are some limitations to this approach, especially when you have the following situations present:

  • The subject is dark compared to a very light background
  • Shooting in the snow
  • On a very bright day when the subject is in the shade but the rest of the frame is in the sun

Remember that an in-camera meter will assess the entire scene, and provide an exposure reading that includes the entire background that the camera “sees” in the frame. When shooting portraits in the snow, for example, the meter will often pick up too much light from the snow and then your subject will be underexposed. This can be very frustrating for many people, especially if they don’t understand why they keep getting the same results (underexposed subject). To further complicate matters, cameras often read snow as being slightly blue in tone, therefore the color tone of your images can also be off.   While we can all get excited about a fresh snow fall, most of us don’t get too excited about blue, underexposed images.

Easy In-Camera Meter Tip for Correct Exposure:

  • Frame your shot so that most of the background is eliminated, and your subject fills most of the frame.
  • Take an in-camera meter reading and either continue to hold the shutter button down half way to keep your camera set at those values or just remember what they are.
  • Frame up the shot including the background as you want to shoot it.
  • Take the picture with the metered values that didn’t include the background.

What you will have essentially done is manipulate the camera into exposing for the subject instead of the whole frame, and your background should be slightly over-exposed and your subject properly exposed.

WHITE BALANCE:

Many cameras have fully customized white balance settings as well as particular settings for various light sources (bright sun, overcast, tungsten, etc).

Again, these are generalized settings, and while they may often be accurate enough for your needs, shooting in snow is one environment in which you want to get your white balance as accurate as possible before clicking the shutter release:  Especially when shooting portraits. Many photographers believe that advanced photo editing software such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom can correct and/or enhance exposure and white balance in post-production, and it’s true – they can. Having said that, it’s always a good idea to try to shoot the image as accurately as possible. Not only is this an immense time saver when editing, but the overall quality of your images will be better.

Excellent Exposure with Expodisc:

I have found that the expodisc by Expo Imaging is by far my favorite tool on the market for precise white balance. It uses a reading of the ambient (available) light for the scene, and calibrates the whites to white. It takes a while to get comfortable using it (and your camera MUST have a manual setting for white balance to be able to use it), but once you get the hang of it, it’s a great and simple tool. I never leave home without mine.  Click here to learn how to use an expodisc.  They come in both neutral and portrait (which is warmer in tone).  I use them both.

Below is an example of a series of shots in the snow to illustrate how effectively an expodisc can work.   All images are shot in manual mode and I did not use ANY flash.

In the first shot below, I used the in-camera auto white balance setting (AWB) and shot it at accurate exposure in manual mode.  You can see that the snow is bluish in tone and the subject is underexposed.  This shot was taken in the shade because otherwise the glare from the snow would had made it to difficult for the subject to look at the camera without squinting, but we still want the snow to be “white”.

Shade WB 0 Exposure

In the second image, I left the camera white balance setting on AWB and then overexposed the shot 2 stops.  You can see that while the white snow (background) is nice and white, the overexposure is too much and detail and color in the subject is lost.

AWB +2 stops overexposure

In my third image, I again kept the camera on AWB and reduced my over exposure level to 1.5 stops.  You can see that things are more in balance and while still a little detail is lost, not nearly as much.  This is how some people compensate for shooting in the snow.  I’d say the results are “so-so”, and we can get more accurate color and balance with a little more work.

AWB +1 stops overexposure

In this next image, I set the WB function to “shade”, and the camera meter is set at correct exposure (0).  The AWB balance setting for shade should help compensate for the camera seeing “blue”, but in this case, it’s not enough.

Shade WB 0 Exposure

Here I still have the camera set to shade WB, and then over exposed at +1 stops.  While the white snow isn’t exactly white, this image is in much better shape SOOC than the others.  I can tweak the white in post if I want to, and I have better exposure and detail on my subject.  Progress!

Shade WB +1 over exposure

In this last image , I take it to the next level with expodisc.   I set the white balance by using the expodisc before shooting the image in manual mode at correct exposure.  You can see that my white background is pretty white (just a tinge of color which I don’t mind), and the exposure on my subject is great.  I can see the snow reflecting in his eyes, and his face is evenly light.

Expodisc with correct exposure (0)

Hopefully you can really see the difference!   Again, one thing to note is to make sure you decide which expodisc you want before making your purchase, as they have both a neutral and a “warm” disc. While I use both, I have a slight preference for the neutral disc.

I’ll be submitting a before and after blueprint for this image soon and you’ll be able to see how I use MCP Actions to take an accurately exposed and balanced image even further with some of Jodi’s great tools.  The best part of this image fully edited is that you cannot tell if it was shot on a white background in a studio or outdoors.

AS A REMINDER:

Just like when shooting outdoors in warmer weather, the exposure and white balance are both affected by the directness, angle and warmth of the ambient light. If you are using the auto settings for white balance and/or exposure, there’s not much to think about. Just know that the AWB setting does have some limitations. If you are shooting in manual and using the custom white balance feature on your camera here are some of my MUST DO’s for great exposure and color in the snow:

1.  Recalibrate the camera’s white balance for different light sources in different scenes if you want it to truly be accurate.
2.  Re-evaluate your exposure as you move from place to place – even in the same location.
3.  If you are using an expodisc, you should recalibrate the camera’s white balance using the disc whenever your light source or direction of light has changed in order to maximize its effectiveness.

I hope you find these tips and tricks helpful for shooting out in the snow.  Stay tuned for my last post, which again will cover caring for and using your camera equipment in the elements.  I’ll have a list of my “must have’s” and some great tips and tricks as well!

Maris is a professional photographer located in the Twin Cities area.  Specializing in outdoor portraiture, Maris is known for her intimate style and timeless images. If you have any questions about this post, please leave a comment in the blog post. You can visit her website and find her on Facebook.

 How to Get White Balance and Exposure When Photographing in the Snow

MCP Guest Writer

This post was written by a MCP Guest Blogger. If you would like to contribute to the MCP Actions Blog, check out our Guest Writers Wanted page.

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6 Comments and 0 Replies



  1. 1
    Alis in Wnderlnd says:

    I also have both expo discs and LOVE them. I too tend to favor the neutral just a little more than the warm. As a tip, it is best to buy the biggest one to fit your biggest lens–you can always just hold it flat against a smaller mm lens.

  2. 2
    Gale says:

    Thanks. This is so much help. Again, THANKS !!

  3. 3
    Becki says:

    Hi there! I am contemplating buying an Expodisc but wondering what the difference would be from just custom loading an image of the plain snow (in the light source you are using for the shot) versus using the Expodisc filter. Couldn’t you just custom WB using the snow? Or would that produce a different tint. Just wondering if it was a needed purchase? Thanks!

  4. 4
    ingrid says:

    Thank you! Both articles have been great and filled with useful information. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s.
    ~ingrid

    Hi, Jody! I was wondering if you have any posts on food photography and/or editing of food photos? Thank you!

  5. 5
    Pam L. says:

    This second part held a lot of good information and I loved the examples shown. I use the Expo disc also. It works amazingly well for me too.
    Thank you for taking the time to share all of this with us, Maris.

  6. 6
    mcp guest writer says:

    @Alis, that is a great tip. I bought mine to fit my 70-200, and it “fits” all of the others just by me holding it flat against them. Shame on anyone who tries to sell someone the adapters or more than one disc!

    @Becki, you could do exactly as you describe. You could also use a white piece of paper or a grey card. Having said that, I use the expodisc WHEREVER I shoot, not just in snow. There are very few “needed” purchases in life,but there are many that provide a lot of value for the cost, and in my opinion, an expodisc is one of them! :)



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