Spring may be on the horizon, but I think it’s safe to say that most of us here in the U.S. have experienced a bit more snow this year than usual.
And I would bet a lot of people wanted to go out and capture some of that beautiful snow on film. I would also bet that they ran into a few problems along the way, whether it was with their gear, film choice, or exposure.
I want to assure them that they are not alone! Shooting film in winter and shooting snow on film is fairly simple, but there are a few important things to know before you take your camera out into the cold.
What Camera Should You Use?
Winter weather, even if it’s only a little bit chilly, can be extreme weather for your delicate camera gear. Cameras of all types and ages don’t do well in cold or damp weather.
Because the cold temperatures can really do a number on your gear, don’t bring your favorite, most expensive, or most used camera.
While you might take every precaution possible, there is still a risk to your equipment when taking it out in extreme conditions—this includes rain and/or snow as well as heat.
One camera I would NEVER take out in the snow (although I did it once for a short period of time before I knew better) is a Contax 645. That camera is very temperamental and does not like any variations in temperature or humidity.
When you’ve finished shooting in the cold, put your camera in the bag and seal it completely before you return to the warm indoors.
This will prevent condensation from forming on the lens and inside the camera body.
If you forget to put your camera into the Ziploc bag and seal it before coming inside, DO NOT put your camera into a sealed Ziploc bag after returning to the indoors! This will only exacerbate the moisture problem.
Bring another Ziploc bag, shower cap, or dedicated camera cover for shooting during snowfall.
Many professional level cameras are weather sealed, but it never hurts to take this extra precaution.
Bring your lens hood to avoid lens flare on the highly reflective snow—especially on a sunny day.
Bring a polarizing filter to create a deep blue, dramatic sky and increased saturation.
If you don’t already have a UV filter on the front element of your lens, you might consider using one to keep moisture either from snow or condensation off the front element of your lens.
How to Meter Film in the Snow
If you’re using a camera with a built-in reflective light meter, and you use it to choose your exposure, you might be disappointed when you get your scans back.
The snow probably looks dingy, dirty, or gray.
That’s because your meter did its job properly. When your camera meter looks at a scene, it wants to expose it at 18% gray.
So, when it sees that white snow, it thinks the scene is too bright and brings the exposure down to compensate for it.
So, you need to compensate for your camera’s compensation!
If the scene is primarily white snow, you can simply change your exposure to be two stops brighter.
If there is detail in the snow that you want to capture such as a frozen branch or footprints or something in shadow, brighten your exposure by 2 or 3 stops.
If you’re shooting on an overcast day or during a snow shower, the clouds and the world will naturally have a gray tinge to them, so you will want to overexpose by at least 1 stop.
Keep in mind that these are just a general rule of thumb. There may be other variables that will determine your exposure as well, such as people, buildings, wildlife, or other parts of the landscape.
I almost always overexpose by at least one stop.
If you don’t want to be doing the adjustments in your head, you can set your exposure compensation to +1 or +2 and shoot as usual.
Some general guidelines for metering in the snow according to slrlounge.com:
Snow with clear sunny skies: +2 to +3 Exposure Value Compensation Snow with slight overcast: +1 to +2 Exposure Value Compensation Snow with overcast or in open shade: +2/3 to +1 Exposure Value Compensation
What Precautions Should You Take when Shooting in the Snow?
Pay Attention to the Terrain
Avoid ice. The last thing you want to happen is to fall and injure yourself or your gear.
Give Your Camera Time to Acclimate
Be sure to give your camera time to acclimate to the colder temperatures when you first take it outside and when you bring it back indoors.
Changes in temperature and humidity will cause condensation on your lens and possibly on your film and the inner workings of your camera.
Don’t try to “dry” it off, just give it time to clear naturally.
Be sure to warm your camera up gradually or in a Ziploc bag to avoid condensation.
You can also warm your gear up gradually by putting it in the trunk rather than the interior of the car, then moving it to the garage, and then the house.
If the temperatures aren’t that extreme, keeping your camera in its well-padded camera bag for several minutes after returning indoors may be enough protection to let the camera warm up gradually.
Handle Your Film with Care
The cold can make film brittle and susceptible to break.
Load your film before going out in the cold. If you need to reload out in the cold, be sure to load it with care and advance your film slowly.
Conversely, when you have finished a roll, rewind it slowly. During the winter months, the air is often dry, and rewinding your film quickly can cause static inside your camera. Static charges create light, and this could leave random light marks on your film.
This is another reason a mechanical camera is a better choice over a battery-powered camera where film advancement and rewind are automatic.
Winterizing Your Camera
If you plan to be a regular winter photographer, shooting frequently in cold temperatures, you can have your camera “winterized.”
This entails taking your camera to a professional who will service it by removing the camera’s regular mechanism lubricants or oils and replacing them with lubricants that perform better in cold weather.
Other Tips and Tricks for Shooting Film in the Snow
Realize that the snow on the ground creates a giant reflector. Use it to your advantage.
Look for interesting things to photograph.
Snowy scenes are most interesting when there is something to contrast with the white—maybe dark branches and tree trunks or a red coat or berry, or a bright blue, sunny sky.
Try to get out when the snow is fresh or still falling to get clean, crisp whites. It doesn’t take long before the snow is plowed, or it starts melting.
Don’t be afraid to shoot on cloudy, overcast days. Sometimes those clouds produce more color than you realize.
Try a slow shutter speed to capture the motion of the snow falling.
Shoot from different perspectives.
Get low. Look up.
Don’t forget to get up close.
Try using a toy camera. You can get some fun images and you don’t have to worry about your gear.