Blog Entry: December 24, 2010
You may have encountered this before: it's winter and snow has descended upon the landscape. You are out taking some pictures of trees draped in a blanket of freshly fallen snow, or perhaps you are taking some shots of the kids sledding and building snowmen. Whatever the subject, you become distraught later when you review your pictures only to find that they all look as if you had a piece of blue Saran Wrap© over your lens the whole time. This is a common problem when shooting digital in the snow. It has to do with something called "white balance."
White balance has to do with getting accurate colors based on the current lighting conditions. This depends on the camera's ability to tell which objects in the field of view should be white, gray, and black. Different sources of light introduce different color casts into your image, so white balance changes quite dramatically based on the light source. For example, a white object will look different on a sunny day than it will on a cloudy day. It will also look different underneath a fluorescent light bulb than it will underneath an incandescent light bulb. Almost all cameras have a range of white balance settings. The default is normally an "AUTO" white balance setting where the camera basically guesses what the lighting conditions are and adjusts accordingly. In my experience, cameras are normally pretty bad at guessing this, so you really want to set the white balance yourself if you want good results. Some common white balance modes on today's cameras include "cloudy," "fluorescent," "tungsten" (incandescent light bulbs), "daylight," and "flash."
Snow is especially good at throwing off a camera's white balance. The large amounts of extremely reflective snow tend to make the camera misjudge colors, which is what leads to the blue snow phenomenon we talked about earlier. Many cameras are equipped with a "snow" or "winter" setting that normally does a good job of correcting this. A "beach" or "sand" mode may work just as well since the same problem is encountered when you photograph a light-colored, sandy beach. Many point and shoot cameras nowadays even have a custom white balance setting where you manually point the camera at an area of your scene that is white. If your camera has it, this is the best way to set the white balance for snow or other tricky conditions since it eliminates the guesswork.
Of course you can usually correct color casts in an image editing program afterwards, but the results normally aren't as good as they would be right out of the camera. It's always good to get in the practice of trying to get shots right in the camera. If you take the time to master the use of your camera and its settings, your skills as a photographer will skyrocket and your photos will improve dramatically.
Whitman Mission National Historic Site can be a good place to practice your photography skills. The grounds are open every day dawn to dark. The Visitor Center is open every day, except for Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and January 1.
Last updated: March 1, 2015