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Coping with Low Contrast Snowy Scenes

Winter is my favorite season for photography. Sure it is cold, but the sun is always at a nice angle, sunrise is later, and sunset is earlier. Most days the air is also a bit clearer. Notice I said most days. Occasionally, we get this thing called snow. Shooting in the snow can be a real challenge, but it can also give us many rewarding photos.

The biggest challenge comes from lack of contrast. Why is this? We have a very gray sky combined with the falling snow. The falling snow mutes all of the other colors in the scene. In the film days, this was almost an impossible combination unless you wanted to spend countless hours in the darkroom burning various parts of the image. With digital, it is pretty easy to create some really interesting photos.

First off, you need to understand that the histogram on your camera is going to be "bunched up" on the right side. We want to make sure that we have a little gap on the right to ensure that nothing is getting blown out. Here is an example of a histogram from a recent photo I took during a snowstorm:

A couple of things to notice about the histogram. The first is that the blue channel is pretty bright. This is due to all of the cloud cover, and something that we will want to adjust. The other thing is that there is very little in terms of dark tones for the image.

When we look at the image, we see that in fact, there is very little contrast. In fact, the photo does not look very interesting at all.

The question now is; Is this an image worth editing? I think it is, because I think the trees in background are nicely framed by the steam coming up behind them. I also like the stream in the foreground as it helps add some depth to the image that would not otherwise be there.

Lightroom gives us some nice options to work with this type of image.

The first step is the dehaze slider. Dehaze is a relatively new feature that was introduced about 2 years ago. It is located near the bottom of the Develop panels at the end of the Effects Panel. Moving the slider to the right will add some contrast to the image. Be careful because this tool can also add noise to your image. The goal is to add some contrast, but we are not trying to fix everything at once. For this image, I am moving the slider to +25.

Already we can see a big difference in our photo. Notice how the dead tress are starting to stand out against the steam in background.

The next step is to set the white point and black point. The black point will look for the dark areas in the image and move them towards black. Typically, setting the black point of this type of image, Lightroom will go too far. We will need to make some adjustments after setting it.

To set the black point, hold down the shift key and double click on the word "Blacks" in the Basic Panel. To set the white point do the same thing with the word Whites. What you will notice is that the little triangle shows up on the left side of the histogram indicating that parts of the image are blocked out. To fix this, move the Blacks slider to the right until the triangle goes away. Now we see a dramatic difference our image.

The next thing to tackle is the blue channel. There are a couple of ways to deal with it, but most likely, it just means that the white balance is off. If we look at the image, we see that there is some steam behind the pine trees on the left side of the photo. Use the eyedropper tool at the top of the Basic Panel and click in that area of steam. This will warm the image up and remove the blue cast.

Now this is starting to look more like what I observed. Ideally, adding some more detail in the pines would help. To do this, slide the Shadows slider to the left, and add a little clarity.

The final step is to crop off some of the snowy foreground, and add some sharpening.

Here is a summary of the changes I made to the image in Lightroom:

Dehaze: +25

Temp: 5,850

Tint: +4

Shadows: -15

Whites: +72

Blacks: -65

Clarity: +13

Sharpening Amount: 60

Sharpening Radius: 0.9

Detail: 30

Cropped from lower right

If you would like to learn more about Lightroom, sign-up for one of my upcoming Lightroom classes. More information can be found in the Classes section of the Course Catalog on my website:

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