“Why does everything I shoot look dark and why is the snow grey?”

How do I get from here? (mucky, grey snow and underexposed subject)…

to here ? (clean white snow, well exposed subject)

Cameras live in a “middle” grey world.  18% grey to be exact.  They measure the light reflecting from the scene around them (reflective light metering) and compare that light against the middle grey average that they are set to (a base level).  18% middle grey reflects exactly 1/5 of the photons compared to a pure white (90%) reflective surface.

The result then is that it wants the average of all scenes it exposes to be 18% grey.  Thus, if you point the camera as an evenly lit pure white wall, the image would come out as ….yep; grey.

Similarly, if you take a shot in a snow scene, the average (ie mostly snow) will be grey and because the people or other objects in the scene are generally darker than snow, they come out dark or in silhouette.  Mechanically speaking, the camera sets exposure to get an average grey exposure across the whole image – shorter shutter speeds and/or smaller apertures to restrict the light getting in to achieve an overall middle grey.

The camera is doing nothing wrong.  But as a photographer, its helps to understand why it’s not doing what you want!

These next three images from Alaska demonstrate the effect of underexposure due to average grey metering.  The problem is compounded in the middle image of the skis by shooting into the light – the camera dials the exposure down even further.  It might be the effect I want but in these cases, I wanted to see the tents, the person in proper exposure and the colours of the skis.

So what to do?  Well the solution is simple: you have to fool the camera that the scene is darker than it thinks and so let more light in ie you need to INCREASE the exposure.  We achieve this in one of three main ways:  open the aperture, slow down the shutter speed or use that other control: Ev compensation. For most compact cameras, the latter is the easier.  You want to find this control:

Typically, you will want to INCREASE exposure by about +1 (ie +1 stop).  When shooting into the light, you might increase it further,  The effect on the above shots opening up between +1 and +2 is –

+1 stop

+2 stops (because shooting into the light)

+ 1 stop

White snow, well exposed subjects….

It is really trial and error but try +1 over-exposure as a good starting point.

On a good clear day, lots of bright sky and snow with your exposure compensation increased, good clean images are possible.

+1 stop

Indeed, you may also keep exposure at that “middle” reading to go deliberately creative and moody.

No adjustment.  Convert to black and white for effect

Once you get the hang of using the Ev control on your camera, all sorts of creative possibilities open up. Try using the technique in more even, less contrasty, less camera-fooling light – when it’s not snowing!  In each of these next shots, exposure was adjusted +1/3 to +1.5.

Here shooting into a highly reflective and bright surface
+1/3 stop

And here shooting into a bright sunny sky.  Had I not opened the exposure right up, the subject would have been in almost silhouette.
+1 stop

+1.5 stops (in a dark room into window light behind the subject, leaning on a light wall)

In each of these last three cases, my sole objective was to get the effect I wanted for the subject.  I had no concern at all for the background.

So to conclude, when shooting in snowy conditions, try over-exposing (using your Ev control) by up to 2 stops depending on the brightness of the scene (location of main light/sun etc).  And then you can widen your experimentation of the technique by using it in sunny, non snowy conditions or when the subject is back lit in a darkened space.

As always, contact me if you are interested in my work, want something special for you or your family or if you just want some help or advice (on matters photography!!).