As any outdoor photographer knows, winter can be a challenging time to get inspired about shooting, especially when the weather turns cold, the colors seem drab, and we long for the warm days of summer. Surprisingly, here in the northeast we’re experiencing some very warm weather, and winter seems all but gone. Even so, winter can provide many unique and interesting conditions, and your favorite locations can become new and fresh again with just a little imagination and letting yourself become open to discovery. Time, patience, and some luck (which we all know comes from hard work) all play a role in your success as a nature photographer. Here as some tips and ideas to keep you motivated while me move towards greener days ahead.
1- Focus on textures that help provide visual interest
Even in the grey days of winter, look for interesting textures that provide visual rhythm, something that keeps the viewer interested, whether a pattern or a shape. Here I focused on the foreground, which I thought had amazing detail that gives the eye something to spend time on, and keep a viewer from wandering out of the image.
I always teach that a photograph should have a clear subject, and here it’s definitely the grasses in the foreground. Find patterns that help emphasize textures, and use optimal apertures , the sweet spot of any lens, to capture as much detail as possible. For most 35mm lenses, f/8 to f/11 works best.
Above you can see how I try to lead the eye of the viewer through texture, light and shadow, and perspective. The foreground detail really provides the foundation for interest, and the highest areas of contrast (where the arrows are pointing) pull the eye back into the image creating depth and dimension.
2- Always be aware of light
Awareness of light, its direction, quality, movement, intensity, and emotional impact is a crucial skill to practice. I never get tired of studying light, and always learn something new each time I go out into the landscape. Great light works in any situation, just as emotional impact will always prevail over a technically perfect image. I watched the light begin to illuminate the tops of the mountains in the background, and knew by the color and quality it was special.
The challenge for me was deciding how much of the mountains I wanted illuminated. Too little and the intense color doesn’t really have the impact I want – too much and the feeling I want to convey, involving the viewers imagination, is gone.
Successful composition is a question of balance and simplicity – as Edward Weston famously said “Composition is the strongest way of seeing.” Balancing the foreground details, colors, and shadows with the richness and color of the light is the essence of this photograph. Whether I succeeded or not is up to the viewer, but for me it captures how I felt about that special moment in time that morning.
3- Experiment with different techniques
Because the scene was so wide, I also decided that it would be a panorama, so I shot 5 horizontal images, then stitched them in Auto Pano Giga. This is a great piece of software for stitching of images, and I find it consistently does a better job than Photoshop in regards to alignment and smoothness.
For this I setup my tripod and mounted my camera with a bubble level attached to the flash port. Once I made sure the camera was perfectly level, I could then rotate it horizontally without any worries about the horizon shifting significantly. I captured the 5 images in manual mode to keep my exposure settings consistent, overlapping each about 25%. I approximate the overlap visually in the viewfinder, and with practice it becomes easy – when in doubt, play it safe and capture more than you think you need.
I processed the 5 images in Lightroom, exported them to Auto Pano, and when the stitch was completed successfully, re-imported back into Lightroom for final tweaks and adjustments. This included cropping to remove the black edges, and some slight dodging of the foreground.
4- Focus on details
While this should be on your mind in any kind of weather, cold weather turns water into a myriad of different abstract shapes, textures, and reflective surfaces – all worth exploring with your camera. Remember to fill the frame as much as possible, use leading lines to lead the viewer into the image. While many of us know the rule of thirds, try and forget it for a bolder composition instead. Often it’s when the rules are ignored that you free yourself to experiment and take chances.
These are a few tips and ideas that I worked with on my recent shoot. Mostly I hope they inspire you to get out and enjoy nature, regardless of the weather.
Please leave your feedback and comments below – I’m always happy to answer questions.