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Tip: Brighten snow in winter photos quickly and easily

Here is the image as it came from the camera.
Here is the image as it came from the camera.
Alonso del Arte

The brutally cold wind chills brought to Michigan by the 2014 polar vortex have come and gone, but a lot of the snow remains. Because there will be more snow this winter than in winters past of recent memory, there will be more photos involving snow. And with that comes the problem of images of freshly fallen snow where the snow looks a dull gray instead of a bright white. But that's a problem that is very easy to fix.

This demo shows what a big improvement a few judicious adjustments in Photoshop can make for a snowy scene.
Alonso del Arte

The reason for this, without getting too technical, is that a camera's light meter is calibrated for a medium gray. This works well enough for scenes with a lot of colors of medium brightness, but becomes a problem when the scene contains something very bright or very dark. So, when you take a picture with a lot of nice, bright snow in the frame, the camera's meter dials in a setting that will most likely render the snow a dull gray. This is why in the heyday of film photography, professionals would deliberately overexpose photos with snow to compensate.

But nowadays, this is the sort of thing that can be corrected afterward in Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Photoshop Elements in one or two easy steps. It is unfortunate that the term “to Photoshop” has acquired the negative connotation of creating deceptive or unrealistic images. Then many people fail to realize that Photoshop can also be used to make photos look more like what the photographers saw with their own eyes when they shot the pictures.

A good first step for photos with dull snow is Auto Levels, which, in some versions of the program, is found under the Enhance menu (it can also be accessed with the keyboard shortcut Ctrl-Shift-L on Windows or Command-Shift-L on Mac OS X). The vast majority of the time, Auto Levels will immediately produce a noticeable improvement in the image. In some cases, further touch-ups can be obtained with Auto Color Correction (Ctrl-Shift-B or Command-Shift-B) and Auto Contrast (Ctrl-Alt-Shift-L or Command-Option-Shift-L).

This should satisfy everyone except the perfectionist, who might then go on to make manual adjustments in Levels (Ctrl-L or Command-L). In the demo image, the Magnetic Lasso tool was used to isolate the tree trunk and tweak its levels independently of the snow, then the selection was inverted for further tweaking of the snow. All of this was accomplished in at most five minutes.

What if you don't have Photoshop or Photoshop Elements? You can use an online photo editing program, like Adobe Photoshop Express Editor. After uploading the photo with the dull snow, click on Exposure in the left-hand side column; the next step should be fairly obvious. It might not give you the precise control of Photoshop or even Photoshop Elements, but it should be able to brighten up most photos with dull snow.