digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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Why is the snow gray in my winter photos?

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 gray 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 gray. See images below and How to Read and Use Histograms for more information.

camera Histogram legend

camera Histogram legend

The issue is that when you have a subject that is NOT gray, or middle brightness tones of any color, the camera will expose to make it gray. 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 gray
Black cat on a dark background – comes out gray
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 gray – 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 gray snow problem!

sparkling gray snow
The snow is not white and sparkly like it should be but rather dull and gray.
camera histogram showing gray
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.

Here's a few more winter photos to enjoy





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