With the winter Olympics winding down, those who live where there is snow will now have time to go out and do some shooting. We all know that snow is (mostly) white, but there are some foibles that can easily make pictures of the stuff look pretty awful.
It's really no secret that built-in camera light metering is a good general purpose tool for getting proper exposure. But there are some circumstances that can really goof things up, and snow is one of them. Built-in light meters are designed to analyze a scene and come up with an average that will try to balance the light and dark areas so that the total exposure comes out the same as taking a picture of an 18% gray card. That's fine in a high percentage of situations, but if the scene has large areas of really bright (or dark) light, those areas will influence the exposure way too much. In those cases, the snow (or sand at the beach) will be rendered as a middle tone and anything less bright will be grossly underexposed
Likewise, if you are taking a shot at night or in a concert or live theater, all the dark areas will be brought up to an unnaturally bright level and anything that is brighter will be completely blown out. So, what to do?
Most cameras have a setting that will provide some level of compensation for these situations. But again, the adjustment will be made based on the meter analyzing the entire scene. The results will be better than using a standard setting, but not as good as it could be.
Ideally, the solution is to switch to manual control and use what is called an "incident light" hand-held meter. These measure the strength of the light that is hitting the subject rather than what is being reflected off the subject. To work their best, these meters need to be held next to the subject when taking the reading. If you're on the slopes, that is not practical. But, if you want pictures of skiers and they aren't going through an area shaded heavily by trees, then taking the light reading from anywhere in the vicinity will work just fine. This will keep the snow looking white like it is supposed to and give good exposure to the subjects. Same holds true at the beach.
The next best method outdoors in these situations is to actually meter a photographic gray card. These can be found at any camera shop for just a few bucks. Let your camera meter the light reflecting off the card and set your exposure accordingly. This will keep the various levels of brightness more or less correct throughout the pictures you take. Outdoor sports action (day or night), such as soccer, football, baseball etc. come with a very handy metering surface that will give you good results—it's called grass. Just zoom in and fill the frame with the grass, set your exposure (manually) and start shooting. That green stuff is an excellent mid tone that closely replicates a gray card.
None of this will work for you at the theater or at a concert (unless you are the paid photographer and have pre-show access to rehearsals to measure the lighting setup). In this case, use the spot meter setting on your camera (if it has one). Try to find something in what you will be shooting that is a mid tone (medium grays and light greens work well), then zoom in and manually set an exposure from that. In these situations, you may need to do this many times for changing lighting, but it will at least give you far better results than relying on the camera's automatic metering. Manual settings are available for a reason and this is one of them.
Speaking of concerts, I'll have a tip shortly that may help explain why some of those shots you take look really weird—nothing like what you saw with your eyes.