The number one question I am asked regarding exposure is how to expose correctly for snow. If you don't understand exposure and you take pictures of snow scenes without any kind of compensation, the pictures will be dark. The reason this happens is because all light meters are programmed to read middle-toned subjects like green grass, blue jeans, red flowers, rich blue sky, etc. These subjects will give consistently good exposures. However, if the subject is primarily white, like snow, the meter sees it as middle gray and consequently underexposes the photo which makes the snow gray. Obviously, this isn't what you want.
Tree in White-Out
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
Digital Exposure: No Formula for All Conditions
Some people suggest that you compensate for this underexposure by overexposing the pictures by a certain amount - i.e., 1 1/3, 1 1/2, or 1 2/3 f/stops. But there can't possibly be one remedy for all snow situations. After all, there are snowy scenes in diffused light, in sunrise and sunset lighting, and in mid-day sunlight, and one compensation formula can't work for all of them. In addition, there are situations where only part of the frame is white, such as when a meadow is covered in snow but the upper portion of the image consists of primarily bare trees or blue sky. Other times, you may be shooting in a snowstorm where everything is completely white.
There are two effective ways you can expose for any kind of snow situation and be consistently correct with your digital SLR camera. This includes white-out conditions like the cottonwood tree I shot in Montana, the mountain lion shot in which the center of the frame is middle-toned while the periphery is white, and landscapes like the old barn in front of the Grand Tetons.
Digital Exposure: Use Spot Metering
1) Set your camera's meter for spot mode and read a middle-toned portion of the scene in front of you. In the barn photo, you could use the weathered wood or the deep blue sky. For the tree in a snow storm where there is no middle area at all, I use my middle-toned camera backpack or a gray piece of fabric sewn onto a photo vest. Lock that reading in place using the AE lock button on the camera and then shoot. After the first shot, the camera unlocks the meter and you can then read another scene.
Digital Exposure: Check the LCD Screen
2) Take a shot and then look at it on the LCD monitor on the back of the camera. If it is too light or too dark, simply tweak the exposure using the exposure compensation feature on the camera in 1/3 or 1/2 f/stop increments. If you don't know where this feature is, consult your instruction manual. It is one of the most important features on your camera.
More about Jim Zuckerman
Jim is a top stock photographer who teaches at BetterPhoto's online digital photography school. His interactive Web courses include
Perfect Digital Exposure, Eight Steps to More Dramatic Photography, and Techniques of Natural Light Photography.
Photo How-To Books
Jim Zuckerman is also a top contributor to two new BetterPhoto Guide books (both co-authored by Jim Miotke and Kerry Drager):
About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Jim Zuckerman
Few 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, I’d 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.