About Me

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Spofford, New Hampshire, United States
Jeff Newcomer has been a physician practicing in New Hampshire and Vermont for over 30 years. Over that time, as a member of the Conservation Commission in his home of Chesterfield New Hampshire, he has used his photography to promote the protection and appreciation of the town's wild lands. In recent years he has been transitioning his focus from medicine to photography, writing and teaching. Jeff enjoys photographing throughout New England, but has concentrated on the Monadnock Region and southern Vermont and has had a long term artistic relationship with Mount Monadnock. He is a featured artist in a number of local galleries and his work is often seen in regional print, web publications and in business installations throughout the country. For years Jeff has published a calendar celebrating the beauty of The New England country-side in all seasons. All of the proceeds from his New England Reflections Calendar have gone to support the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the Cheshire Medical Center. Jeff has a strong commitment to sharing his excitement about the special beauty of our region and publishes a weekly blog about photography in New England.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Celebrating the Snow

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
I should start with the most commonly discussed problem with snow photography. Your light meter doesn't know or care about what you are shooting. Its only job is the render the scene in middle gray and the results is that, without compensation, images of bright snow will be reduced to a dark, muddy and unnatural mess. The simple solution is to increase exposure by a stop or two, but when the goal is to find interest in the snow, it is critical to avoid over compensating and blowing out the highlights.
Break Trail, Spofford, New Hampshire
A margin of safety can be secured by bracketing your exposure, but with digital cameras a quick check of the histogram can confirm that the exposure is not shifted too far to the right. The use of bracketed images with HDR software has added an additional powerful tool to tame the high contrast in winter scenes, preserving highlights without blocking out shadow detail. The important thing to remember is that post-processing software can perform magic, but nothing can salvage highlight detail when all the information has been blown away. In order to preserve the highlights it may be necessary to produced images coming out of the camera appearing a bit darker than will be your eventual goal.

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
This is where a little post-processing can help. The goal is to mute the spectral brightness of the snow and enhance the contrast to a point that allows the texture to become apparent. The challenge is to do all this while avoiding making the surface appear unnaturally gray and muddy. There are various approaches available from within Photoshop to achieve this result and although other image editing programs will manage this problem with different tools, the range of options are generally similar.  So for those not using Photoshop, please resist the urge to insert “Blah Blah Blah” in this entire section. 

Red Cape Unprocessed

Curves Adjustment
Greater contrast in the bright tones can be most directly salvaged with a curve adjustment restricted to the bright end of the curve, perhaps using masking to limit the effect to the desired areas. This can be a bit delicate, but once you master curves you will find an infinite potential for control.

Shadow/Highlight Filter
If you are fortunate to use a relatively new version of Photoshop, I would recommend starting off with the nearly miraculous “Shadow/Highlights” option. A slight increase in the highlight slider can add just the touch of detail that you want and the effect can be limited to the brightest areas by pulling back on the “Tonal With”. I often will go a bit beyond what seems optimal and then use the opacity slider to pull back to the best level. Excess correction can begin to make the snow look pasty and artificial. The “Shadow/Highlight” adjustment may also be done from within a “Smart Object” allowing further adjustment as the editing process proceeds.

Tone Mapped

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
Winter photography in New England provides opportunities to see the landscape in refreshingly different ways, but it also presents us with a unique set of challenges. This year the greatest challenge has been just finding some actual snow to photograph, but rest assured that it will come back and when it returns don't forget to harvest all the complex beauty the snow has to offer.

1 comment:

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