With the recent Arctic blast in Oregon, I took advantage of the rare opportunity to photograph the ice that built up in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and Silver Falls State Park. I spent 3 straight days in sub-freezing temperatures and it was worth every minute.
Akin to photographing snow scenes, ice poses similar challenges. Digital camera meters always try and make whites (or highlights) 18% gray. Therefore ice (as well as snow) will often be under-exposured (ice and snow looks gray instead of brilliant white).
First of all, I always shoot in RAW format and set White Balance to ‘Auto’. RAW allows me much more leeway in post processing. In particular, White Balance seems to vary from scene to scene and RAW allows me to easily and accurately make the required adjustments in Lightroom. See section below for more on post processing.
Below is a shot taken at Wahkeena Falls in the Columbia River Gorge. The camera was set to Aperture priority at Av=f/11, ISO=100, Tv=1/15s and no exposure compensation. As you can clearly see, this is under-exposed. The ice is gray (most likely 18% gray).
The same shot taken with +1-2/3rds exposure compensation which resulted in Av= f/11, ISO=100, and Tv=0.5s. Much better!
Here’s another example. This image was shot at Silver Falls State Park. This time shot in Manual mode with settings derived from the camera’s exposure meter at 0 EV (exposure value…or no exposure compensation). The settings used were Av=f/11, ISO=50, Tv=1/8s.
Here is the same image shot at Av=f/11, ISO=100, and Tv=1s (+ 2-1/3rd stops above the under-exposed image above).
I prefer to shoot in Manual mode as it allows to to quickly and easily make exposure adjustments.
So as you can see, the camera will under-expose by up to 2 or more stops. There is no clear rule regarding how many stops. The only advise I can give you is that it depends on the amount of the white stuff in your frame. The image from the gorge has far less white in the frame than the image at Silver Falls. Therefore the Silver Falls image required more exposure to get the whites white (sounds like a commercial for bleach).
I use Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CS5. Most of my processing occurs in Lightroom 5. If I want more contrast or fine adjustments, I use CS5. Both images above were processed in Lightroom 5 only.
In Lightroom, I always start with White Balance. I want the colors correct before I make any other adjustments.
I have many Develop module presets and have one for ice and snow images (one for color and one for B&W). Presets only serve as starting points for most images but save me a lot of time setting all the necessary sliders.
My color preset for ice/snow consists of the following slider settings:
Basic panel –
- Contrast +20
- Highlights -40
- Shadows +60
- Whites +40
- Blacks -30
- Clarity +60
- Vibrance +40
- Saturation 0 (I rarely use the saturation slider in color images)
Tone Curve panel – Medium contrast point curve
Detail panel –
- Amount 60
- Radius 1.0
- Detail 40
- Masking 10
My B&W preset for ice/snow consists of the following slider settings:
Basic panel – same as above except no Vibrance added
Tone Curve panel – same as above
Detail panel – same as above
HSL panel – All saturation sliders set to -100
As I said, presets are only starting point but offer great time savings. Many times I will tweak the Whites and/or Highlights sliders. For B&W images, I like to add some blue tint back into the image to give the ice a more realistic look. This can be accomplished through the HSL panel by adding saturation back in blue channel (it doesn’t take much). You can also use the Split Toning panel to add a blue tint to the highlights.
Shooting in an icy/cold environment
Some notes on shooting in this harsh environment:
- Start warm. My hiking boots are directly in the path of my car’s heater vents. That way my feet will be going into warm boots when I get to where I’m going. If you put on cold boots, your feet may get cold and never warm up. Same is true for a stocking hat, gloves, etc. Have your gear ready to go BEFORE you get there. I have found that if I fumble around getting gear set up in the field, it can involve taking my gloves off. Once my hands get cold, it’s very hard to get them warm again in the field.
- Stay warm. Wear layered clothing, gloves, hat, sturdy shoes/boots. If there is wind, you may need to protect your face. Hand warmers in your pockets can help you stay warm. Wind protective clothing works wonders to keep you warm.
- Stay hydrated. Many times in sever cold weather, it is also very dry out. Take and drink water but remember to put your water bottle in your pack or camera bag and out of the elements. Frozen water won’t do you any good.
- Stay safe. By far the most important aspect of being out in this environment. As the ice builds up, so does the weight of the ice. Gravity will eventually take over and those huge ice daggers will come crashing down. DO NOT set up directly under hanging ice. ALWAYS be aware of your surroundings (look up). Many trails have ice on them from the once running water which is now frozen solid. This ice can also be covered by debris. I wear strap on traction devices (YakTrax, Ice trekkers, Micro studs to name a few). These offer amazing traction but do not get lulled unto a false sense of security. Always use common sense and don’t take unnecessary risks. Take extra food and water in the unlikely event of getting stuck somewhere. Take your cell phone. Let others know where you are going (if you need motivation to do this, watch the movie 127 Hours).
- Care for your gear. Cold weather will drain batteries faster. Keep your spare in a warm place (inside your pants pocket). Make sure your tripod feet are all secure and unable to slip or slide. In particular, carbon fiber tripod legs can easy snap when cold and bent. Use spikes on your tripod feet if possible. Be very cognizant of your environment when changing lenses. If you’re near a waterfall, watch for frozen mist in the air. If it’s snowing, don’t let snow blow inside the camera.
- Acclimate your camera and lenses. Going from a warm car environment to a cold one will frustrate you to no end. The lens front element, filters, and view finder will all fog up. Foggy lenses and filters will result in useless images. Foggy view finders will make it very difficult to compose your images. This particularly true when the humidity levels are up. Carry your gear in your trunk or in the coldest part of your vehicle. As soon as you get to your destination, set up the camera and lens on your tripod and place your camera bag outside while you get ready to leave.
- Avoid an icy mess. In areas like the Gorge and Silver Falls, there will still be dripping water even when it’s well below freezing. Be very careful to not let water drops on the front element of your lens or an attached filter. Water drops will show up in images and wiping them off with a lens cloth will only result in a frozen mess on the glass and it is nearly impossible to remove it in the field.
- Know the weather. Get accurate and up-to-date weather forecasts and current conditions. Getting stranded in a cold environment can be deadly.
- Car tips. Top off your tank prior to leaving. Make sure your antifreeze and cooling system are in good working order. Carry traction devices (i.e., chains). My vehicle is equipped with 4 studdless winter tires and I have never had problems. These are MUCH better than studded tires in my humble opinion and won’t cause the road damage that studs will. ALWAYS drive with caution. Assume the worst and hope you the best. I want you to get home safe and sound so I can see your awesome images 🙂
Shooting in these conditions can be extremely rewarding and I highly encourage it. Hopefully this article will motivate you to get out when mother nature turns down the thermostat.