Tips for Fabulous Winter Photos

A 1/60-second shutter speed nicely blurs the snow around the skeletal head of this sunflower.

When you tell out-of-state people about the beauty of the Finger Lakes, do they give you that “Yeah, right,” look? Me, too. But then I take out the pictures I brought to back up my descriptions.

Each time you head down Rt. 89 along Cayuga Lake, or take Marrowback Road up the west side of Hemlock Lake, or thread your way between Keuka and Seneca Lakes on 14A, or explore the country-road grid between Cayuga and Skaneateles Lakes, you’ll spot many stunning scenes that make good pictures. Life in the Finger Lakes wants to help you get those pictures, so it is providing tips in a regular photography column in each issue. This is the first one. You’ll find good advice backed up by good photography. Our suggestions will be customized to the subjects and conditions you find in the Finger Lakes, like how to capture the thready wisps of milkweed seeds erupting from their pods, storm-swollen waterfalls leaping over cliffs, and breathtaking panoramas.

Our tips will work for most cameras: smart phone cameras, tablet cameras and advanced digital cameras. Users of adjustable digital cameras (from snapshot to advanced models) can truly up their photo game. When you get a good photo, don’t forget to enter it in our photo contest (see this year’s winners on page 31).

And for those who want even more photo tips, just sign up for the Life in the Finger Lakes’ e-newsletter at Each monthly issue will include another tip or two.

Let’s get started with some ideas on taking better pictures in the winter – a photography season that seems to end after the holidays, when many of us put our cameras away until spring.

Catch a falling flake
Big fluffy flakes sashaying to earth fill me with joy. They can also instill a compelling new element to your photos, but how do you capture them?

You can show falling snow as streaks or a blizzard of snow-globe confetti by adjusting your camera’s shutter speed. Play around with it, because actual results vary based on the speed of the falling flakes. Generally, slower shutter speeds – like 1/15- and 1/30-second – turn falling flakes into short streaks. Faster speeds – like 1/250 to 1/500-second – may freeze the falling snow to create a mass of sharply revealed flakes. For best results, find a dark background (such as a line of trees or a barn) that shows off the white flakes.

Increase exposure
Is snow goopy gray or sparkling white? You and I know the answer, but somebody we hold near to us doesn’t: your camera. Cameras strive to be average – at least when trying to replicate the brightness of a scene.They see brilliant white snow more like a summer golf course or a tree-covered hill. Why? Because most scenes are filled with a mix of browns, grays, greens and blues (sky), and none of those are as dazzling as snow. In trying to reproduce most scenes accurately, the camera needs help with scenes much brighter or darker than the “average” scene.

So, unless you tell it what to do, it makes snow gray, along with white barns and puffy clouds that fill the viewing area. Similarly, your camera would make a newly paved asphalt road or a black cat lighter because it likes things to be of average brightness, like a medium gray.

Fortunately, there’s a simple adjustment you can make so snow appears sparkling white. Nearly all snapshot and advanced cameras have an exposure compensation dial or menu setting.

When you photograph a scene filled with snow, set the exposure compensation dial or menu setting to +1/2 or even +1 stop to restore the glory to your snow pictures (and to -1/2 stop when you photograph a black cat or other very dark scene).

When you’re done photographing snow, return the exposure compensation setting to normal (0).

For more tips, like finding natural details unique to winter, or how to prep yourself and your camera for cold-weather photography, go to and click on winterphototips

by Derek Doeffinger

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