Winter Photography – Cold is Good
About nine years ago I moved from South East England to the Midwest USA. Now, some may complain about the British weather but it really is pretty benign. The Midwest is a different story, hot, humid summers with a dew point that doesn’t seem to drop below around 55 for months on end and arctic winters where the temperature can remain below freezing for weeks on end. Most years there are only two seasons here.
(Quick note for British readers, if an American says to you that the temperature was zero that means that it was zero Fahrenheit i.e.-18 F.)
I spent my previous years here basically avoiding winters, staying in our warm comfortable house and only venturing out when I absolutely had to. In photographic terms, killing time until the hot season rolled around. Well, this year I decided that enough was enough and that I was not going to be beaten by a season. It also dawned on me that snow should be a real plus for a minimalist photographer. What could be better than nature hiding all of that unwanted messy detail? Another thought also occurred to me – there are comparatively few really good photographs taken in the snow due, I suspect to the perceived discomfort factor.
The connection between the graffiti on the tree and the patterns on the end of the bench drew me to this shot. This link would have been completely lost if the grass leaves and groundcover were cluttering the shot. I did a little work on the contrast to make the graffiti really stand out.
So, the desire not to write off half of every year combined with the thought that I am missing some really good photographic opportunities led me to a decision. This winter I am getting out and acting in exactly the same way as I would if the temperature was a comfortable 60 degrees albeit with a lot more clothing. I am prone to mild SAD (I think a lot of photographers are but I have no solid proof of that) so I am hoping that this approach can either hold it back entirely or at least delay its onset.
So far it is working great, I am walking, photographing and I don’t feel like my life is on hold. I am now comfortable and can operate cameras in any temperature above about 20F and can work in short bursts at temperatures as low as 10F. 32F now feels a little on the warm side! I actually really like the dryness of the air at the lower temperatures and find it really invigorating.
I am a sucker for horror type imagery, not the blood and gore stuff but the creepy more suggestive stuff. The biggest challenge with this type of shot is to get the right tonal balance. The aim was to have the watery sun white, the tree silhouetted i.e. black and the sky at a shade of gray in between. The key was to get the middle tone right and that was trickier than it probably seems – to light and it would have hidden the sun and to dark would have turned the image into a big black square with a white blog in it. In retrospect the sky is probably a shade to dark. The tonal work was done in Lightroom using the curves.
Here are a few technical things that I’ve learnt so far photography wise:
Battery life is shorter in the cold but if the camera is kept in a pocket or bag this is not as big a factor as I thought it would be.
Snow does fool the camera making it underexpose so turn up the exposure compensation to around +1 to +2. Trial and error is your friend.
You may think that this would force the shutter speed down too much but this isn’t the case as snow is very reflective and this more than compensates for having to raise the exposure. I find that my compact camera wants to shoot a snow scene at around 1/640 where it would decide on around 1/125 for the non snow covered version. In plain English this means that no special equipment is really needed and that you’d be hard pushed to have a camera shake problem.
This is just to prove that not all winter shots have to be bleak, auster and/or creepy. This was shot close to sunset, hence the warm red tones, while I was on the way home from the delivering a painting that I’d sold. The light was wonderful and we passed this flat open space and I basically jumped out of the car, fired off about 10 shots, hopped back in and carried on home. The pics that I took were a rush job and in no way do the scene justice but, as soon as the light is right I’ll be back! This is sort of how photography works – lots of return trips to places to do a proper job. I did use one cheat when taking this – I set the white balance to cloudy – this gives the image a warmer cast than using the sunlight setting. This is also a good tip for naturally or daylight balanced bulb interior shots. The visual equivalent of having a pot of coffee on the go to give an inviting aroma.
Here are a few aesthetic things that I’ve learnt so far photography wise:
as stated earlier snow hides clutter wonderfully. This really helps when photographing trees as the shapes really stand out.
I have seen some stunning light (best time was the once that I didn’t have a camera on me but at least I
saw it. I didn’t realize just how different the light is at this time of year.
Footprints, animal or human, can be really interesting.
Photography is more fun when there is a chance that something new, or at least not done to death by others, may emerge.
I noticed the clouds here first and wandered around until I could get the branches in shot to anchor the image. I liked the way the two elements work together. One problem with blue skies is that they can look very noisy i.e. have lots of pixels of different luminosity and or color. I saw this as a very flat image so put it through Adobe Lightroom’s noise reduction software set on high. This takes out the noise (which was considerable) but blurs the edges. I liked the effect, especially what it did to the clouds so I stuck with it.
A few more things that I’ve learnt (or at least had reinforced)
That it is surprisingly easy to adapt to the cold
Getting outside of one’s comfort zone is a really good thing to do
Walking through snow and around ice and stuff is fun- it is also great for hand to eye coordination !
The brain needs novel stimulation through all the senses – not just sight
Never to take things for granted and to test assumptions frequently
All of these images were shot using a Canon Powershot IS3100 (about $150) No specialized equipment was used, these are literally point and shoot. Some post processing was done, basically a little bit of sharpening on all of them and some contrast work on a couple along with some noise reduction on the clouds one. Nothing beyond what is normally considered acceptable, even by the purists, though.