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.

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