The Art Of Winter Imagery

In a previous post, I discussed some of the equipment you need in order to pursue photography during the winter. That’s important, but freezing temperatures aren’t the only thing you’ll battle as a photographer during this season. Winter also brings unique challenges to creating artistic images that inspire the viewer. In this post, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned over the years that has helped me create stunning images of this spectacular season.

Fresh Is Key

One of the last things you want to do when it is cold and snowy outside is to get out of your warm bed while it is still dark, go out into the cold, and drive on slick roads. However, this is one of things you will have to do to create the images you envision. Snowy scenes are at their best when everything in the scene is covered – once the snow begins to melt or slide off branches and roofs, an element of the ambiance is lost. In order to find the most magical winter scenery, early morning starts are frequently required. Thankfully, the sun comes up later during the winter, so it’s not as early as it might be at other times of the year, but conditions make it feel tougher in my experience. However, once you see the light of a new day begin to hit the freshly fallen snow, you will know that it was worth it.

The light of morning illuminates frosted trees in the White Mountains of New Hampshire

Snowglow

Speaking of light, winter offers a unique chance to see light and color transform the world around you. Fresh, sparkling snow seems to sparkle like diamonds, and the colors of the sky are soaked into the snowy landscape. For that reason, when you’re planning a sunrise or sunset shoot, look for locations that will have plenty of undisturbed snow. Take advantage of the colorful glow of the sky being baked into your surroundings. It’s an opportunity that’s difficult to find the rest of the year.

Ice Is Nice

In colder regions, lakes and ponds will freeze over during the winter. This provides photographers with the opportunity to photograph icy textures in a natural surrounding. The challenge is finding open ice – once the ice is covered in a blanket of snow, it is difficult to distinguish a lake from a field, so it can become far less interesting very quickly. If you can’t find a spot on the lake that is clear of snow, wait for a fresh warm rain to clear some of the snow away. Then, look for big cracks that form leading lines, or even bubbles under the ice if it’s clear enough. Let the ice tell its story though – don’t just use it as a backdrop. Give it its rightful weight in the composition, focusing especially on texture. Another option if you can’t see the actual ice is to look for snow drifts, which create interesting formations and make for a compelling foreground.

The sky burns over a frozen lake during winter

Motion In The Stillness

Along with lakes freezing in winter, it’s common for waterfalls and streams to freeze over as well. This can provide an interesting viewpoint, but personally, I like to shoot when things aren’t completely frozen. The best time to shoot for me: when there’s ice around the edges, but still plenty of motion and life. It gives the viewer a sense of both the waterfall and the wintry conditions that surround it.

Go The Extra Mile

Trudging through thick snow is no easy task. Especially when you’re the one breaking trail after a snow with a heavy pack of gear on your back, the journey can easily wear on you – even more so when that trip takes you up a mountain. But the rewards photographically speaking can make it worth the while. Of course, it doesn’t always have to be so difficult for you physically. For example, many ski resorts have lifts you can pay to use, even if you’re not interested in skiing. Sometimes, the view from the top can be as spectacular as any climb would offer. On the downside, you won’t have the story and personal grit behind it, and you’ll be more likely to run into others with similar images. Either way, going to the extra mile to get to places your average photographer won’t travel to can produce wonderful results in winter. Just make sure you are prepared for the conditions you will encounter.

Hakkoda mountains covered in snow in Aomori Prefecture, Japan.

No Winter? No Worries!

Of course, not everyone lives in a climate with an appreciable winter. For much of my life, I’ve lived in places where plants simply die during the winter, and snow is a rare event. If you find yourself in a place like this, there are still a few options. I’m of the opinion that there is always beauty around if you look for it. It may be an open field with a couple of trees, or dead leaves piled up in the forest, but look for what winter means in your area, and try to capture that in your imagery. Another option is to go to places where conditions don’t matter that much. When I lived in the Tokyo area, I would often travel into the city during the winter. Even though there wasn’t snow, the air was clear and could create beautiful skies, especially when seen from tall buildings. I’m also a native Floridian, and the beach is one of those timeless landscapes that you can shoot no matter the weather. No matter where you are, there’s something to be seen and photographed all year around.

As someone who loves landscape photography, I always enjoy the unique scenes that winter provides. These are a few of the things I’ve learned over the years that have helped me create artistic images of the season. I hope it will help inspire you to get out in it with your camera, and create something of your own. Stay warm, stay safe, and happy shooting!

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