Finding Inspiration for Your
Winter Landscape Photography
By Charlotte Gibb
With the last autumn leaves fading, it’s time for photographers to turn their attention toward winter landscapes. But unlike other seasons, freezing temperatures and snow can make winter photography particularly challenging. Not only do we need to suit up in cold-weather clothing to stay warm, but we also have to keep our gear dry. (Editor’s Note: Be sure to see Charles Glatzer’s article this month on cold-weather clothing here)
The effort, however, is well worth the trouble. Winter’s low angle of light creates more dramatic scenes than at other times of the year, and snow, ice, and frost can transform a landscape into pure magic. Best of all, shorter days means there’s more time to savor that first cup of coffee in the morning. So bundle up, grab your gear and get out there! Here are some ideas to get your started as you wander through the winter landscape.
Among my favorite subjects to photograph are forests and trees. In spring, trees are lush with new growth and colorful blossoms. Autumn, of course, brings a stunning transformation of leaf colors. But it’s winter that reveals the fascinating skeletal structure beneath those leaves, which makes trees a wonderful subject to study this time of year. Lines are a powerful compositional tool, and the bare branches of trees are rich with lines. Look for trees with interesting shapes and lines that can be used to lead the eye through the composition. Sunny days create an opportunity for dramatic, contrasty scenes, (Another Dry Winter) while cloudy or shady conditions soften the scene for a completely different mood (Sisters).
Look for color contrast
Winter landscapes can tend toward the monochromatic, so look for colorful subjects in the bleak landscape to break up the monotony. Color is a wonderful design element to use as a focal point. Warm and cool colors, used together in the same composition, create depth and color harmony.
Convert to black and white
When the available color isn’t particularly interesting or fails to contribute to the composition in a meaningful way, try converting the photo from color to black and white instead. Black-and-white photographs depend on tone and contrast to direct the eye through the composition, rather than hue and saturation. With color eliminated from the picture, the photographer is challenged to create interest in the subject using only tone, line, texture, shapes and luminance values. When the subject is laid bare of color, the photograph must be strong enough both in subject and composition to hold up in monochrome.
Keep it on the cool side
Winter is associated with the cooler part of the color wheel, so experiment with color balance. You can either adjust your white balance in camera to a cooler tone, or adjust white balance later when you process your photos (if your images were captured in RAW). And, what better time to emphasize cool, wintery tones than photographing during the “blue hour” — that magical time of day just after sunset or before sunrise when the camera interprets the light as a beautiful shade of blue?
Don’t let a snowstorm stop you from getting out with your camera. Some of the best winter photography conditions occur when the snow is fresh and falling. Try a fast shutter speed to freeze the action of the falling snowflakes, or experiment with longer exposures. Don’t underexpose a snowy landscape. These types of scenes benefit from a slightly high-key effect, emphasizing the whiteness of the landscape. Just be sure the highlights are not clipped by checking your histogram or watching for “blinkies.”
Abstract compositions are readily found in nature, but only in winter can one of my favorite subjects can be found — ice. Put on a macro lens or a long lens and zoom in for a unique perspective.
Revisit familiar subjects
If you have a favorite composition that you created in another season, go back and photograph your subject again during the winter. Observe how the change of season affects your composition. Notice the subtle change in the color temperature and angle of light.
I hope these suggestions help you create some beautiful winter landscape photographs this season. It’s always such a pleasure to share my insights with my friends from GNPA. Stay well, everyone!
Editor’s Note: To read Tom Wilson’s article this month about shooting landscapes right now at Georgia’s Banks Lake NWR, click here.
Charlotte Gibb is a nature photographer with an eye oriented towards the subtle and sometimes overlooked elements of nature. Her images are frequently symbolic, using form, line, shape, color, and textures found in the natural world to tell a deeper story about the wilderness. As a speaker and educator, she draws upon her art education and many years as an art director and graphic designer to help other nature photographers create more meaningful and satisfying work.
Charlotte is a contributing writer for several photography publications and has been a keynote speaker for camera organizations across the country (including GNPA and Canon). Her work has won both national and international awards. A native of California, she can usually be found tromping around the wilderness areas of the Western United States.