It can be difficult to take great pictures in snowy situations—battery-killing temps, humidity and exposure-confusing light add complicating burdens even for prepared shooters. Throw in a monochromatic palette and melting snowflakes and it can be almost impossible to bring home a winning image, let alone keep your gear dry, clean and functioning for another day. But instead of griping about those big white blobs clogging your frame, use the soggy flakes to your advantage.
To make it happen, pull out your camera the next time it’s really coming down at night. Morning and evening work too, but bright, midday light will negate the effect. Find a remarkable subject (like, say, a drop-kneed clown fish charging Montana Snowbowl's Sunrise Bowl), turn your camera’s flash to “on,” and shoot up a storm. The precip can be friend or foe, creating cool effects or obscuring your subject, so keep firing and sort the keepers later.
The effect works because the snowflakes are closer to your camera than the subject, and because they’re highly reflective. When your flash illuminates a snowy scene, the light meter ignores the flakes, causing them to “blow out.” Exploiting that electronic oversight is a classic technique photographers use to scream, “It’s dumping!”
Taking pictures in a snowstorm is a balancing act: you need falling snow to create the effect, but that same snow will start working its way into your camera immediately. So keep it tucked under your jacket until you’re ready to shoot, or cover it with whatever you have handy.
Amplify the effect with a telephoto lens; zooming in compresses distance, and maximizes the white-blob constellations. The darker it is, the stronger the effect. Shooting telephoto at night, however, will challenge cheaper autofocus systems, causing them to search fruitlessly. If that happens, backing off the zoom will help your camera find focus.
Score more colorful backgrounds during the “magic hours,” the half hour before and after sunrise and sunset, when snowscapes are illuminated by warmth- and texture-adding golden light. But whenever you do it, blasting a snowstorm with flash yields all sorts of interesting effects. So next time you get dumped on, grab your camera and freeze the moment.