Digital Photography Exposure for Snow and Ice

How to Meter the Bright White with Your DSLR Camera

by Jim Zuckerman

Digital Photography Exposure
Ice & Iceberg, Digital Photography Exposure
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved

Digital Photography Exposure Challenge

There were quite a few photographic challenges I faced, including digital photography exposure for the snow and the glaciers.

Many photo instructors teach that when shooting snow, you should use the exposure compensation feature on the camera and overexpose by 1 1/3 f/stops or some other amount they specify. Because exposure meters are programmed to understand middle toned subjects correctly, they respond to snow by underexposing it in an attempt to make it middle toned. After all, dark gray snow is middle toned. By overexposing, you can compensate for the anticipated underexposure, thus arriving at a correct reading.

I don't do that. I use a zero compensation on my camera - i.e., I make no correction at all.

DSLR exposure in Antarctica
Ice and Iceberg, DSLR camera metering
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
I let my pictures become underexposed by approximately 2/3 f/stop for one reason: I am so concerned about overexposing highlights (meaning the snow) that I prefer the underexposure. When I process the Raw files (it is essential to always shoot in Raw because this mode is required to reveal the subtle detail and texture in the highlights), I can adjust the exposure and contrast to taste.

Many photographers disagree with me on this approach, but please understand that once those highlights are "blown" - meaning a complete loss of detail due to the overexposure such that areas of the image are solid white - they can't be recovered (not even with the recovery slider in Adobe Camera Raw). Since Raw files have the ability to lighten shadows remarkably, I would rather suffer a slight gain in digital noise rather than lose detail in the highlights.

Having said that, I have made many large prints (20 x 30 and larger) from my Raw files in which I underexposed by minus 2/3 f/stops, and I see no gain in noise at all.

DSLR metering
Paradise Bay, Antarctica
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved

More on Jim Zuckerman

Would you like to learn more? Jim Zuckerman is a top stock photographer who teaches digital photography exposure and Techniques of Natural Light Photography for BetterPhoto's online photography school.

About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Jim Zuckerman
Photography Instructor: Jim ZuckermanFew people are able to spend most of their time pursuing their passion in life. I'm one of them, and I feel blessed to have had a love affair with photography since I began taking pictures.

In 1970, I decided to abort my intended career as a doctor in favor of photography and have never regretted it. Photography has enriched my life more than I can tell you. My career has taken me to over 60 countries, and I've seen and photographed wondrous things.

I specialize in wildlife and nature, international travel, and digital effects. In addition, I also shoot nudes, photo- and electron microscopy, children, and other subjects that stimulate my visual or emotional sensibilities.

For 25 years, I shot a medium format camera, specifically the Mamiya RZ 67, for its superior quality. When I would lecture, Id project the large, glass mounted transparencies, and it was really an incredible experience to see the brilliant color saturation and resolution of these slides. However, I went digital in 2004 because the technology finally equaled or surpassed medium format. I now shoot the Canon 1Ds Mark II digital camera with a variety of lenses.

I am the author of 12 books on photography. My work is sold in 30 countries around the world, and my images have appeared on scores of magazine and book covers, calendars, posters, national ads, trade ads, brochures, and corporate promotions.

For many years I've led photography tours to exotic places. These include Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Burma, Greece, The Czech Republic and Slovakia, Spain, Morocco, and Peru.