Capturing Snow and Clouds (and Other White Things)
In most of the United States, it's been a pretty cold winter thus far. There are parts of the country that have snow for the first time in decades. The snow has caught many people unprepared and we do hope everyone is safe and warm. But let's focus on the unprepared photographers who aren't used to shooting so much white stuff. You may very well take your camera out in the cold weather and capture some of the snow on your camera only to find that when you get back to your computer, everything looks gray. Your camera isn't broken, it's not because you were shooting in Auto (well, not entirely) and your monitor doesn't need to be re-calibrated. You just need to change your approach. We're going to tell you how.
Background: See Like Your Camera
In short, your camera sees very differently than you. The human eye is very powerful: It can see several stops of light and dark and millions of different colors across a vast spectrum of light. In contrast, your camera is pretty much color-blind. Some very intelligent engineers and photographers came up with a whole bunch of complex algorithms that are at the root of your camera's metering system. They evaluated millions of photos widely accepted as having a proper exposure, and they came up with a typical prototype. That prototype had an evaluative median light value equivalent to 18% gray. In-camera metering, therefore, is striving to create a photo that also meets that criteria.
Why is this important? Because whatever you meter off of – wherever your focusing/metering point falls within the viewfinder – your camera is going to adjust its exposure setting so that point is 18% gray. In evaluative metering, it's striving to make the average levels in the entire photo 18% gray. This is the reason why shooting in a dimly lit room, all the colors will look washed out until you correct for it. But it's also why white looks dingy and gray just out of the camera. Don't fault your camera…it's trying to do its best with its inferior brain. Fortunately for you, you can use your experience and your knowledge to trick your camera.
Capturing White: A Few Solutions
Well, technically you aren't tricking your camera. You're going to simply guide it and tell it what it should be doing. As you would expect, there are several ways to make sure your photo is going to turn out okay, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Here's a few suggestions:
White Balance Pre-Set
If you're using a good mid-level camera, you likely have control over your white balance. Check your camera's manual to familiarize yourself with the procedure. Basically, you're going to do a metering shot (which may or may not take a photo, depending on your camera) off of a known value. Despite the name, white balance, you do not actually want to meter off of a white object. Ideally, you want to meter off of something that is 18% gray. You can purchase white balancing cards that are certified to be 18% gray. Basic red is also pretty close to the value of 18% gray, so that's an option as well. There are also accessories like the ExpoDisc that will help you pre-set a white balance (just make sure you understand how; read the instructions). Once you've pre-set the white balance, you're good to shoot using that preset until the light changes. If you're shooting in natural light, just be conscious of the sun's changing position, particularly early in the morning or just before sunset when you will want to redo your preset every couple of minutes.
Advantages: Very efficient and very fast way to keep shooting. This method saves you a lot of effort in post-production.
Disadvantages: You need to be able to plan for it. Street and candid shooters will not have time to do pre-sets. This method also requires some additional accessories.
Handle in Post-Processing
You can “eye-ball it” in post and get the colors close to what you may very well remember. It's a trade up for accuracy, but most people are pretty good at getting fairly close to true colors without the aid of any tools. You'll want to make sure your monitor is calibrated so that you are working with an accurate representation of the photos. If accuracy is your thing, there are tools that will help you, such as color grid systems or even white balancing cards. When using white balancing cards – which are typically either 18% gray or feature white, black and gray – you can shoot a reference shot that can be used to adjust in post-processing. This again shifts the work to post, but it's a great method to use if you were shooting candids, got the photo you like and want to make sure of white-balancing after-the-fact because your reference shot can be set afterwards. Then in post, you can use the white balancing tool in your favorite software and select the known point on the reference photo. That reference photo can then be the basis for the rest of the photos shot under similar conditions, either through the use of a preset or just comparing photos side by side and adjusting accordingly.
Advantages: An effective way to white balance for photos that were taken off-the-cuff and without a proper preset. It also keeps the shooting process simple, which may be your preference.
Disadvantages: Not the most accurate method (especially if you're working without any tools or accessories). It also adds a lot of time to post-processing as you need to “fix” each and every photo.
Intentionally Over-Expose (the “Feel” method)
Perhaps you're an experienced photographer and you instinctively know how your camera will behave with certain lenses. If you have a pretty good feel for your camera, you may be able to predict how your camera will see the shot. You may be able to correct for the exposure before you ever take the shot, all based on feel. This requires practice and experience shooting under a wide range of conditions. But some photographers are quite skilled at predicting the camera's behavior. For example, I know that if I'm shooting with my 50mm prime and my subject is as white as snow in broad daylight, I can overexpose by 1.3 stops and get results that are pretty close to perfect. I know on my film camera, I need to go as high as +1.8 stops with 200 ISO film. I can adjust accordingly by shooting in manual and allowing a few bars to show on the meter. Or if I'm shooting in a priority mode, I can simply increase the exposure compensation. This is not a perfect method and it certainly isn't my preferred option for my commercial work, but it's often good enough for less formal photographic styles.
Advantages: It's quick, easy and sometimes good enough for more free-form styles of photography.
Disadvantages: You really need to know your gear and know how it will behave. Even so, this is probably the most inaccurate method. Not recommended for paid photography gigs.
Now comes the time where I need to put forth my typical disclaimer whenever we're talking about color accuracy processing or the like: Photography is a subjective medium and your preferred results may differ from what any of these methods may create. You may, for example, wish to have warmer photos or cooler photos, or you may wish to intentionally under or over expose your shots. And that's fine. It is art, after all. But it is often advantageous to start with a color corrected and properly exposed photo before you start layering in your own photographic style. An accurate starting point allows efficiency in post and it allows you to carry your own style through all of your works consistently.