|Red Cape, Roxbury, New Hampshire|
It is mid January and we finally have some snow to photograph, but with more rain predicted for the end of the week, this is a good time to celebrate the qualities of this magical crystalline substance. It is an oft repeated legend that Eskimos have hundreds of words for describing snow. It makes sense since snow is such an essential factor in their daily lives, but the disappointing truth is that they have no more descriptive words than we have in the English language. For photographers, the character of snow is every bit as essential as it is to the Eskimos and fortunately our visual lexicon for representing its infinite varieties of texture and color goes far beyond what we could hope to express in any language. Snow often begins as a blank canvas which comes to life only when it is painted by the light; its appearance varying widely depending on the angle and color of the illumination. For me the challenge of winter photography is to portray snow as more that just one half of a stark black and white composition. Here are some thoughts about how to bring forward the rich complexity of this white stuff that we are FINALLY beginning to see around us. Specifically, let's talk about brightness, color and texture.
Stay Out of the Mud
|Over Brook, Dummerston, Vt|
|Break Trail, Spofford, New Hampshire|
Painting the Snow
Unless desecrated by road grim, the color of snow is a direct reflection of the quality of the light. Depending on the time of day, the color can vary all the way from the intense blue of the sky through the spectrum to the warm glow of the fading evening light. The color may also be dominated by reflected light from other sources such as from a bright red barn or from the green tones of a cool pine forest glade. This provides wonderful creative opportunities to "paint" the snow, but care is necessary to avoid letting the colors become overpowering. Fortunately the color intensity and hue can be managed in post to avoid over saturated or clashing tones. Most notably, I often find it necessary to slightly desaturate the brash blue tones that can appear in areas of deep shadow on bright winter days. When the reflected light comes from a gray overcast sky, the selection of the appropriate white balance becomes much more an individual artistic decision. Interest can be added to a flat, steel gray image with the addition of even a subtle drift toward warm or cool tones. The important thing is to pay attention to the light and use it to fulfill your vision.
Although a dramatically effective composition can be obtained by enhancing the contrast in winter scenes, I feel that an important part of the experience is lost when the snow is rendered as a pure flat white. For me the most interesting quality of fallen snow is the subtleties of texture that can present with endless variety. The simplest way to reveal snow’s texture is to photograph when the sun is low in the sky. The effect of the warm illumination, highlighting and coloring the detail in the snow, makes this my favorite time to shoot. At other times, when the sun is high in the sky or is diffused by overcast, the snow texture can be much more difficult to appreciate.
|Split Birch, Chesterfield NH|
|Red Cape Unprocessed|
High Dynamic Range software is another tool especially suited for taming high contrast situations, and any of the currently available programs can do an effective job salvaging the highlight detail in snow. As with all HDR approaches the decision about how drastic the adjustment should be is in the realm of individual artistic expression. In general I prefer a light hand to retain a more natural appearance, but there is no "wrong" approach. The example is a tone mapped single image.
|Across Pastures, Chesterfield, New Hampshire|
|First Light Monadnock|