How to Prevent Grey Snow in Photographs

Grey snow before and after photo
Turn grey snow white again with good camera settings and basic post-processing.

I always used to end up with grey snow in photographs until I figured out what what going on and how to correct it. Hopefully these tips will be of use to someone who’s also fighting the grey snow battle.

You need to understand how the camera works and sees the world in order to understand why snow often looks grey in photos. The camera is a clever little computer that is interested only in light.

  • How much light overall.
  • The amount of light compared to the amount of shade.
  • The degree of contrast between light and dark areas (the dynamic range).

Having figured out the the degree of light and dark falling on the sensor, the camera then tries to even things out. Given lots of light, it will work to make bright areas more in balance with the dark areas.

When you’re out taking photos in the snow, there’s an awful lot of white everywhere. The camera doesn’t like this. It assumes there is far too much light so works hard to compensate. The result is a photo that looks grey, because the camera reckoned that’s what you’d probably want.

Without getting too technical, cameras work on an 18% grey scale. It means the camera software assumes pure white reflects 100% of the light and pure black reflects 0%. Everything else falls somewhere in the middle, which when all the light values are added together, equates to a middle grey. Middle grey reflects 18% light, so this is what the camera tries to achieve. Most of the time it works really well. When it’s applied to very bright scenes such as snowscapes, however, it produces a dull and dirty result.

Shooting JPG Snow Scenes

Adjust your white balance to tell the camera you’re looking at a very bright scene and want it to reproduce it that way. If you’re shooting in any of the auto modes, you can use exposure compensation to overexpose by one or two stops. You could also use one of the scene modes and see if that helps.
If you have live view on your camera, make use of it by reviewing what the captured image will look like before pressing the shutter. Compensate with different settings until you get the result you want.
Another thing to watch is the temperature reproduced in the image. Too cold, and snow will look too blue. Some blueish shadows are nice in snow scenes, but you don’t want a blue cast over everything.

Shooting RAW for Fewer Grey Snow Scenes

If you haven’t tried shooting in RAW, it would be a great challenge for anyone looking for a new photo learning experience.

Snow images shot in RAW are easier to correct for white balance in post-processing because the camera hasn’t tried to put its own spin on the final image. In JPG, the camera applies certain processing functions according to a predetermined set of values. These values may or may not coincide with the effect you intended.

In RAW, the camera effectively does only what you tell it to do. There is no in-camera processing.

The effect straight out of camera is sometimes a bit flat, but RAW images retain more information without any compression or loss of image quality. You can recover more information from skies and shadows than you can with JPG images, and this is great when reducing highlights or brighting up grey snow.

In Summary

Prevent grey snow in photos by:

  • Overexposing the scene during shooting. Don’t rely on what the histogram is telling you. Snow image histograms will often be right-side weighted.
  • Correcting colour/white balance/temperature. You can lift or subdue highlights and shadows in post, as well as reducing harsh blue tinges by adjusting the colour balance.
    In any auto modes (including aperture or shutter speed as well as full auto) use the exposure compensation dial to tell the camera you want to let in more light than it thinks it should.
  • Shoot in RAW if you can. It makes processing and correcting much easier.
    One tip I’ve heard but not tried, is to try ‘flash’ mode if you use auto scene settings and JPG and don’t want to do much (if any) processing by yourself.

Have you got any tips for more successful, natural-looking snow photos? Please share in the comments!


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