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Master Your Exposure & Post Processing for Winter Wildlife Photography & Nature Photography

Written by Thomas C


Posted on February 03 2019

Master Your Exposure & Post Processing for Winter Wildlife Photography

Wildlife Photographer | Guide | Podcast Host for the PhotoCast | Founder of Alotech

Photographing wildlife in snowy conditions is challenging because your camera wants to turn the nice bright wight snow into a gray disaster. 

But why?

The meter in your camera is designed to properly expose the tone of every scene you encounter to be a mid-gray. Mid-gray is simply the color halfway between black and white. Since we photograph in colors another way to put this is the middle color for each RGB value (middle red, middle green, and middle blue).

Thus, your camera believes an accurate exposure between black and white is gray. In snowy conditions your meter will want the tone of the white to be mid-gray. So, when we are photographing in scenes like winter where the proper exposure is not mid-gray, then what do you need to do?

You can either turn your camera to manual mode, use spot metering, take a reading on a mid-gray element in your frame, and set your exposure.

However, many times we will encounter scenes with no mid-gray anywhere. We are not portrait photographers carrying around gray cards to set an exposure although, it would be pretty funny to watch someone with 600mm use a tiny gray card.

What can wildlife photographers do to set the correct exposure during winter?

Depending upon if the sun is fully out or if the scene is overcast depends on the magnitude you need to overexposed the scene. As a general starting point, if the sun is fully out with snow on the ground I like to have my camera’s exposure reading be +2 stop overexposed.

Again, we need to overexposed the scene by +2 stops because our camera wants the tone of the scene to be gray instead of white.

If you are photographing in a more overcast situation generally I have found that a good starting point is around +1 stops overexposed.

If you do not want to think about having to overexposed the scene by +X stops, then there is another simple method. All you need to do is to turn on your camera’s blinkies (or overexposure alert) that flashes when you review your images.

On my Canon cameras the setting is called “Highlight Alert.”

After turning on highlight alert just keep taking pictures of the snow and raising your exposure until you start to see blinkies on your camera LCD. Once you have a photo with blinkies appearing just go 1/3 of a stop below that exposure.

When photographing wildlife during the winter I recommend setting your camera to manual mode. The reason for not using aperture priority or shutter priority mode is if you are photographing a subject like a bird and it suddenly takes flight this will cause you to no longer have the correct exposure because the snow is no longer in your background.

This guide also goes along with my post processing guide covering both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop CC. 

Our goal in post processing is going to be extracting detail from the snow, while keeping the snow a nice bright white color.

Using the ‘Highlights’ slider can bring out the detail in the snow. When you slide the ‘Highlights’ slider to the left brings out details in the highlights, and sliding it to the right does the opposite. Generally, I slide my highlight slider towards the negative direction because I want to bring out detail in my highlights. I do not worry about the white areas turning a little dark because I have a trick to offset this. 

The ‘Whites’ slider is where we are going to turn our whites from being muted to vibrant. What you want to do is click on the slider while holding the ‘Alt/ Option’ key. Now, slide the slider to the right until you start to see some color appear in the black region. Once you start to see some color, then slide the slider a little bit back until they disappear. What the white/ yellow/ black shows you are regions in the photo that start to become blown out as you keep increasing the whites. So, this post processing method brings out detail with the ‘Highlights’ slider and keeps our whites nice and vibrant with the ‘Whites’ slider.

Coyote, Yellowstone National Park 

Canon 5DS R | Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II | 600mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 100

The bottom line is that to set a correct exposure during the winter use manual mode and a good starting point for an overcast scent is +1 stop and a good starting point for a bright scene with the sun fully out is +2 stops. Also, a quick an easy way to refine your exposure is to set your exposure 1/3 of a stop below the image blinkies start to appear. Lastly, when you post process your photos you can extract some detail from the snow while keeping the snow a nice bright white color by decreasing your highlights slider and increasing your whites slider.

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What’s your take on mastering your exposure for winter wildlife photography? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!