digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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Why is the snow grey in my winter photos?

Grey Snow Winter Phography

If you live in the northern hemisphere, hopefully you can get out and get some great winter photos. But have you ever come home with what you think are great images of the snow and winter scene, only to have a bunch of grey images? Does it mean your camera is broken?

Nope, it’s just doing its job. Your job is to read the information it gives you and adjust according to your scene.

Know how your camera meter works

The first step is to know and understand how your camera meter works. The meter in your camera measures the light reflected off the subject and sets the exposure to make it 18% gray, or middle gray. If you look at the histogram, the areas of black are represented on the left and white is on the extreme right – leaving the center for middle grey. See images below and How to Read and Use Histograms for more information.

camera Histogram legendcamera Histogram legend

The issue is that when you have a subject that is NOT grey, or middle brightness tones of any color, the camera will expose to make it grey. This is where you must interpret the information and adjust the exposure either up or down according to the subject. Here are two examples:

Black cat on a dark background - comes out grey

Black cat on a dark background – comes out grey

Notice the histogram is mostly in the middle but we know the cat is black and the scene dark so this is incorrect.

Notice the histogram is mostly in the middle but we know
the cat is black and the scene dark so this is incorrect.

The camera is overexposing the black subject to try and make it grey – so to compensate use your Exposure Compensation “+/-” if using Aperture or Shutter Priority modes, or just make sure the needle goes more to the minus side if you’re shooting in Manual mode.

Here’s the corrected version for black

To correct the image below was shot at -1.33 Exposure Compensation in Av (A) mode, to darken it. Think minus (-) = less, or darker.

black cat looking black, not gray

The cat is now black where she should be and all the other tones fall into the correct areas as well

camera histogram showing black

Notice there is a spike up the left side of the graph indicating that some of the blacks are “clipped”. That’s okay, in fact even desirable. Without some solid
black your images will lack punch and depth.

Back to the grey snow problem!

sparkling grey snow

The snow is not white and sparkly like it should be
but rather dull and grey.

camera histogram showing grey

Histogram mostly centered like this indicates a middle tones or gray subject.
But this is wrong!

Here’s the corrected version for white

To correct the image below was shot at +1 Exposure Compensation in Av (A) mode, to override the meter and lighten the image. Think plus (+) = more, or lighter.

white snow

Yay white snow!

camera histogram showing white

Histogram to the right – mostly light tones,
which represents this scene accurately.

Bottom line – what to trust

Do NOT trust the camera display for checking your exposure, and know how to adjust if the camera gets it wrong. It’s not that the camera isn’t working right, or doing its job, it’s just getting fooled with tricky subject matter.

DO trust the histogram and learn to read it and use it to get proper exposures. This is even more key if you are shooting JPGs. For RAW files you have a lot more latitude, and they are a lot more forgiving if you need to correct the exposure. For more on RAW vs JPG read this.

The cat in the picture is Boo. After 18 years, her and her companion passed away. It’s been just one year since I wrote Photograph Your Loved ones, sharing their lives through photographs.

Make sure to read all the way to the bottom for some last minute shopping ideas for the photography buff on your shopping list, or spurge and get yourself something!

Christmas specials

I want to wish you a Happy Christmas Eve! My plans for today are cooking, having a drink with some old work associates, and then stuffing myself at my mom’s annual dinner. Everyone brings way too much food, and we eat way too much of it and groan on the couch afterwards, and maybe play some old fashioned board games. Good times! I hope you have something equally exciting planned.

If you have any last minute Christmas shopping to do, and you want to get something for that photography buff on your list here’s a few ideas for you. Some have time limited special offers so don’t miss them if you want it – grab it now. Or maybe grab a couple for yourself, you deserve it!

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  3. Digital Photography School’s 12 days of xmas sale items – some of the items may not be available any more but sign up for special notices in case any are offered again!
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  9. Zenfolio – build yourself a website or portfolio to share your images, starting at only $30/year, great value! I use them for my portfolio site!
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Here’s a few more winter photos to enjoy

Happy Holidays!






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  • Arie

    Thank you ,very nice pics and interesting

  • Ron

    The snow is gray because it is underexposed. The bright sky causes the camera’s metering system to shut the lens diaphragm down in order to get the sky exposed correctly. This is great for the sky but it underexposes the snow.

    • Darlene

      Exactly! But unless the sky is the subject such as in a sunset that’s not what you want. But the reason it’s underexposed is because when the camera measures the light off a white subject it says “whoa that’s a lot of light we need less exposure” because its goal is to make it gray

  • http://---- HEATHER

    Such a simple, concise explanation. Thanks, I finally know how to use exposure comp in A mode. Cheers.

    • Darlene

      Glad that helped!

  • oliver

    A very helpful article. A use my camera mainly for videography and secondarily for photography. I constantly use a histogram and prefer manual mode due to my interest in videography. When taking photographs I usually use Av mode because that suits my purposes most of the time. I’ve never thought of the subject you’re writing about and it makes total sense. I can definitely use this info in my videography as well – I often shoot in front of a black backdrop and exposure settings are key.

  • HT

    Thanks for the great info. I’ve run into this before but since I shoot. RAW, I adjusted using Lightroom. But nice to know before I shoot and reduce the need to edit.

  • Francisco Granadeiro

    Interesting article and very weel explained

  • Guest

    It’s especially hard to get white snow when it’s dark outside.

    • Darlene Hildebrandt

      Yes you’d have to light it somehow and do a white balance for that lighting – tricky for sure

      • MountainSage

        I don’t know why my posts are posting numerous times. Sorry.

        • Darlene Hildebrandt

          I only see them once no worries

  • MountainSage

    Night shot of snow – makes it hard to get white snow.

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