Winter is the most difficult season to take pictures in because it provides the most diversity, in both contrast and brightness, between subject and background. As photographers our goal is always to do as little post processing as possible. Corrections should be made before we take the picture keeping in mind the three basic elements that make up any photograph – composition, exposure, and depth of field. It is with these three elements that a photographer reveals what he/she wants his audience to see. And, all three of these areas are more difficult in winter.
The first problem we encounter is composition. In other seasons we can just frame the shot as we wish, drawing the interest of our audience to our subject. However in winter because of the difference in brightness between the subject and the background, we often have to make trade offs. How we frame the picture will often have a great impact on how we control both exposure and depth of field. A balance should be kept to not let the subject take up less than 50% of the scene. As we compensate for the disparity between the brightness of the backgrond and the relative darkness of the subject, depth of field will suffer.
Depth Of Field
For those who may not know….depth of field is the amount of the picture that we allow to remain in focus. We usually want our subject to have the most attention in the shot. But sometimes we want to empacize elements in the foreground or the background as well. Depth of Field is set by adjusting the aperture of the camera. The larger the number, the more in focus the bacground and foreground will be.
In the shot above, I wanted to maintain the starkness and definition of the trees. So I had to use a small f/stop. However, when I compensated for the exposure, the result would yield less depth of field. Therefore I used a small aperture and slow shutter speed (f/22 at 1/100th of a second…) I then compensated from there… (read on…)
I took the picture above specifically for this blog. It is 50% background (snow and sky) and 50% subject and foreground. You will note that this is a completely overcast day. In fact the sky and the snow are the same relative colour temperature. The concept here was to expose for the gazebo and trees, leaving the background snow and sky to meld into each other.
Without any adjustment by the photographer, the camera will naturally see this shot as follows….
By default most cameras metering is evaluative. The meter reads the light from the entire scene and averages it. Here we can see the result. The camera has left the gazebo looking dark in contrast to the background. Our gazebo is under exposed because the camera let less light into the scene than is required to expose our intended subject and highlight it it appropriately in the picture. So how do we ensure better results? we have a few solutions at hand.
1 – Exposure compensation. Every camera, even the simplest ones has an exposure compensation button. It is marked with a “+ – ” on it. In the picture above I compensated by one and a half full f/stops. The rule of thumb being 50% background (snow, sky etc.) is about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 stops of increased exposure. (25% would be about 3/4 stop, 75% would be 2 -3 stops etc.)
2 – Use spot metering. Many cameras have selective metering patterns. It is easy to use a spot metering pattern that only measures 5% – 10% of the frame. In this case you simply meter on your subject, re-compose, and shoot. If your camera is a mega zoom, advanced amature, prosumer, or DSLR, you probably can use spot metering to help you out.
3 – Time of day. Getting exposure less wrong is easier in the late afternoon, although shadows can be a problem.
4 – The cloudier the better. Clouds tend to lessen the amount of diversity between background and subject. Flat lighting will make the pictures that are wrongly exposed more salvageable.
All in all winter provides photographers our greatest challenge. One way to learn is to do. So here is a simple excercise. take the same shot and adjust your compensation in half stop increments and see what happens to your exposure and depth of field. By practicing controlling exposure, composition, and depth of field we can learn to take great wintertime photos.