Snow, Exposure and white balance

Snow in photographs can  look white or grey on a cloudy day, can take on a blueish tint on a clear sky day, or  it can take on the warm tones of the low sunlight at sun rise/set.

If you see a photo and the snow is blue and or dull it’s because the white balance and exposure of your camera ( or the camera it was taken on)  was not set right, or it was taken on purpose to look that way.

Snow is not blue, or dull, its white and bright. Sometimes it can look like it has a blue tint to it in photographs, but this is caused by reflection from the sky which also appears blue, ( but it’s not, I’ll leave that one alone for now though) it can also take on the warm tones of a sun rise or sunset too. Dull or grey looking snow in photographs is because the camera has automatically underexposed the scene.

Get your snow looking bright

Snow reflects so much light it can confuse the camera into thinking that there is more light around than there really is, so the camera will compensate for this by auto adjusting the exposure to balance out the overall light in the photo and give an equally lit scene. This will cause the snow to look dull when we actually want the snow to appear bright and white, just like it really is.

How to counteract this.

  1. Use the manual setting to “overexpose” the shot by 1/2, 1 or 2 stops ( take a few, wide range exposures to see what works best for you)
  2. Use your cameras “Pre Set Scenes” for snow ( many cameras now have this feature)
  3. Use the exposure compensation usually accessed with a + or – button in your controls
  4. Photoshop or other photo editing program. Not always perfect, but can give very good results and improve otherwise bad or poor looking photos

Get your snow looking white.

Because of the bright and highly reflective nature of snow, it can easily throw off the cameras sensor and create blue looking snow from the reflection of light from the sky and sun.

How to counteract this

  1. Use the cameras “Custom White Balance” setting and take a reading from a SHADED area of snow
  2. Try “Auto white Balance” as this will sometimes get it right
  3. Correct it later in your photo editing program.


Auto V’s Custom white balance.

If it’s a cloudy or dull day then you may get a good result with auto, however, if it’s a sunny day then the sun will throw of the sensor and give a blue cast as this is the opposite colour to the warm, yellow tones of a sunrise or sunset.

The 2 photos above to show the difference between “Auto” and “Custom” settings for white balance when shooting snow scenes. The exposure was set the same for both shots @ ISO 400 – Shutter Speed 1/400 & Aperture f3.6.

The colours in the “Custom” white balance are more true to life and show the subtle warmth of the sunrise in the sky and on the ground.
The “Auto” white balance setting has not only given me blue snow, but has lost the warmth in the sky by trying to automatically balance the overall colours in the scene. In this case, the warmth of the sunrise colours has been lost in the scene as it is only contrasted with lots of bleak colourless snow and ice, so the camera has assumed that all that warm yellow in the scene is wrong ( on a white balance setting) and not how it should be, so it’s counter balanced it with blue, the opposite colour to yellow.
That’s resulted in the highlights and mid tones now turning blue.

What I’ve found works best is to set your own “Custom” white balance by choosing the “Set Custom White Balance” and pointing the camera at an area of shaded snow. Don’t use an area with sunlight falling on to it as this will give a false reading as the snow is reflecting the direct sunlight. I made the following video to show you how I do it:

Or…… Throw away the white balance rulebook!

Photography is art, stuff the white balance!

It’s a handy coincidence that snow looks blue in some photos and we humans associate blue (and the range of blue tones) as being cold.

So by having a blue tint or cast to your photo can give it a cold feel, sometimes it just looks wrong, but if you can get it right then it can really add some feeling and depth to your photo.

Opposites attract and compliment each other.

colour wheel sun chart


Ever noticed on a colour wheel how the opposite to Blue is Yellow, and a blue cast of light on snow is the opposite to a yellow tint of  light from the sun?


In the white balance comparison shots above you can see the true looking scene has the warm yellow cast to it, ( that is how it actually appeared when I took the photo)  but let the camera make a decision for it’s self, and it looses the yellow cast from the sun and balances it out blue!


Although the initial shot was taken  in low light, and has some noise, with a little tweaking in photoshop I managed to end up with this from the initial shot taken with the custom white balance:

Snow white balance


Please do comment below if you have any other tip’s or photos you’d like to share, and lets help each other get some great photos of snow!