Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to look at it more closely. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

The Jeep

The Jeep
The Jeep

Friday, January 22, 2016

So...Why do My Snow Pictures Look Gray?

It's snowing in Kentucky at the moment. Not just any ordinary snow, but one of the heaviest snow falls in this part of the country in quite some time. It's still coming down and we're showing between 11 and 12 inches with another inch or two expected before the storm finally sweeps on east. Over the next day or so, locations east of us will receive upwards to 2 feet of snow breaking long standing records.  Last year we had a late but big snow as well...not this big, but beautiful.

From 2015

I managed to get out for while this morning. Conditons were not very good for taking picutres, tomorrow will be better after it clears off some, but it was fun to drive around in a real blizzard. Driving a 4-wheel drive Jeep makes blizzard driving a whole lot easier and safer. Also managed to take a few pictures along the way. Snapshots mostly, not worrying too much about exposure, just trying to capture the blizzard while it was happening. A short time later I downloaded the images and as I expected, most of that beautiful white snow looked dingy gray. I suspect this happens a lot out there. So here is a short primer on why your camera tends to turn white snow gray.

Digital cameras with all their high tech standards built in have no clue what it is looking at. It could care less if you are shooting a sunset, a brick wall, a beach, or a snow scene. When you are shooting in one of the AUTO modes, and that includes Aperture or Shutter Priority, it wants to move the exposure to a middle value.

Examine the gray scale chart below.  Notice how the scale goes from pure white on the left to solid black on the right with the middle bar being a neutral value gray with varying degrees of shade between. What your AUTO exposure wants to do is move your exposure to the middle where that neutral gray value resides. It reads the light, then sets the exposure for a middle tone value, an average in reality. This average exposure tends to work just fine when you are photographing a scene with varying degrees of tonal variations, but when you are photographing a field of snow that is mostly white, well, that average exposure is really gray. There are other factors involved including time of day, whether it is overcast or sunny, but for the most part this is why your snow pictures look gray.



So, how do we get around that situation? Look at these two images. What is different about them? The first one is an AUTO exposure out of camera shot, while the second one used what is called Exposure Compensation. The first one is quite gray looking while the other retains a more realiztic looking white about it. The light was the same and they were taken just seconds apart. So why is one gray and the other more white in appearance?

Camera AUTO Exposure

Camera +1 Exposure Compensation

Ever notice that little +/- button usually located on the top or back of your camera? That little button is purhaps the most useful function on your camera. The only button I use more is the shutter release button.


This +/- button is used to tell the camera to compensate up or down from the exposure value it wants to set. If you want your snow to look more white, then dial in a + value...something in the neighborhood of a +1 give or take. This will tell your camera to go ahead and select the exposure value it wants to use, then compensate that value a full STOP brighter. What happens is your gray snow images will shift more toward looking white, like the second image above. Actually there are a lot of factors involved and it takes some trial and error to get it to work right for any given lighting situation, but that is the simple explanation of why your snow pictures will often look nice and bright to your eye, but turn out gray on your pictures.

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