Updated: March 2, 2022
Winter is, by far, my favorite season to photograph. Even with shorter days, the light and colors that wintertime brings are uniquely beautiful. For photographers, this opens up the chance to create images that aren’t possible during any other part of the year. The trick is to learn to use winter’s fleeting moments of light and color (or lack of color) to your advantage. In this article, we’re going to delve into some ideas to keep in mind when photographing winter’s color palette.
Shooting for Color:
Let’s talk color theory for a moment. An important thing to notice are the differences between warm and cool colors and the subconscious effect this has on people when they see an image. A photo with warm hues tends to feel dynamic, vibrant, happy and welcoming. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a photo made up of cool tones will probably feel calming, relaxed, somber, or tranquil. Either way, the colors you choose to include in your frame will really help give your image a particular mood or feeling for the viewer.
During a typical winter day, there’s usually an abundance of bluish light casting a cool tone over everything, but you’ll also find warm colors if you keep your eye out. Sunrises and sunsets in the winter often have a gorgeous glow. And as a bonus, you don’t have to get up nearly as early to catch a sunrise in January! If you’re not an early riser, winter photography just might be your thing.
It’s interesting to notice how sunlight in the winter is often diffused through clouds and reflected off snow, creating a soft and ethereal quality with beautiful pastels. You’re more likely to get this dreamy effect if you shoot earlier or later in the day. It can be fun to experiment with using a wide open aperture to create a blurry wash of color for your background during these times.
If pastels aren’t your thing, don’t worry. Another approach is to watch for small details with vibrant color. It could be something that you find in the field, or something that you bring in, such as a brightly colored scarf or clothing. Either way, including a bold splash of color in an otherwise stark, monochromatic scene is a powerful technique for drawing attention to your subject and completely changing the feel of your image.
And of course, you can also intentionally include both warm and cool hues in your shot. When you do this, the colors, being opposite, will really pop and stand out, giving the image a sense of energy and impact.
Whether you gravitate toward warm or cool tones; pastels or highly saturated hues, winter is a great opportunity to create images where color plays an important role. Of course, you could also try going the other direction and completely remove color from your image. Once it snows, everything is pretty much transformed into a black and white world anyway, so what better time to practice your black and white photography?
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Shooting for Black & White:
As a quick review, here are some things that tend to make a strong black and white image. Keep in mind these are simply guidelines, and there are always exceptions to the rules.
- Scenes with high contrast- meaning deep blacks and bright whites
- A range of gray tones
- Interesting lines, shapes or patterns
- Areas where light and shadow meet, creating form
Winter provides the perfect opportunity to practice “seeing” in black and white. A good approach is to look for lines, shapes, or patterns to draw the viewer’s eye into the scene or to the subject. Patterns in snow and ice would be a prime example.
If you happen to have a sunny day with harsh light, converting a photo to black and white might help to turn the strong shadows into interesting graphic elements within your frame (the photo on the left is an example of this).
Black and white tends to simplify things since there is no color to distract the eye, so it’s also a good time to try creating minimalist or abstract compositions such as the examples below.
With all this talk of photographing frosty scenes, I want to include a reminder about getting proper exposure for snow. Remember, your camera’s light meter always wants to make the entire world perfectly gray. So when you point your camera at something that is predominantly bright white (such as snow) and press the shutter button, you’re going to get snow that looks gray. What’s happening is your camera’s metering system is getting confused by all the white in your scene and darkening the exposure too much. Your camera is not letting in enough light, so now your snow looks too dark (gray). You probably want your snow to look white, so at this point you’ll need to override your camera and increase your exposure so your snow looks true to life. You will need to let more light into your camera. You can do this using either exposure compensation or manual exposure mode.
Here’s an example:
The photo on the far left is how my camera’s light meter sees the world- gray. I needed to increase the amount of light by two stops to create white snow. Notice that although the snow is a crisp white, there is still plenty of detail remaining in the scene.
Make sure to watch your histogram so that you do not accidentally overexpose the snow. You want to make sure you’re getting white snow, while also maintaining detail. Many cameras allow you to turn on a highlight clipping alert, also known as the “blinkies”. With blinkies turned on, if you overexpose the bright areas of your photo, a red or black alert will flash over that part of the photo on the back of your camera.
Whether shooting for color or black and white, you can use these creative techniques with any type of subject: landscapes, portraits, city life, birds, pets, or details around your home. Even if you don’t live in a snowy place, there is still plenty to photograph year-round. The key is to try and use these techniques to communicate something about your subject to the viewer.
So, while we’re still in the depths of winter, I hope this inspires you to take the opportunity to notice the quiet subtleties and unexpected color these days can bring. Challenge yourself to create images that feel like the essence of winter, embracing the full palette of the season. (And don’t forget to bring a thermos of hot tea along with you!) Enjoy!
All images created and copyrighted by Sarah Ehlen. All Rights Reserved
Sarah Ehlen is a 2012 graduate of RMSP’s Career Training program who now teaches many of our Adult Education courses as well as Basic Photography in Missoula! You can check out more of her photography here.