If you've been shooting in auto mode and are interested in pushing outside your comfort zone, snow photos are the perfect opportunity. Photographing in the snow, with such a bright white backdrop, provides unique challenges. The best way to overcome them and get amazing photos is to start using your camera like the pros do. Here are five steps you can take to dramatically improve your photography in the snow.

1. Shoot in RAW
If you've set your DSLR to save your images as JPGs, then you’ll want to hop into your settings right this second and switch to RAW. Shooting in JPG has some advantages for saving space on your memory card, allowing you to shoot more photos before you fill up, but the downside is the data loss. JPGs save whatever settings you had in your camera, including white balance, saturation adjustments and so on, and saves them in a compressed format. Whatever adjustments your camera makes when it saves it are there for good. RAW format, on the other hand, records the data from the image exactly how it is without any adjustments or compression. Think of it as having the entire novel, rather than the CliffsNotes.

You may notice that your photos don’t look as vibrant or rich when shooting RAW when you get them on your computer to review, but that’s because the format allows you to maintain full control over every aspect of the photograph and those adjustments haven't been made yet. You now can control in post-processing how much you adjust exposure, bump up the blacks, increase or reduce saturation, and so on. You can make far more nuanced adjustments to create a perfect photograph with a RAW file than you ever could hope to do with a JPG.

If you haven’t been shooting in RAW before, snow photography will show you the benefits because you’re almost certain to get the exposure wrong on some shots, or have a wonky white balance every so often. You want to have complete control over fixing your errors in post processing, and RAW will give you that.

snow photos

This photo shows a perfect balance of nice bright highlights and nice defined shadows, but nothing is over- or underexposed. (Photo:Volodymyr Martyniuk/Shutterstock)

2. Use manual exposure (and slightly over expose)
If you've been shooting in auto mode, or in a pseudo-auto mode like Program (P), Aperture priority (Av) or Shutter priority (Tv), it’s time to take the leap into full manual mode. Just like with shooting in RAW, if you aren’t yet convinced of the benefits of shooting in Manual mode, snow photography will help you realize how amazing it is to have total control over your exposure.

Odds are good that you’re dissatisfied with your snowy photos because they come out much darker than the scene really is, or the white of the snow is completely blown out and overexposed. What’s happening is that your camera is looking at the scene and trying to make a decision about what represents the middle ground on exposure, then selecting settings it thinks are correct. When dealing with the white blanket of snow, your camera is probably going to get the settings wrong — or at least not as right as you want. In manual mode, you make the decision about what the correct exposure is. You’re much less likely to make errors when reading a scene because, well, you’re a lot smarter than your camera. 

If the idea of shooting in manual mode is scary, and if you don’t feel ready to make the leap, there’s a work-around using your camera’s exposure compensation dial. Most cameras, even point-and-shoot cameras, have this capability. I won’t go into great detail about how a camera decides on exposure and settings, but just know that when evaluating a scene that is mostly white, your camera is likely to underexpose your scene. So if you are shooting in P, Av or Tv modes, bump your exposure compensation up a little to make up for the difference. You may only need to bump it one-third or two-thirds of a stop (one or two bars on the slider scale). Or you may need to bump it up a lot more. Play around with it, and eventually you and your camera together will get the exposure right! Simply working toward getting proper exposure will make a world of difference in your snow photos.

3. Take advantage of your histogram
Now that you know how important exposure is for improving your snow photos, it’s time to talk about your best friend when shooting outside: the histogram. Most digital cameras have a histogram, and it will be to your benefit to learn what it is and how to show it on your camera’s play-back screen when reviewing images. It is the graph that provides a display of your exposure, showing how you captured shadows and highlights.

On any day in the field, especially a bright snowy day, it’s hard to judge from your LCD screen if you got the exposure right. Your screen may make it look like you got your exposure right when really you under or over exposed. Your histogram, on the other hand, will never lie to you.

Ideally, you want your histogram to look like a mountain, with all the peaks mostly in the middle (or better yet, erring on the right side of the histogram). Too far to the right and you’ll have blow-out highlights, and too far to the left and you’ll be underexposing.

Also, turn on your "blinkies," the setting that, when you're viewing your images on your camera, causes any areas of the scene that are so over- or underexposed that you have no data to blink on the screen. You’ll be able to see in the image itself if you have overexposed to the point of not having any information in the highlights, which means you can’t fix the exposure in post-processing because there’s no data there to fix. If you have blinkies, you'll likely want to adjust your exposure and take the shot again.

snow photos

Too blue? Too pink? To beige? Too grey? Getting a perfect white balance can be tricky, but makes all the difference in a great photo. (Photo: Mayovskyy Andrew/Shutterstock)

4. Check your white balance
Snow is white, right? Well … sort of. Snow is white but it's also reflective so can take on the tint of whatever is around it. Knowing this, it's important to pay attention to your white balance. You want it to be as true to the scene as possible. If your snow is coming out with too much of a blue tint, which is common, you can make an adjustment for white balance there in your camera and retake the photo, or you can adjust it in post processing. Remember, though, that snow does have a tiny bit of blue in it and if you try to warm up the scene too much with your white balance, you may end up with beige-looking snow.

White balance for snow photos is a delicate dance. Sometimes you want to make sure that your white balance is accurately capturing the way the snow is reflecting the pink light of a sunrise, or the orange glow of a sunset … but not too much so. Leaving this up to your camera’s auto white balance can sometimes work, but a more reliable way to ensure an accurate white balance is to set a custom white balance when you're there in the field taking the images.

You'll benefit greatly by getting familiar with how to get the correct white balance when out photographing, and learning how to make adjustments in camera. When you have this down, you'll be able to capture the scene as it really looked. 

snow photos

The heavy snow in this scene could easily look like a grey blur. But adding in black brings back the details of the houses and rooftops that make the photo interesting. (Photo:Gorvik/Shutterstock)

5. Bump up your blacks in post-processing
One way that you can improve your snow photos with a single simple step is to increase the blacks in your image in post processing. Often snowy landscapes can look a little washed out. By increasing the blacks in your image, you can add back in a bit of contrast and color saturation to the image that gives it some extra oomph.

This works especially well for photos that were taken while it was snowing. The snow in the air can add to the overall photo by showing the weather condition, but snow also can take away from the background of the scene, such as trees in a forest or the outline of a barn or fence line, by making these things look more faded out. Bumping up the blacks can add a little extra contrast and detail to bring emphasis back to these elements and make them look like purposeful parts of the composition.

This tiny use of one slider bar in post processing can make all the difference in turning your snow photos from "oh, nice," to "oh, wow!"

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Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.