How to Photograph and Edit Snowy Scenes

The winter season offers landscape and travel photographers unique opportunities that cannot be replicated.

Here, in Montreal, we are having record-breaking winter weather. By the middle of December, I had already captured plenty of snowy landscapes and am now eager to share with you how I approach winter photography.

How to Photograph and Edit Snowy Scenes

Since shooting and editing winter landscapes presents a different set of challenges, I have separated this article into two parts. First, we tackle the challenges of shooting and, then, we take on the challenges of post-processing.

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Snow Shooting Techniques

The main challenge of photographing snowy landscapes is the predominantly white color.

The white tends to fool the camera’s metering systems by making it believe that the scene is much brighter than it actually is. To compensate, the metering system lowers the exposure and, as a result, we get underexposed photographs with ugly grey snow.

Below are my favorite tips and techniques on how to properly expose snowy landscapes.

Shoot in RAW

The RAW format gives you a much broader latitude to correct your errors in post-processing. The logic here is simple: you try to collect as much information from the scene as possible and decide what to do with it later.

How to Photograph Winter Landscapes - Shoot in RAW

Use Exposure Compensation

This is my favorite technique—the one I always use when shooting snowy landscapes.

Since I know in advance that my camera’s metering system will be deceived by the abundance of white snow, I set the exposure compensation value to +1 for all my shots.

I tend not to tweak the exposure compensation value for every shot and consider the +1 value to be a reliable middle ground for most shots. I find that it is much simpler to do the final fine tuning in post-processing.

Exposure compensation was not used. The photo is underexposed.

How to Photograph Winter Landscapes - Use Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation +1. The photo is properly exposed.

Do Not Trust Your Camera or Your Eyes

When shooting winter landscapes, selecting the proper exposure is always a fine balance. The aim is to ensure the snow in your photos is as white as possible without being pure white (clipped). As soon as any given pixel in your photograph turns white, it no longer carries any information and it is impossible to recover any data from it during editing.

As you already know, you cannot trust the metering system when shooting snowy scenes. But, at the same time, you cannot rely solely on your eyes when looking at your camera’s LCD screen or electronic viewfinder because it is not possible to distinguish pure white from almost pure white.

The math is the only truth here.

You must check the histogram, which is the graphical representation of the pixels distributed in the image, to see if your image contains pure white pixels.

How to Photograph Winter Landscapes - Use Histogram

Clipped Histogram - Overexposed Image

Properly Exposed Image

Bracket All Your Shots

Bracketing all your winter shots serves two main purposes. First, it gives you an opportunity to select the image with the right exposure if you miscalculated the exposure value or if your camera was fooled by the brightness of the scene. 

Second, it gives you the option to use the HDR editing technique in case the dynamic range of the scene exceeds the dynamic range of your camera sensor. When you find that you are unable to capture the entire range of light in one shot, you can always combine the bracketed shots into the HDR image.

Related: The Comprehensive Guide to Bracketing in Photography

Use the Lens Hood

First of all, I always recommend keeping the lens hood on at all times to protect the fragile and expensive glass from any accidental damage. But, when shooting the snow, the lens hood is also a very effective tool for reducing the glare from the snow.

How to Photograph Winter Landscapes - Use the Lens Hood

Editing Snowy Landscapes

Editing snowy winter scenes has its own unique difficulties and hurdles. The main issue is the predominance of one single color (white), which makes most winter photographs monochromatic. Compared to colorful scenes of autumn landscapes, creative options are more limited with snowy winter landscapes.

As part of my Lightroom preset library, I developed the Winter Colors Collection. Each preset in the collection was designed to overcome the various challenges of editing snowy landscapes and give you more artistic possibilities to choose from.

Remove Blue Color Cast

When you shoot sunny winter scenes with the open sky, it is practically guaranteed that the snow will have an unnatural blue color cast in the shadowy areas. The reason for this is because the scenes have two light sources: the sunlight and the skylight. When they mix together, they produce natural light. But, in the shadowy areas, the sunlight is shielded and makes the skylight the principal light source. As a result, it shifts the natural light toward the blue spectrum.

The most common way to eliminate the blue color cast is to adjust the color balance in the camera before shooting or later in post-processing. I am not too fond of this option because, by shifting the color balance toward warmer tones, you eliminate the blue color cast in shadow areas while also introducing a yellow cast in open areas that makes the snow yellowish.

My solution is to desaturate the blue colors in the photograph while boosting the other colors.

I have the Crisp Morning preset in the Winter Colors Collection that does exactly that.

Original photo with the deep shadows and strong, unnatural blue color cast.

The image where Color Balance adjustments introduced yellow cast.

How to Edit Snowy Landscapes - Remove Blue Color Cast

The final version where I desaturated the blue color first, and then I boosted the rest of the colors (Preset: Crisp Morning)

Intentionally Introduce the Color Cast 

For artistic purposes, try to introduce the color cast to simulate the warm colors of the sunset—for example, when the snow never appears to be pure white.

In my Winter Colors Collection, I have three presets that introduce various color casts to natural winter scenes.

How to Edit Snowy Landscapes - Introduce the Color Cast Purle

The purple cast was intentionally added (Preset: Ice Pattern).

How to Edit Snowy Landscapes - Introduce the Color Cast  Yellow

The yellow cast was intentionally added (Preset: Candle Light).

Revive Gloomy Overcast Scenes

On winter days when the two main sources of light—the sun and the sky—are shielded by overcast clouds, the landscape tends to be at its most boring and bland without the hint of any colors. My solution is to be very aggressive with the saturation and contrast. The goal is to revive any hidden colors and to emphasize the texture of the snow and the ice.

I created the Snowflake preset specifically for overcast winter shots. But, if you use it on a photograph with a wide-open sky and a blue color cast, the result will be horrendous. 

How to Edit Snowy Landscapes - Reviving Overcast Winter Scenes

Reviving Overcast Landscapes (preset: Snowflake)

Use Black & White Treatment

Because of the monochromatic nature of winter landscapes, it is very effective to use black and white conversion. This works with pretty much any snowy scene. You discard the color information from the image and concentrate on the tonal range instead. You can be much more aggressive in your editing when using contrast and clarity adjustments.

How to Edit Snowy Landscapes - Use Black & White Treatment

Black & White Treatment (Preset: Lifeless)

Use Duotone Treatment

The duotone technique is when you introduce a second color to a black and white image. The technique was widely used during the printing press era to save money on production by using only two colors instead of four. These days, the duotone technique is mostly used for artistic purposes.

The duotone effect can be easily achieved in Lightroom by converting a photo to black and white and then introducing a second color using the Split Toning tool.

How to Edit Snowy Landscapes - Use Duotone Treatment Green

Duotone Treatment (Preset: Cold Fingers)

How to Edit Snowy Landscapes - Use Duotone Treatment Red

Duotone Treatment (Preset: Rough Edges)

Winter Presets - Seasonal Promotion

Don’t forget! For the duration of winter, I am offering my Winter Preset Collection at 50% off, which makes it only $9.

Use the promotional code WINTER18 to get 50% off.

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