Better photos in the snow. And at the beach (yeah, you wouldn't think it's the same)

Our "Blizzard of the Century" has come and gone in Aiken, South Carolina. We had 5" to 8" of snow and it was all gone by the next day. It was a great day for photos - people were thinking about next year's Christmas card - but many of those photos looked too dark and gray. Let's talk about why that happens so you'll be ready the next time, and those instructions carry over to other subject matter like a day at the beach.

Your camera has an automatic exposure control, a light meter that controls the lens opening and the shutter speed. And that metering system has a couple of built-in assumptions which are not always accurate.

The camera assumes that all subjects reflect about the same amount of light. About 18% gray. So the camera will try to make all the photos come out with an overall look that reflects about 18% of the light. The camera will make the lens opening (f stop) bigger to let in more light, or smaller to admit less. And the camera will leave the shutter open longer if it's dark, so the photo looks lighter.

Problem is, many subjects are not supposed to be 18% gray! Show, for example, is supposed to show up quite a bit lighter!

The camera has no way of knowing what degree of lightness (density) is a good representation of the subject.

That's why the snow and the card in the photo above look much too dark. The camera left the shutter less long than was really necessary, resulting in a "grey" car.

The same thing happens at the beach, where the camera doesn't know enough to take a longer exposure, making the beach brighter.

Fortunately there's a simple answer. Almost every camera has an exposure override, which has an icon looking like this +/- mark. this allows you to make an adjustment to the exposure, making your next photo look lighter (if you press the + button) or darker (if you press the camera's - button). Usually it's a two-step process - you press the button and then use the camera's 4-way exposure control to go to the plus side.

That's for snow or sand or other subjects that should be brighter than the camera's computer thinks.

On the other hand, when you're taking photos of a stage presentation such as a graduation, there's far more light on the subject that on the entire stage area. The camera sees all that darkness surrounding the stage and tries to brighten it up. More on stage and sports photography.

Very important - don't forget to set the +/- control back to neutral when you've finished the currect session.