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Archive for Sunday, November 22, 2009

Behind the Lens: Snow elusive subject to photograph

A row of evergreen trees provided a dark background to display falling snowflakes, and a telephoto lens helped make the flakes appear larger in this winter playground scene. Without a darker background, photographs of falling snow in a gray sky or against a snowy landscape will be hard to spot.

A row of evergreen trees provided a dark background to display falling snowflakes, and a telephoto lens helped make the flakes appear larger in this winter playground scene. Without a darker background, photographs of falling snow in a gray sky or against a snowy landscape will be hard to spot.

November 22, 2009

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The first snowfall of the season hit Lawrence on Monday.

While racing around attempting to get a feature photograph of the flakes, I decided to make snow and winter weather photography the subject of this column. Photographing falling snowflakes is tricky because they're often small and always white.

So, the first thing I do is search out dark backgrounds. By keeping the snow and a subject in front of a darker background, the snow will be more visible. Rows of evergreens work great. Also, the fatter the flakes, the better the effect, although you have no control over that.

Another way to improve snowfall pictures is to use a telephoto lens or the longest zoom setting on your camera. The telephoto view will make flakes appear larger in the frame in relation to the background.

Have you ever gotten prints back from your ski trip exposures and wondered why the snow didn't look as white as you remembered?

Here's a secret about autoexposure. Any camera set on automatic is basically determining an average exposure for all subjects. The camera's light meter doesn't recognize the difference between a black cat in a coal mine and a white cat in snow. What every camera light meter does is blend all the reflected light from a scene into a specific percentage of gray. This is set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

The point is, all cameras are trying to help you get a neutral tonality from your images. That's why the black and white cats can look gray in print. This exposure system works pretty well for a lot of things, but snow isn't one of them. To the camera's meter, snow is just a whole lot of bright reflected light.

To get snow exposures to maintain the ANSI standard percentage of gray the camera will underexpose the scene and give you a neutral snow. The solution is to use a manual exposure setting and overexpose the scene by 1 to 2 stops. Camera manufacturers are aware of this issue because most point-and-shoots now have scene modes you can set. Typical scenes are Beach, Sports, Fireworks and - you guessed it - Snow!

These are pre-set exposure compensations that override the autoexposure system for those subjects. Setting your camera to the 'snow' setting overexposes the scene to help brighten the snow. The irony is that the scene settings 'beach' and 'snow' do the same thing. For fun, tell your friends you prefer shooting in snow mode when you're at the beach and vice versa. Then tell them it's OK because you checked with ANSI.

If you're a parent of a high school swimmer and plan to take photographs at winter meets, here's a tip. Bringing a cold camera into a hot, humid pool environment will cause the lens and camera to fog up with condensation. It can take quite awhile before the camera acclimates to the change in temperature, defogs and is ready to use again.

To eliminate this problem, seal your camera and lens in a plastic bag before walking into the warmer natatorium. The condensation will go to the inside surface of the bag rather than to your camera's lens. After a few minutes when the bag has warmed to room temperatures you should be ready to remove the camera and photograph. This can apply to any situation where you go from a cold environment to one that is humid.

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