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Winter View, Hudson Valley

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.

Winter Light, Constitution Marsh

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.

Winter Light, Constitution Marsh

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.

Broken Ice, Hudson River
Broken Ice, Hudson River
Long Dock Ice
Long Dock Ice

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.

RR Jr

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Another good post!Thanks!
    So with the ‘Winter Light, Constitution Marsh” you stitched together 5 images. May I ask what focal length lens you used with what sensor size? Do you tend to do such panoramic stitching instead of using a wider angle lens? Why or why not? Is it issues of perspective with the very wide angle lenses being too much emphasis on the foreground in those cases?

    1. Hi Hillel, great questions. I don’t recall the focal length (probably around 30mm) but it really has less to do with that and more to do with 1)creating a much wider panorama than what I can capture with my widest lens, and 2) increasing the resolution of the file for larger printing. In my case, whenever I can, I like to stitch my images to capture more overall pixels, which allows me to print at much larger sizes which are often requested by my clients. The focal length is always dictated by the composition, so in this case I didn’t really have anything in the very close foreground I wanted to capture. As long as you keep the camera level, and follow proper technique, there is no problems with perspective and very close details – but proper technique is the key (sounds like a future article – thanks).

      RR

      1. Okay, got it! – certainly the greater number of pixels for the very large prints; ‘hadn’t thought about that but makes complete sense. As always: thanks!

  2. This tip may help, too. The brightness of the snow when shooting winter scenes frequently causes digital cameras to select the wrong white balance. This is more so when auto white balance (AWB) is selected. The usual results are images that have a blue tinge to the snow. Fortunately, if you shoot in RAW mode you can correct the white balance setting in Adobe Camera RAW, or in your camera’s own RAW conversion software. You will usually warm up the image by increasing the colour temperature to remove the blue tinge.

    1. Awesome, thanks for the tip – yes that is something I have mentioned before myself, but it is always a good reminder – appreciate it!

      RR

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