Capturing the Feel of the Frigid
It is really cold out there. Once again this morning the temperature was well below zero. Every New England winter seems to have its own special character always giving us remarkable pristine beauty to celebrate, while we simultaneously complain about the oppressive dark and bitter cold. This year's winter has been marked by unusually warm temperature early and now by near record breaking cold. Throughout we have had only a few scattered storms with far too little snow.
We photographers have a complex relationship with winter. The harsh environment requires drastic measures to protect ourselves and our equipment from the cold and wet. Just recall last week's blog about the complex system I have developed just to keep my hands warm and functioning. At the same time, the shimmering light and the clean, stark patterns in the land provide unique opportunities to capture nature's uncomplicated grace and elegance. A quick Google search for "cold weather photography" will yield a long list of articles discussing how to protect yourself and your equipment from the elements, but little if anything about what I was interested in:
What makes an image "feel" cold?
What is Cold?
Winter photography is unique for many reasons, but considering all this beauty, I have one simple question, what makes an image appear cold? I have often noticed that pictures taken even in the most bitterly frigid conditions can fail to communicate the sense of winter's nose numbing cold. So how can we capture the feeling of this essential element of the season? The answer must be highly personal, but as I huddle from the weather, and having little else to do, I decided to scan my winter images looking for pictures that seemed to most strongly send that shiver into my soul. The goal was to search for a set of qualities that we might use to make our audience appreciate, in the warmth of their homes, how much miserable, god-awful cold we had to endure to capture those pretty snowy pictures.
As I scanned the images, I realized that my assessment of the "coldness" of each picture was unavoidably biased by how freaking frigid I remember each location to have been. I tried to separate the feel of the image from my memory of the situation, but it wasn't always easy. After all, our personal experiences with cold must be the underlying factor which controls our sense of temperature in any image. So here are a few of my biased and completely random observations about what "says" cold to me. I would be interested in hearing what you feel is most reflective of the deep chill that we experience throughout this challenging and beautiful season.
For more images check out my website "Cold" Gallery
It seems obvious that the color and quality of light will have a strong influence on the sense of temperature as well as the mood of our images, and, to me, my coldest images most often share a blue coloration. After all, we refer to the blue end of the visible spectrum as "cool". These images are most often captured in the "blue hours", before dawn and after sunset. The feeling lingers as the first rays of the sun lie low on the horizon. The resulting angular illumination
causes the snow's surface to take on an enhanced texture, which adds to the sense of the
|Ice Sheets, Breaking Dawn|
Snow can be a double edged sword in winter images. A soft blanket of snow, especially when bathed in warm light can feel quite toasty. To me, the deeper the snow, the more I feel the "blanketing" sensation, and by contrast, I often feel the cold most profoundly when there is a mere dusting of white on the ground. The same double standard applies to falling snow. Large, fluffy snow flakes gently settling to the earth can give a sense of bundled warmth. This may be in part due to the fact that we all know that snow tends to form large flakes when the weather is relatively warm, just before morphing the into miserable sleet and frozen rain. In the deep cold, snow tends to fall in small, biting crystals and, especially when the image captures the snow blowing angrily across the the scene, the hard cold character of the season is clearly portrayed.
Check out my Blog on "Celebrating the Snow"
|Partridge Brook Crystals|
Ice Crystals in the Air
Clouds of blowing ice crystals or snow also communicate a sense of the biting cold of the season. The trick here, as with the falling snow, is to find the shutter speed which capture the movement. As I discussed in my article about photography of falling snow, an excessively rapid shutter will freeze the flakes as points of white, loosing the sense of the blowing tumult.
In winter mist or sea smoke forms when cold air settles over relatively warm open water. Recently, subzero temperatures have allowed a number of my colleagues to capture some amazing images of sea smoke along the New England coast, and especially when illuminated by blue light these conditions create a strong sense of the overlying cold. Sadly I haven't been able to make it to the coast, but the same effect can be seen over open water in inland streams and lakes. Of course, as beautifully reflected in Ben Williamson's spectacular image, when illuminated by the fiery early morning light the effect can be quite the opposite.
|Ben Williamson's Warm Sea Smoke|
Naturally, ice MUST mean cold, and this seems especially true when the crystals are brightly transilluminated, creating a sparkling specular quality to the light. This frigid effect is best felt when the ice coats branches or forms intricate pattern on windows. For me, the effect is muted when the ice forms in long icicles dangling menacingly from eaves and
gutters. I suspect that my understanding of the process of melting and freezing, that is essential to the formation of icicles, softens the sense of deep cold, but again, we all bring a different history of experiences of cold which filters how these situations are perceived.
|Mill on Ice|
When I began this exercise, I thought that I would discover that blown snow drifting against trees and other obstacles would strongly communicate cold, but as I reviewed my images, I found that the situation was quite the opposite. Once again the deeply piled snow seemed to create a feeling of insulated warmth. Perhaps the memory of the heat created by shoveling these massive heaps also contributes to a certain cozy glow.
|Abagail's Sled, First Winter '81|
helps to catch exhaled clouds of freezing
|Dressed for Mt. Washington|
|Nellie, Post Snow Angels|
|Slate Cold Morning|
Again I would love to hear about what, within an image, "speaks" most strongly to you of the cold. It was an interesting exercise to scan my winter pictures for the deepest chill, but I am sure that this is a highly personal experience. So the next time you want people to appreciate how freakingly bone numbing it was when you were out capturing the winter, what will you shoot? As for me, after all of this, I'm going settle down next to the wood stove and dream of spring.
For more frigid images check out my website's