What colour is snow?

Winter sunset (Tokina11-16 @1/50s, f6.3)
Winter sunset (Tokina11-16 @1/50s, f6.3)

Click here for larger image (1200×800, opens in new window).

In most images snow is either white or a high neutral grey. Makes sense… snow is white, right?

Snow takes on the colour of the light shining on it. Most of the time, that colour is negligible, but at dawn and dusk (or in the shade during high sun) snow takes on definite pastel shades, usually pinks, yellows and cyans (‘baby blues’).

I often give snow a colour. The viewer mentally assumes snow is white and fails to notice the colouration. Instead, they unknowingly take in the pastel shade and assume the ambient light is that colour. The colour of this light tends to promote an emotional ambience, so our snow tinting is a quick shortcut to imply that most difficult of things; mood.

In the image, I’ve left the snow tinted cyan. Mostly to show we are in shade (we are looking up the shaded side of a short hill) , but also partly to retain a feeling of extreme cold, and partly to contrast with the oranges of the setting sun.

Until you read the paragraph above, I bet you would have sworn the snow was a neutral grey (white darkened by being in the shade), and by implication assume that the camera is in a very cold and quiet shade. Look back at the image and my trick becomes obvious; the feeling of coldness is enhanced by the implication of the local ambient being towards cyan.

I know some photographers would complain about the image, saying it looks a little unnatural to them; snow is white. I have no problem with that (and would do the same for a shot in direct high sun), but I would advise against blindly setting white point with reference to what you think should be a neutral white if the affected hue is widespread in your image and caused by natural light. Doing so may inadvertantly kill the ambient light colour. This is especially true in winter photography where although the scene  may be predominantly tonal (blacks, whites, greys, slate blues and earth browns) it is the ambient light that actually gives you colour.

Image shot with Tokina11-16, at 12mm, 1/50s f6.3, hand held and pointing down at the near-middle distance.

Post processing (using Lightroom): original snow tint retained by setting the colour temperature low (9500… for the snow to be ‘corrected’ back to white, the white point would be set to 11000). Ice tinted yellow (using adjustment brush) to differentiate it from the snow and to exaggerate the implied sky hues. Trees and foliage lightened slightly by adding exposure (again using adjustment brush). Reduced overall image exposure 1 stop to deepen colour of the sunset (from yellow to orange – this also darkens the snow, enhances the feeling of shade, and makes the snow tint a little deeper). 10% crop for aesthetics (removed sky at top to maintain a subdued overall key, cropped slightly from the right to make the fallen log point more to the centre). NB – Usually with snow, its more normal to increase the exposure by 1.5-2.0 stops rather than decrease it, because left to its own devices, a typical camera will try to make snow a grey corresponding to a 12-18% reflective grey, depending on your camera model (but usually closer to 12%, which incidentally, is why I never use a 18% grey card!), but in this shot, darker snow is ok because I want to emphasize the fact we are in shade.


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