Thoughts on Photographing Snow

Discussion in 'Large Format' started by ken_schroeder, Feb 3, 2003.

  1. This morning was bright but totally overcast. No shadows were to
    be found. Several inches of tranquil snow covered the ground. I was
    working next to a small cemetary. The headstones seemed to be
    floating on the snow. My camera was at home, but my eyes were making
    photographs. The images I saw were mainly juxtaposed headstones. I
    did not want to isolate one stone and I did not want to photograph a
    sea of headstones. Small groups felt comfortable. That meant using
    either the 200mm or possibly the 135. I felt the images more as
    horizontals than verticals. I wanted to preserve the parallel
    geometry of the stones, so my back would be plumb. Keeping the
    camera at normal viewing height allowed me to survey the scene and
    added some depth. A small amount of front fall brought in the image I
    wanted. The use of gentle front tilt helped increase plane of sharp
    focus without creating a looming foreground. I avoided placing any
    stone too close to the camera. This scene was a tranquil
    neighborhood of equals. Using the 4x5 would mean that all the
    lettering would be crisp and readable. The subtle textures of the
    stone would be present. The snow would not be harsh or grainy. I
    pictured a final print slightly smaller than 8x10. That would allow
    an abstract images of dark forms in the snow from a farther viewing
    distance, and much more detail for the careful viewer who wanted to
    explore the image. The scene needed no filtration. From experience,
    I knew that 1/15 at f22 (with Tri X rated at 200) would be a correct
    exposure. I wouldn't bother using the meter. Actually, I would
    probably use f32 for depth and shoot at 1/8. By long habit, I would
    expose a second sheet at 1/4. My old solid tripod is comfortable at
    any shutter speed. Either negative should be usable. Having the two
    would give the printer (me) a choice of densities.

    Warmer temperatures in the afternoon ended this scene. Since I
    did not have my camera with me, I carry the images in my mind. One
    day the weather and light conditions will be like this morning and I
    will return with my 4x5. It may not be this winter and it may not be
    to this spot, but the images will be in film someday.
  2. I've got hundreds of those "brain photos" floating around up there. the winter isn't over yet, Ken.
  3. I've found the only way to get a good snow pic is to shoot it when sun is shining on it otherwise it looks drab grey and textureless. My 2 cents!

    CP Goerz
  4. I live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on the shore of Lake Superior where snow is a fact of life (average 200+"/year) - it's 8 degrees and snowing heavily as I write this.

    I agree that if you want to show textured snow you need sunlight. A yellow filter will help bring out the texture. A red filter does so even more but can make unnaturally harsh shadows.

    BUT...I have taken many photos of snow scenes on overcast days (that's about 80% of winter days up here). You need to rethink what you want your image to look like. Under those conditions I sometimes put the snow on Zone VIII or IX so that it renders pure white on the print. Branches, weeds, old buildings, etc now seem to emerge from the paper, an almost pen & ink effect. During spring breakup when the creeks and rivers begin to flow and the ice begins to melt I have gotten fantastic images of ice forms both in the creeks and of waterfalls. The delicate ice crystals show up best under overcast conditions. For these images I want some tone to the snow and so put it on Zone VI or VII. It shows up as a "dingy grey" but for these images it is only the supporting cast, not the real subject and I dont find it hurts the image.

    I believe Alfred Stieglitz said it: "When there is light you can photograph"

    Ron Gratz
  5. I agree with C.P.'s and Ron's comments. I live in Idaho. Most of my best snow photographs seem to have brightly lit areas contrasted with areas in open shade. Sometimes looking straight at the suns reflection (with perhaps a tree blocking the sun's disc) shows the best texture, especially for wid blown snow (sastrugi). Ansel Adams wrote a chapter on snow photography in his book Natural Light Photography; one of the original book series. I have not seen this information reproduced in later books. It is well worth finding a copy on e-bay or a used book store.
  6. One of the fascinating aspects of photography is how different people photograph the same area. Bright sun might make interesting images here, but the shadows created would also eliminate the floating feeling of the shadowless stones on the stones. I may not have stated this clearly enough before. It's strictly a subjective matter. I think I like my prints somewhat less constrasty than most people. I would have placed the snow somewhere around just less white than the base of the paper (zone VIIIish). I would have adjusted the gray values of the stones by developer choices and timing and/or paper grade or variable contrast filter settings. I would not want the stones to be too heavy (visually). I print in multiples of three seconds (as taught by Fred Picker). I often switch to a high contrast filter for a very brief "burn" of high contrast light. Just the final three seconds or sometimes less. The darkest parts of the scene were some of the lettering cut into the stones. The subtle darkening from the bit of high contrast light might make the otherwise soft scene a bit more dramatic. I want the mood soft and quiet.

    Other people might prefer more drama. I have often thought it would be interesting to have several people print identical negatives, just to see the many ways one scene could be interpreted.
  7. Ken, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Reading your post took me away from the office and into that cemetary for a few minutes. I know what you mean about the floating effect with snow on overcast days...I'm in Vermont. Getting that effect across in a print is a real achievement.
  8. Thanks for your thoughts. I happened to revisit the cemetary this morning. Scattered clouds made the light vary between full sun with sharp shadows and soft or no shadows, but very much more directional light than during the first visit. The headstones all face west toward the church. This put them in backlight during the morning. I hope to check back in evening light sometime. With the increased brightness of the snow, the backlit headstones would be much lower in brightness value, much heavier visually. I do not see them that way. Also, the distinct shadows to the side eliminated the floating effect which initially drew me to the image. The more distinct engraving was still visible, however, the more subtle writing was barely visible.

    I believe there are images in many kinds of light in this place. My image may well be difficult to print. That is not a problem; I am a deliberate printer with no schedule. If I have a print which moves me at the end of a printing session I am content. If I am working on an image at the end of the day, and am getting closer to a moving print, that is ok also. Tomorrow is another day, and I will have a headstart. If I work methodically I will make the best print I can, and maybe, if the negative is difficult, stretch my skills in the process.
  9. To photograph white on white, like the constructivist painters painted some 80 years ago, you probably need a special film with “extended highlight contrast”. Quite by accident I discovered Kodak 4125 with blend of two types of emulsions. The exposure-density curve of this film is such that contrast in the highlight areas increases much faster than the contrast in the shadows. Accordingly, the contrast in the light areas is controlled by the exposure duration, not by development. There is a rather complicated procedure to do that, you need 5 trial exposures/development shots to arrive at the optimum results. The film (orthochromatic) is used for reproduction of b&w photographs and documents but in fine art photography you have more freedom. Since my objective was to photograph mountains in the winter (the great, white silence) that seems to be an ideal film for my purpose. I bought as much as I could and started experimenting. As some preliminary tests revealed, there was more texture/details in the highlights shot on this film as compared with similar shots on a common panchromatic film. The beauty of this approach is that while keeping constant development time you can vary highlight contrast (the longer the exposure, the highest the contrast) - a revision of the Zone System is in order. Also you can keep CONTRAST IN THE DARK AREAS UNCHANGED while vary the highlights contrast! In fact you can control parts of the image in a disproportional manner. I recently returned from Tatra mountains in Europe, where I traveled on skis, snow shoes or on foot through wilderness, some 2000 meters above the sea level, alone with my 25 lbs on my back (to keep me warm, as the temperatures were sometimes down to -15 degrees C), searching for the sunshine. The worst were: short days, and very low angle of light, i.e. proportionally large shadows. But I have some great shots. And do not believe that the sky is white on orthochromatic films. Sunshine is often yellow or reddish. Here is one of my first shots taken here in a NJ park. No filter, no sky darkening. Oh, by the way, I almost forgotten. All the above is history. Kodak has discontinued this film last Spring.
  10. Wieslaw, your response reminded me of the old joke about the man who asked directions to the men's room in Paris. He is given a very long and complicated labyrinth set of directions, and then told, "but it is closed." Your film idea sounds fascinating, and the image you included certainly supports your claim. Too bad Kodak has discontinued it.

    Your image is nicely seen and very well crafted. Thank you for sharing it.
  11. Use your everydaycamera! Take pictures of these places, and come back. I'm using my girlfriends digital as polaroids where I don't bring a largeformat camera. Last day, I took some pictures in a creek, and the best looking iceicle on film where not the ones looking best with my eyes. Do bring a camera, the smaller the better, B/W, chromes or color film. I always remember places more beautful than my camera can record, so I need the "trip down" to reality.

    Since I took pictures in the creek (with the flash on), there hase been two feet of snow, and above freezing, so the iceicles has probably gone. I'm going out now to take some "polaroids" of the snow with the sun shining.
  12. I would like to bring my camera. However, I was working at the location. Working for the telephone company, some passersby might think my spending a few minutes photographing was the reason their phone bills were "so high" and complain. As one of almost 200,000 employees, I have never felt that influential, but most folks are more concerned about their bills than making images.

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