This extract is from the winter part of the Landscape Photography: The Four Seasons title from Ilex. You can find more information about this book and other Ilex titles on their blog.
Coping with contrast
The low angle of sun in the winter may bring with it fantastic lighting, but it can also cause problems when it comes to contrast in your images. It doesn’t matter what time of the year it is, directional lighting is guaranteed to cast deep shadows that increase the contrast between the brightest and darkest parts of the scene you are photographing. This is especially true when it has been snowing, as snow is easily transformed into white or near white when the sun hits it, while other elements in the frame such as trees, a fence, or a wall will likely appear significantly darker.
When you encounter high contrast winter scenes (and you will), the main area of the image to protect is the highlights - once these have burnt out you will have no chance of recovering them. So pay attention to your camera’s histogram to ensure detail is retained in the lightest tones. Then, on your computer, use your editing program to lighten any deep shadows areas, using Photoshop’s Shadows/Highlights tool, or similar. Alternatively, if the scene exceeds the dynamic range of your camera consider shooting a bracketed sequence of frames and using HDR software to manage the contrast digitally.
TIP: Low contrast snowscapes
Not all sun-lit snowscapes exhibit high contrast - some may be quite the opposite. This is because snow is great at filling in shadow areas by bouncing sunlight like a giant reflector, making shadows less intense. Sometimes, you may find that contrast needs to be increased post-capture, rather than decreased.
With the sun in the frame, dark, shaded areas are to be expected, but there are ways to help lessen the effect. Here, for example, the photographer waited until a cloud passed in front of the sun: we can still see it’s a sunny day, but the cloud has reduced the sun’s intensity slightly, and lowered the overall contrast of the scene.
Many DSLRs, and some point-and-shoot cameras, now feature built-in systems for helping you deal with high-contrast scenes; systems such as Canon’s Auto Lighting Optimizer, Nikon’s Active D-Lighting, and Sony’s D-Range Optimizer. These work to preserve highlight and shadow detail, making them very useful for high-contrast snow scenes. Otherwise, if you’re shooting Raw files and using the manufacturer’s own Raw conversion software, you may be able to apply these at the processing stage to re-balance your images.
The color temperature of light changes throughout the day, and nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to photographing snow. You’d naturally assume that snow is white, so wouldn’t pose too much of a challenge, but it can be anything other than white depending on the lighting. The problem is that snow is highly reflective, so on a clear, blue-sky day, for example, you can easily find you get white snow where the sun is hitting it directly, but distinctly blue shadows from the reflected sky. Similarly, at sunrise and sunset, snow can take on a peachy warmth as the first and final rays of light cross it, while a clear sky at sunrise can result in a mix of both cool blue shadows and warm, orange snow.
If you rely on your camera’s Auto white balance setting then it’s very likely it will be fooled into thinking it has set the correct color temperature, when in fact, it hasn’t - it will see the sunlit snow as white and consider its work is done. Even using the correct preset may still present a color cast as reflections from the sky and surrounding areas tint the image, so the answer is to set a custom white balance. An area of sunlit snow makes the perfect target for this (or you can use a gray card) and, combined with an accurate exposure, it guarantees that your snow comes out crisp and white.
In this landscape, taken at sunrise, the sky is warm, but the snow - in shadow - is a much cooler color. Because of their very different color temperatures it is impossible to make both areas neutral, so some compromise has to be accepted.
Setting a daylight white balance for this snow-filled landscape has resulted in slightly blue shadows, but this doesn’t detract from the image. Indeed, the cool shadows add to the feeling of a cold subject.
Use a polarising filter
A polarizing filter will work incredibly well at intensifying blue skies and boosting the contrast between the sky and the snow below, often producing skies that are significantly darker than the foreground. Polarizers also help reduce reflections on wet surfaces - water, ice and snow - making it an essential addition to your winter camera kit.