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Filming in the Snow: White Balance Correction for Filmmakers

When filming in the snow, correcting white balance can be tricky, particularly as some camera settings can leave your footage appearing gray or overly blue. If you’re a beginning cinematographer that’s just starting out, you might be tempted to use the various presets that your camera has to achieve proper white balance while you’re filming in the snow, but you may be better off learning how to get the most out of your footage by manually adjusting the white balance so that it’s just right. Here’s what you need to do.

Understanding Color Temperatures

First, you need to learn about color temperatures in order to understand how white balance is going to relate to your finished footage when filming outdoors in lower light or when the forecast is snowy.  In order to accurately control the coloring of your footage, you’ve got to know what color temperature you’re working with. 

Color temperatures run from warm on the lower end to blue and cold at the higher end of the spectrum. Bright white snow is generally the middle ground or neutral range in terms of color temperatures. The color temperature measures the hue of the light source where you’re filming. But what does color temperature, and measuring the hue of light, have to do with white balance and the camera?

Essentially, adjusting the camera’s white balance basically tells the camera that it is viewing a different color temperature and helps it to register the color temperature appropriately. This is particularly important when filming in the snow. White balance settings that are not adjusted for the color temperature of your light source could result in your image appearing more blue or gray and dull.

The Kelvin (K) scale is used to describe color temperature with a range of 1700K to 12000K and sometimes even higher. The left end of the spectrum is infrared lights whereas the right end of the spectrum represents ultraviolet lights. Generally, a clear sky is just left of the neutral area and the flash of a camera is just to the right of neutral. 

All light sources emit a hue that can be measured in degrees Kelvin. Thus, colors that move toward red represent warm colors and those that move toward blue are cooler colors but in terms of Kelvin, it’s the opposite and warm colors are a lower Kelvin unit whereas cold colors are a higher Kelvin unit. 

The Color Temperature of a Snowy Day

In order to tell your camera how it should interpret the light when filming in snow, correcting white balance is important. First, you’ve got to tell your camera what color temperature is most accurate for the light source that you’re filming in. In this case, it’s the light coming from outdoors on a snowy day. If you’re using a preset on your camera, you’re probably going to choose the cloudy symbol or the shade symbol which is going to correct some of the white balance automatically, but it’s not perfect. 

These preset options are allowing you to dial in on your camera telling it that it should interpret the footage that you film as being captured in a light setting that is a particular Kelvin degree setting. However, these presets cannot adjust for very specific changes in the light source, such as when there are more clouds that move across the sky or when the snow picks up and there’s less light coming through.

The color temperature changes when the snow falls more heavily or lightly. The color temperature will also change if the sun pokes through a cloud or if there are other adjustments that occur. Typically, about 8000K is a good starting point for a snowy day if you’re dialing in your setting based on color temperature, but again, many factors can contribute to how your snow appears and this is just a starting point in determining the color temperature.

Adjusting For White Balance 

To achieve the correct white balance you should adjust your camera settings based on the amount and type of light that is represented in your filming location. Snowy days will generally start with about 8000K to get the snow crisp and white in appearance. However, it could be too blue at this setting, in which case you’ll want to adjust a little bit higher. If you notice the snow is appearing kind of light pink, you’re going to adjust the setting down a bit to a lower level. 

Fine tuning your white balance setting will beyond the adjustments for basic color temperature can further help you to achieve crisp white snow on a snowy day when filming. You essentially have just three options when it comes to white balance. You can use auto white balance, you can choose a white balance preset, or you can set white balance manually.

The option of keeping your white balance set to auto isn’t ideal because it allows your camera’s brain to decide what type of light source and color temperature of the hue you’re filming in and it could make a mistake causing your white snow to appear dull, grey, or pink. Using the preset white balance settings can leave you in a similar predicament, if you choose cloudy you’ll likely get closest to white snow, but not always depending on the actual lighting which varies even on snowy days. Finally,  you can adjust manually.

Manual adjust is best for white balance when filming in the snow.  White balance that is manually adjusted requires that you set your Kelvin temperature to neutral using a white point in your scene or by using a gray card for adjustment. Then you can calibrate the camera to manually adjust the white balance for that particular area. 

White balance can also be further adjusted in post-production. Thus, if you’re filming in snow, white balance adjustments on the camera should be made first to ensure you get the closest to white as possible with your snow before you move onto post production for further color correction and white balance adjustments.