Shadows and Light: 20 Video Tips for Shooting in the Snow

Capturing video in the bright light from snow is one of the most challenging conditions you can shoot in. Not only is shooting in the snow quite COLD for you, your camera isn't happy, either! Then the white reflective surface plays havoc on your exposure levels and can fool your white balance.

Creatively and technically when shooting in the snow, you are challenged from the moment you arrive. When you're shooting in the snow you are shooting on not just a white background, but also an all white reflective surface. If you have an overcast day, you're doubly challenged because without shadows the snow will looked like a gray washed-out blob of nothingness to your video camera. 

Here are a few quick tips to capturing video and protecting your gear in that cold white wonderland.

1. Don't Use Auto Exposure – Auto exposure is just NOT an option when shooting video in the snow. Your iris (f-stop) is going to try to stop down (get smaller or close) to compensate for the bright white reflective surface, and all dark detail in the shadows are going to get lost. Try to control your exposure. If your camera doesn't have the ability to go into manual control, limit your wide shots without people and choose medium and close up shots of people. Don't try to get both at the same time. 
2. Under-Expose your Shot – this is probably the biggest takeaway of these tips. Shooting in snow is difficult not just because it's all white, but when you lose color you also lose detail with a too-bright white/gray sky. When you think you have perfect exposure, take your f-stop down a half to a full stop. By stopping down when shooting so the video appears under-exposed you can then open it up (raise the levels) in editing. If your shot is over-exposed, you will never get that information back. Never. So don't depend on auto exposure when shooting in the snow.

3. Over-Expose your Shot – On the other hand, if you want your snow to be pure white, (and no other subject is in the scene), your snow is going to look gray with a normal exposure, so you have to open the iris up a stop or two. When properly exposed, your shot's average luminance will set to neutral gray, but an all-white scene with mostly snow won't be as pretty if exposed correctly. So the overall luminance will register at the high-end on your levels, which appears over-exposed. But you can go too far. Your camera's IRE levels at 100% or above loses everything in the details, and you can't get it back – so open the iris for a pure-white scene, but know you might blow out the other objects in the scene. Our next tips help you balance this.
4. Go ahead, be Risky! – If the subject you're shooting is more important than the snow it's playing in, you can sometimes let the iris over-expose the snow a bit so you can get the subject exposed. This works if you have no other background than white snow – it's like working with a white cyclorama.
5. Give your Camera some Sunglasses – Just like you need to wear shades in the bright white light, so, too, does your camera. Use your camera's internal neutral density filter, or add an external glass filter to the front of your lens. Be aware when using screw-on filters, you might get fog between the lens and the filter – see next tip.
6. Use Polarizing or Graduated Filters – If you have access to a matte box setup, experiment with it by using a blue-to-clear graduated filter to give your sky some color and pop. Experiment with the polarizer, too. Polarizers are good for all sorts of things, but they're tricky – they can make your shot too dark, so test – don't depend – on these tools, unless you know them well, and experiment with both on and off.
7. Make the Snow Work for You – Take advantage of the white reflective surface – You can use the snow as a big giant reflector or bounce card to lessen shadows in facial features for close-ups. If your subjects are standing near your camera, move them or the camera around until the sun reflects the snow-cast into their faces.
8. Plan the Time of Day  – Shooting at high-noon in the snow is like shooting high-noon on the beach – too much bright light will wash out darker surfaces. If you can plan it, shoot in the early morning or late afternoon. The nice thing about sunrise/sunset shots in the winter is you don't have to get up too early for a sunrise! 
9. Wear Bright Clothing – If you can control their wardrobe, have your subjects wear bright colored clothing – no black, brown or gray. Try to have them in all the same hue, too. It's just one less thing to have to balance. (White parkas are actually easy to play with against a white snow-bank, but like the wedding dress example, your camera will want to underexpose the person's face to compensate.)
10. Shoot Down on People – Change your shooting angle a bit can diminish some of the bright light from behind or above them. Shooting your subjects from slightly above their eye level will block some of the harsh background from throwing more light into your camera.
11. Use your Histogram & Zebras – If your camera has them, use them! I like to pull my LCD viewfinder levels down a bit when I'm shooting outdoors, so I can see them better if I'm not using an eyecup. Because of this, I don't trust my eyes that the exposure levels I see are true. Histograms are great new features to some higher-end cameras, and many people never use them. Learn it. Use it. Grow with it!
12. Color Temperature & White Balance – An indoor auto white balance setting can give your scene a bluish tint, and the outdoor setting can create a warmer gold look, but auto exposure levels don't play well with snow. Either of these can set your "mood" – if you want a cold blue scene or a warm golden one, but it's best to use manual white balance and play with tints during editing. If your camera has pre-sets, experiment a bit with shots on the days that aren't important to your project. For a wide shot in a snow scene that has both sunlight and shadows, a white balance on the shadowy area will give you a less blue tint overall. Or, instead of setting your white balance on the snow, experiment with setting it on an extremely pale yellow, blue or pink piece of paper – see what your snow looks like then!
13. Detail in the Shot – A shallow depth of field shot can really isolate closeup detail in those beautiful sparkly snowy scenes. The wider your aperture, the shallower your depth of field will be. If you're shooting with a DSLR, no problem. If shooting with a traditional consumer camcorder, step back from the subject and shoot a long focal length (telephoto) by zooming in all the way. Your lens pulls in less light when zoomed in all the way, so you might need to open your iris more then lower your exposure levels by adding some ND filters. This Videomaker feature has a few tips for capturing that film look and check out this one on depth of field camcorder shooting. If you can, you might have to slow the shutter speed, to compensate, which can make movement stuttery, but works well for shots that don't have moving objects.
14. Sound Matters – If sound is important to the video you're capturing, cover your mic with a wind-muff of some kind. Any type of breeze is going to sound like the jets of an airplane taking off if the mic is unprotected. You can easily cover the on-camera mic with a little bandage gauze, if you don't have a wind-muff handy.
15. Sun Control – For most shots, keeping the sun at right angles to the subject and camera will prevent you from having an over-lit or back-lit subject. However, for landscapes, shooting with the sun in front of you can give you some cool atmospheric shots. Use a lens hood to keep the sun from getting directly into your lens. Play with the shadows – shoot directly into the sun as it sits low on the horizon – not just with it to your back. If you don't have a lens hood, check out Videomaker's DIY Matte Box video tutorial.
16. Take Care of You – Make sure to take care of your needs otherwise you might be a casualty rather than the historian. The airline safety spiel you hear before take-off warns you to put the oxygen mask over your own face before you help those around you in an emergency. It's because you're no help to anyone if you're incapable of breathing yourself. Remember that – wear protective gloves, hats and water-proof boots. Warmth leaving our bodies looks for the exposed extremities.
17. Acclimate your Gear to the Cold – Our first instinct is to take the camera out of the car last, after we've prepped our bags and ourselves, but it's actually good practice to take your camera out first, and set it on the ground (on a protective surface!) Keep your camera outside for about 15 minutes to acclimate to the weather before you even turn it on, this will help prevent condensation fogging your lens and viewfinder.
18. Gear – Carry a good portable bag for your gear, maybe even double bag it. Have some type of lens hood on hand if the snow is more of a drizzle than a solid flake. Batteries will die faster when it's cold outside, so pack spares and keep them in your coat pocket. If your battery conks out when it should still have lots of juice, don't despair. Rub it vigorously in your hands to warm it up. Read more cold weather and rainy weather protection tips in our "15 Rainy Day Shooting Tips" blog.
19. Stabilize Your Tripod – You can use that snow to stabilize your tripod in a windy event by filling a simple grocery-store plastic bag with snow and tying it to the center spreader.
20. EXPERIMENT! – Remember, trying to set exposure levels and white balance when shooting in the snow is almost the opposite of shooting a wedding in a dark church – set your levels for the white wedding dress and everything else is under-exposed. Set your levels for the groomsmen in black tuxedo, and the white dress blooms. What a nightmare! So take your time and experiment a lot. Winter is a good time to learn, instead of hanging the gear up until spring!
Shooting in the winter is peaceful and beautiful. Most average people avoid venturing out, so you have whole areas to yourself. Even the ugliest street full of debris and dirt becomes a winter wonderland when shrouded in snow. Read our "Light Reflections: 6 Reasons Videographers Love to Shoot in the Winter" blog for more winter shooting tips and have a great, prosperous beauty-filled winter!
Do you have any shooting-in-the-snow tips you'd like to share? Please contact us on our Facebook page or post in the comments section below.
Jennifer O'Rourke is Videomaker's managing editor 

Primary image courtesy of

Jennifer O'Rourke
Jennifer O'Rourke
Jennifer O’Rourke is an Emmy award-winning videographer & editor.

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