Snow and Bridals: Shooting the White Stuff

What do a Massachusetts snowfall and your bridal gown have in common?

In both you should avoid anything that comes in yellow. White is the traditional color for a bride to wear on her wedding day, and even as couples are creating new twists on the old tale it still predominates. There's just something about slipping into an elaborate white dress on a warm New England summer that turns a day like any other into a fairytale.

For photographers focusing on white poses an interesting problem as light meters have moved from our hands to inside of our cameras. To illustrate what happens with white, I asked my dog to sit for a portrait in the fresh snow at his yard in Middleboro, Massachusetts. We'll get back to this photo in a minute.

Digital cameras are the ultimate compromisers, their tiny brains loathe extremes of black and white and seek to turn the whole world into shades of gray (between 12 and 13 percent gray). What happens when you point the camera at any scene is that it registers a "correct" exposure when as much of the world as possible achieves this level of brightness.

To a camera's light meter, the world is shades of gray. From left to right are black, 15 percent gray and white.

You can see the effect in the two photographs of Lucky the Dog above. The picture on the right reflects the world that the camera sees as "correct" and the picture on the left is what your eye would tell you snow should look like. It's the same for bridal portraits, the camera is trying to make that beautiful white gown into a dull gray and a photographer is struggling valiantly against it.

Once you know what the problem is, it's easy enough to correct. The book will tell you to calibrate your meter off a gray card in the light, but practice says you'll typically end up adjusting a little bit upward to make the whites white (two-thirds of a stop for thos of you who love to look at numbers). This is just one of a million little things your wedding photographer has to know to get your wedding pictures perfect.

So, if your little Massachusetts (or Rhode Island) town gets another snowstorm you'll now know what to do to keep your pictures from turning into a dull gray. The same goes for any quick, gloating snap of the wedding gown you'll want to send around to your aunt in Boston, your cousin in Sandwich and your sister in Amherst.