Once Upon a Winter’s Day

I have always been conflicted about winter. It brings forth snow shoveling, car accidents, slips on the ice, pounds and pounds of clothing, cars that won’t start, and no small amount of physical misery.

That said, it brings the joy of snowmen, skating, skiing, sledding and other great adventures to the youth of the world.

For photographers it means difficult movement while wearing restricting clothing, potential slips with camera in hand, issues with how well cameras function, fog on lenses, and physical misery.

However, it also means dreamy sunrises, fluffy white landscapes that “describe” the season, never before realized patterns on ice, and skies that are beautiful all day do to the low angle of the sun. Depending on where you are, it means Rough-legged Hawks, Snowy Owls and more. It means that wildlife will care more about survival and less about a photographer with a tripod.

Every season has its dilemmas. Seasons are the epitome of “taking the good with the bad”.

Today, let’s just look at the good. Not an easy thing to do these days, but there is no law against it, so let us travel into the joy of winter photography.

In my opinion, the landscape is the most popular subject among winter photographers. That might be somewhat contingent on where you live, but anywhere there is frost or snow the world will be transformed.

Those moments shortly after sunrise or before sunset work magic in winter just as it does in any season.

Cloudy overcast days allow us to work all day with the land, and they also impart a great winter mood. More somber than with the sun, but powerful none the less.

Contrast, no matter the time of day, can mean drama. Learn to work with, not against, contrast. Winter, with the sun (here in Wisconsin) hanging low in the southern sky all day, gives photographers lots of time to put those contrasts to dramatic use.

Snow covered trees and a “starry sun”, also allow for abstract studies of all that you find.

Winter ice and sunrise/sunsets, provide powerful studies of frozen water and sometimes a mixture with liquid water.

Winter is one of the best times to create close-up images of ice and snow.

Late fall early winter is a great time for a subject like wild berries that are still on the branch, and frost or snow.

Sort of Christmassy with those colorful, red berries.

Ice forms and backlight, Throw away the so-called rules about needing front light.

Ice close-ups were a favorite of mine. Whether they were a sort of organized chaos like in our first image below, or simpler like the second, or even more simplistic like the third. Dress warm, wear moisture blocking clothing, set your tripod down low, get on your knees, and be ready to have a visual delight.

Winter means a different sort of wildlife photography. For one thing, some of your normal animals, particularly birds, will have packed their bags and headed south. On the other hand, depending on where you are, you will have plenty of new visitors to occupy yourself.

Pigeons, Ring-necked Pheasants, and Crows are obviously not unusual (maybe Pheasants for some) for most if us. That doesn’t mean some snow won’t add to the picture. It will give a nice sense of place and make your image of these common animals more special. When you have the opportunity to get down low as to change the perspective, do so.

While I certainly do not to get to see Bald Eagles every day, they are still rather common here. If I am willing to drive, I can find some any time of year. Just the same, adding some snow and/or ice to your picture, elevates the image to a higher plane.

The Rough-legged Hawk however, is a winter only visitor from the arctic. I was close to this one for quite a while and appreciated the snow as a backdrop for my photo. Of course, I was sitting in my car at the time.

One thing that doesn’t show here is the fact that there is a Pheasant under this bird’s talons.

One of my favorite winter visitors from the north was always the Snowy Owl. Add some snow to the image and there is a great  “story picture” that fits nicely together.

Close-ups are possible with Snowy Owls. This is only a minor crop. At times they seem to look at photographers like we are beneath their attention. Those moments provide intimate opportunities.

Sometimes in winter, waterfowl will fly far from their territory in search of open water to feed in.

This Western Grebe does not belong in Wisconsin. I was a happy photographer that it landed (and preened) right in front of me. The only two places I had seen them previously was New Mexico and Colorado. 

I posted this sighting on an internet birding site and within thirty minutes the area was flooded with photographers. By that time I was at home and the bird was gone. Keep photo equipment with you and work quickly.

Of course birds are not the only critters to be found in winter. This young Whitetail Deer tromped through the snow, and did so as the winter light through the trees provided a very pretty picture for me. Once again, a warm car made this experience very enjoyable.

The catch light in the eye make this average picture much better than if would have been.

Indeed, every season does have its place. Winter can be miserable, but as a photographer I was always happy for the opportunity to find new subjects and approach those subjects with a different mindset than at other times. Winter can be the moodiest season for photographers, and that’s good.

I write very little about the technical aspects of photography these days. I did always enjoy sharing any knowledge I might have of both the artsy and the mechanics so to speak, of photography. I stay away from that subject now because I am not presently making any images myself.

With all that said, winter scenes, especially with a coat of snow, can be tricky for exposures. That is true for full frame landscapes, as well as scenes with animals or other subjects in the snow. Many photographers are happy using what the camera meter says, then reviewing an image on the back of the camera, and then adjusting exposure to compensate for any under or over exposure you may find. Others have that “need to know” thing going on.

Here we go again, I’m going to talk about “the good ole days” of film photography. They were not necessarily good days, but you absolutely needed to understand exposure. We had only one shot at many exposures as the light, the conditions (snow, no snow etc.) and the subjects such as animals will change. By the time we got our film to a lab, they processed it, and we got it back, the original scene would be dramatically different. 

I would often use a hand held incident meter which read the light falling on the subject rather than the light reflecting from the subject. Oft times, that was the ticket. When I used either the camera’s meter, or a hand held reflected meter, I would point it at a neutral subject which was often a piece of 18% neutral gray card, and walla it would come back perfect. When I shot black and white, I would often do the same, but I would further correct any problems at home as I developed my own film, and printed my own photos. I could not only correct an issue by the amount of exposure I gave the paper, I could burn or dodge the amount of light that any portion of the paper received. I could also adjust the overall contrast of the scene with the use of contrast filters.

I got exhausted just writing the above paragraph just imagine how much energy you save by not doing it.

The biggest issue most photographers have today, initially and without reviewing the image on the back of the camera, is the tendency to want to remove light or better said subtract exposure because all the snow is so bright. Your camera meter, if you have not corrected it with minus or plus exposure, will underexpose the image due to all of that bright snow. You will need to add light not subtract it. Of course, you need to add in the factor of whether the day is sunny, and whether any snow or white ice is in the direct sun or out of it, or whether the day is high bright, partially cloudy, or it is a heavy overcast.

Ultimately, make your best gestimate, review what you did, and expose up or down for either the reality of the scene, or how you artistically envision it.

May God Bless,

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