Imagine telling someone who has never seen winter what it’s really like. Maybe they’ve spent their entire life in the tropics with no connection to the outside world, or maybe they just arrived on a space ship from Venus where it’s always about 894 degrees Fahrenheit. Whatever the case, you’d try to explain how it gets really cold and try to describe these big white puffs of semi-frozen water that fall from the sky and cover everything in a blanket of pure white. Oh, and don’t forget the part where lakes, rivers and streams suddenly turn into an odd material that resembles lucite.
Listen to yourself. Would you believe it if you’d never seen it? Compared to what we have for the rest of the year, it all sounds a bit silly, which probably explains why we’re so enamored with this odd, white season and why we love to photograph winter so much.
There’s nothing like shooting winter landscapes. Every single aspect of the natural world is different than it is in the summer, and not only that, each and every winter is unique. Differing amounts of snowfall, temperatures swings, humidity levels and wind patterns all help to give the features of the landscape an appearance that is precisely unlike that of any other year.
As photographers, we’re all attracted to different aspects of winter. Some of us like to capture magical scenes of angelic white covered fields, trees, and rock formations, while others like to look more closely and focus on the details: hoar frost crystals that cling to the sides of branches and blades of grass during spells of cold, clear weather and individual snow flakes.
Then there are the infinite details of the ice, whether they be closeups of the cracks in the top of a small pond or massive jumbled blocks of glacial ice. Oh, and let us not forget the low winter sun that gently bathes everything in soft, warm hues of pink and orange. When it’s not out, everything looks slightly bluish in photographs. Let’s face it, sometimes there’s so much interesting stuff going on that we we have a hard time deciding what to focus on!
To help you not get so overwhelmed with the unending supply of winter subject matter, let’s run though some quick tips and see what makes for compelling cold weather landscapes.
First of all, like any other type of photography, you need a main subject. Although the entire scene might be eye-catchingly beautiful, you need something to anchor the photo down; something to represent the central theme and tell the story of your scene. Often times your main subject is something that’s close to the camera, but with the surreal quality that snow can sometimes bestow on an scene, it can also work to have a main subject that’s off in the distance.
Once you’ve nailed down your primary subject, try to find another element to include in the scene. Having a secondary subject that plays off of the first helps lead the viewer’s eye around the frame and creates added interest. You have a great deal of leeway when choosing a secondary element; it might actually be your background, or a few different elements together that act as one subject. Look around and figure out what other things in your scene strongly relate to the main subject and help complete the narrative.
Finally, don’t try to include too much. Don’t clutter your images. In wintertime, even less can be even more. Again, snow imparts such a magical, surreal quality that you need very much actual stuff in the frame to tell a compelling visual story. A little bit goes a long way towards creating a powerful abbreviation of your scene that draws the viewer in, creates a mood and engage their brains. Remember you’re not trying to show everything, you’re trying to evoke a mood.
So have fun this winter! Be creative, stay warm and shoot as much snow and ice as you can before it all melts.
Winter is no stranger to professional Alaska based photographer Dan Bailey. He’s been shooting in the snow and cold for over twenty years and has had photos published by a wide variety of editorial and commercial clients. For more creative photography tips, check out his eBook, Making The Image: A Conceptual Guide to Creating Stronger Photographs. You can also read his blog and follow him on Facebook.