Deal 10: A hot topic, at a hot price!
Snow! Some of us love to see the white stuff falling from the sky, as long as we don’t have to drive through traffic in it. Now imagine not only do the kids have the day off from school, but you don’t have to report to work! It’s time to go play in the….wait a second….why is the snow blue in half of my pictures? I don’t remember there being any blue snow.
Blue snow happens because not all cameras see things the same way. Our human eyes and brain are still a thousand times better than the average camera at tasks like HDR, contrast and color correction. For those of us without certain conditions such as color blindness, we see snow under daylight conditions, for the most part, as snow. White stuff. In the sun? White. In the shade? White. Even in the dark of night, it usually looks white, unless colored by some city lights.
Blue snow happens when a camera fails to recognize what snow looks like in the shade. Again, different cameras will handle things differently and maybe your camera is spot on, all the time. But maybe you get blue snow. I know I have from time to time, even with quality cameras.
With a point and shoot camera, use the “Shade” white balance, if the camera has it. This setting can also be used with a DSLR. “Shade” tells the camera all the light hitting the main subject has come from indirect sources from the sun. This light is about 7500K, while noon-day daylight is around 5000K (give or take a few hundred K). If a camera is pointed to a sunny scene and then pointed at shade, it may not switch fast enough. This also happens if the scene is a mix of shade and directly lit objects.
Mind you, even when not shooting snow, this blueish colorcast will be there, but it is not always as noticeable depending on the colors in the shade. Something might not seem right and if there is not a lot of white, the blue cast doesn’t show itself as prevalently.
Let me show some examples of the importance of white balance in snow shots. I’ll use the exact same photo in the first set of examples, adjusting the white balance in Photoshop Lightroom. I will then drop the Blue Saturation in each photo to zero, to show the extent of colorcast (click on photos for 1000 pixel tall examples). This scene contains very little natural occurring blue, even from scattered light (the house is an off-white color).
First, the original shot. ISO 100, 60mm, 1/125sec, f/5.0, Canon 7D, Canon 28mm-300mm lens, shot soon after sunrise. This is the control shot with white balance set to Daylight as selected in-camera (5250K).
Now, I will select Cloudy in Lightroom (6500K). Below it is the same picture with Blue Saturation set to 0.
Next is the Shade setting (7500K).
Lastly, I selected the White Balance Selector tool and pointed it at a spot of well light snow on the railing. This brought back a balance of 9700K.
It is interesting to note the drop in overall blue saturation that is obviously experienced as different settings are selected. As there is less blue, the yellow colorcast becomes more prevalent. From my own interpretation of the scene, the Shade setting is closest to the real life colors. When choosing the snow as a white balance, this swings the scale too far to the right.
If you are wondering what the scene looks like in mixed light, here at the same pictures take around 1pm (a half hour past mid-day sun). ISO 100, 60mm, 1/200sec, f/7.1, Canon 7D, Canon 28mm-300mm lens. Set to Daylight. (5250K)
Now Cloudy. (6500K)
Now Shade. (7500K)
White Balance Selector on the same snow spot in the shade, as before. (9300K)
When I used the White Balance Selector to choose a spot on the sunlit snow, on average the reading came out to 5200K. Here, that white balance is the closest to color renditions in real life and that of the control in the second set of photos.
In a mixed scene, there is little to be done to remove blue snow short of removing all blue saturation in post processing. But then, the scene will often look fake, especially if there are any blue objects in it. A slight decrease in the blue saturation will help and is what I believe our brains do to the images our eyes send it.
Correcting for blue snow can be as easy as selecting the “Shade” white balance setting on your camera before you begin shooting. While that setting might not have seemed important before, it is vital in removing the blue colorcast most evident when viewing snow photos. It is also important to remember the limits of this setting, especially when moving into direct sunlight.
Now if you will excuse me, I need to go play in the snow before it melts away!
August 3, 2013 07:34 pm
I recently was contemplating again why white things look blue in the shade. There was some gravel at this park that was shaded by the trees. Even to my eyes, it had a bluish tint to it. So I took it home to analyze the RGB of the rocks. Sure enough, blue was the more prevalent pigment in the RGB. Of course screens are limited. 256^3 colors doesn't represent true human sight, but maybe white things shouldn't look perfectly grayscale in the shade. Think about it.
The sun has a yellowish tint upon the world, however so slight. We're used to it though, to some degree and know when white things are white by relation to other shades (I think). Yellow, in terms of RGB is 1 part R 1 part G. If you add shade to block direct sunlight, maybe seeing bluish shades on objects is a natural consequence.
This is something I have not thought of until at the time of typing this. It could be all bogus, but I find it highly interesting. It does warrant more study to understand what we're seeing.
April 3, 2013 05:42 pm
Nothing. It's blue because that's the way it's lit and you wouldn't want to change that if you want your shot to look natural. If you colour correct it for the blue then the areas out of shadow will be too warm.
There's no such thing as white.
April 3, 2013 05:06 am
Ok so what do you do to correct the photos you already took that have this problem? Where the white looks blue? I use paint shop pro and gimp. How can I fix what I have so I won't have to retake the photos?
June 1, 2011 06:32 am
I had this happen last year when I went to the beach in South Florida. Tan sand. Every picture came out with a blue hue! I was able to correct it using the computer, but it was totally mystifying!
February 16, 2011 01:01 am
You can do either, it's largely a question of preference. Personally I prefer not to get too caught up in worrying about camera settings, especially when you can get it right easier in post. And remember that the colour of snow in a shot has great deal more to do with the colour of the light falling on it than probably anything else. All light is coloured to some degree. The most important thing is getting it to look right. Trust your eyes.
February 11, 2011 06:02 am
I found this article confusing. I am a bit of a rookie. I got confused if you were doing these settings in the camera or in post-production. The terms were a little confusing to me.
December 30, 2010 07:12 pm
Thank you, your timeliness could not have been more perfect. For those of us in the Eastern United States, we have been blanketed from inches (cm to meters), to many feet with fresh beautiful snow. Well it is unless you have to work or drive in it, then you may have some unkind opinions of snow. As one friend in New Jersey reminds me, snow is another 4 letter word.
Attached is one of my photos of a partially frozen lake in the mountains of North Carolina. The photo was taken with a Nikon D200, 18 to 200mm lens set to 18mm. I used a polarizing filter to darken the sky. In post processing, I added a smidgen of green and a bit of yellow and red cancel out the BLUE on the ice and subdue the shadows a bit. My operating system is not windows and I'm an avid fan of GIMP.
My photo is at; /home/ardiver/Desktop/Photos-Multiple Years/Cardinal_Lake_in_Lake_Toxaway101228_9051.JPG
I hope this link works. I have not figured out how to do a URL yet. I've never added photos to flicker and don't understand the process.
We received ~9" (24cm) of snow over two days. For this area, that's a good bit. We rarely get 6" (15cm) all winter and this is our second snowfall of the season. But then last winters snow stuck around for three full months.
December 4, 2010 09:00 am
The snow in the shadows is not blue in the shadows, it's the same colour as it is in sunlight. it appears blue because it's being lit by blue.
December 4, 2010 01:30 am
Try to use your hand (inside) to detect correct exposure in snowy conditions...
December 3, 2010 06:44 am
I throw a Whibal card into the snow and take a photo of it, and then colour correct in LR later. Works a treat and very simple to do.
Thanks for the thread ;)
December 3, 2010 05:38 am
This is a great option and one I hadn't thought of. Some point and shoot cameras come with a snow setting now. With my dSLR though, what I've done in the past couple of years is to shoot in manual mode and I overexpose by half to one full stop to make sure the snow is white and not blue or grey. I also shoot in RAW so I can then play with the exposure a bit as well as add the shadows back in.
However, setting the white balance as you have would be a great fast way to deal with it since I don't necessarily always want to fiddle with RAW files for an eternity, especially if I'm just shooting stuff for fun.
December 3, 2010 05:35 am
I shot a snow photo in film a while (long while!) ago and had a lot of trouble getting it right once it was digitized. Taking too much of the blue out did not work since, if you really, really, really stop and look, shadows in snow ARE blue! Our mind thinks of snow as white, so we want it to be white. It is not. The problem is that once you take the photo, the snow in shadow that is blue doesn't seem right... thus the adjustments all of you suggest. My two cents, though, is not to take out all the blue but carefully adjust until the blue isn't overwhelming.
December 1, 2010 04:25 pm
Great article and very timely for the Northern Hemisphere.
December 1, 2010 08:03 am
Great article....the short answer is that your camera manufacturer in spite of the hype about his microprocessor e.g. expeed, DigicIII/IV etc simply hasn't got awb right yet!
Since it doesn't snow, yet anyway in Sydney, I've yet to see if the Lumix TZ10 can auto pick snow or you have to search for the scene setting and use that but in other things this digicam mostly picks it - wasn't impressed with acquarium though, but perhaps thats because it says underwater - sensor too slow in either case without tripod!
The thing is guys they got it right in B&W days!
Meanwhile remember there is blue in snow unless its just grey!
Oh and if its green you're getting very cold!
December 1, 2010 03:45 am
I have an 18% gray cap that is placed over the lens, take a picture of the scene you want to photograph and then use to set custom white balance. Works every time...when it is with you. Thanks for the tips on how to compensate otherwise. I always shoot RAW/JPG so I can edit in RAW if need be.
November 30, 2010 04:11 am
FYI - Some point and shoot cameras, such as the Canon PowerShot A1000IS, have a 'Snow' setting that does a decent job of reducing blue and grey in snowscapes. Film is still best for snow, I find.
November 30, 2010 02:42 am
Thanks for the info. I was recently doing a project for my photography class in college, and there were some people who waited to take their pictures. They ended up having snow to deal with, and that was one of the questions that was raised. Thanks again.
November 30, 2010 02:33 am
Ohh!! This is a major issue in a lot of photographs I see!! People can't themselves (those who shot the picture) see the blue tint in the landscapes! And this is so true even in some websites like Wiki that have contributed matter!
Red tint in Portraits & blue tint in landscapes are some common problems, and most people seem blissfully unaware, and don't care to learn either! And yes, WB is the key!
November 30, 2010 02:22 am
Great article! The firs snow will find me wish the lesson done :)
November 29, 2010 08:40 pm
Sorry to say but you can`t "correct" the color of snow. Simply because it varies so much depending the subject . When you look at it before taking the photo your brains correct the view every time you move your eyes. So the snow looks white both in deep shadows and open fields. In the sunny winter day the shadows of those millions and millionssnow particles are more or less deep blue and that how you should keep them also in the final photo. Of coure everything that is too bright to your eyes looks white and that is one of the reason why we tend to think that snow is white. Late spring when the clouds are heavy and down, the the snow really looks white mainly because there are no tonal differences.
November 29, 2010 06:58 pm
Bear in mind that if the skies are clear there'll be a strong blue cast in the shadows, because they're being lit by a blue sky, and that the sun itself is quite strongly yellow, not white, so it would be reasonable for snow in sunlight to be quite warm. The human eye - technically, though, the mind, not the eye - compensates for this so there's nothing wrong with tweaking the sunlit areas cooler, but the shadows should remain blue - CGI movie lighters understand this very well; check out Ice Age.
Ultimately, the correct colour balance is the one that *looks* right and it's for this reason that I always, without exception do my corrections in post.
November 29, 2010 03:38 pm
This is a great and timely article on snow and white balance checking. I always shoot RAW (or NEF for Nikon) so can tune WB later, but always do a check if I know I will be in a local for a while and tune as best as I can. This image was a bit trickier since the mist in the valley was Blue, trees were white with Hor Frost. I speculate that the mist was blue due to some refraction effect as outside the valley is was sunny and bright blue sky. A very unique situation which I have never encountered before or since.
November 29, 2010 03:34 pm
I agree with the shooting in RAW option... Even with the settings tweaked in the camera its so time consuming and almost impossible at times to get them right, especially with changing conditions or scenes. Being able to tidy things up in the computer seems to work great.
November 29, 2010 12:33 pm
Very timely post. I just got back from an afternoon trip along a snowy mountain river, and I came away with some nice shots. Of course, I shot in RAW so that I can adjust my wb settings. Since these are my first serious shots in the snow, I was expecting to spend some time researching how to fix it in Lightroom. Problem solved. Thanks for the post!
November 29, 2010 10:25 am
I usually add +1 exposure when I'm shooting in snow. One thing to bare in mind is that shadows from a white surface/object tend to come up blue; I don't like to remove too much of the blue from the shot as it begins to look false.
November 29, 2010 09:31 am
of course for those of us who shoot raw, fixing the white balance in post is a very viable option. I tend to set my white balance with a white balance card and my camera's custom white balance function, then tidy it up in lightroom after if it still isnt quite there.
Of course, nothing beats getting it right 'in camera', but it is an option.
November 29, 2010 06:23 am
Just as I was wondering this and researching settings for snow photography after my attempt today resulting in mainly blue pictures the article appears in my twitter feed! It's as if you read my mind...
Thanks for the tips (and camera aspects behind them) hoping for a day off school tomorrow so I can get back out and shoot :)
November 29, 2010 06:18 am
Here are a couple other tips on using White Balance. One thing that I occasionally do is to turn live view (that's what it's called for Canon cameras) on and use the Kelvin setting. Then I adjust until the image in the live view looks like the color balance is correct.
Another thing you can do is to set a custom white balance using white balance card. Either one of these techniques will give you a little more precise control over your white balance as long as you've got a few extra seconds to spare.
November 29, 2010 05:44 am
In order to guarantee that your camera records the white balance of a scene accurately, even in snowy conditions where 18 per cent grey does not exist in the image for the sensor to lock onto, you should bracket your white balance settings.
This means shooting multiple photographs of the scene using different white balance settings, just like you can do for exposure settings. Many cameras have a function to do this automatically, but if yours does not, you should manually alter the white balance setting for each frame.
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