Shooting in Winter Light


Winter is filled with contradictions. The air is cold, yet despite the bite in the air, visually, everything always has a warm tinge to it. Even at high noon—assuming you can call it "high" noon, when the sun is barely above the treetops, the air has an egg-shell quality to it. It's called... winter light.

Even when the sun starts dipping below the tree tops, the lack of leaves on the stick-like branches opens an expanded window of opportunity for catching the first and last rays of sunlight, a time when snowy landscapes glow with drifts containing deep blue shadows and golden, sometimes orange highlights.

Shadows too, are far more "shadowy" during the winter months. They're noticeably longer and more exaggerated compared to the minimal, far less theatrical shadows we find in the "colder" (bluer) and harsher light we find under a summer midday sun.

Low-angle winter sunlight also makes for interesting available-light shooting when the sunlight starts bouncing from glass storefronts and the façades of reflective office towers. It's not unusual to see light splashing across a city street after bouncing from two to three opposing building surfaces, creating all sorts of shadows and patterns.

The low angle of the winter sun allows for
long, exaggerated shadows and random reflections, which can serve as powerful design elements in your photographs.

                        All photographs © Allan Weitz 2010. May not be reproduced without written permission.

If you're not careful, you can easily undo the magical warmth of winter light by leaving your white balance mode in Auto, which is designed to perform on-the-fly corrections when your color balance starts straying from the more neutral palate of 5500°, which is the default setting for daylight. However, if your your goal is to capture the warmer tones of winter light, you'd be far wiser to set the white balance of your camera to the cooler Daylight mode, or 5500K setting in the Kelvin menu. By doing so the color of your image files will be far closer to the color that inspired you to take the picture in the first place.

                     All photographs © Allan Weitz 2010. May not be reproduced without written permission.

When thinking of winter, it's not unusual to think in terms of black and white, for in many ways winter is a season of monotones and muted colors. Yet even the grayest of foreboding December skies often contains a warming hue of sepia along the edges of the clouds. And when colors do appear in the form of frozen red winter berries against a blanket of snow, the punch of those spots of red jumps out and sucks you into the picture. 

Architectural photographers are known to take advantage of the unusual shadows and reflections that come and go on winter days, especially during the early and waning moments of the day when the shallow angle of the sun lights up the deepest recesses of building façades. And if you're lucky to have a clear blue sky, the extremes of cool and warm tones can be magical.

Winter light brings out the visual play between highlights
and shadow, as well as cool and warm tonalities.

                                All photographs © Allan Weitz 2010. May not be reproduced without written permission.

Cold Weather Tools and Shooting Aids

Aesthetics aside, cold is an issue that one must keep in mind when planning a winter photo jaunt. Batteries are particularly sensitive to cold temperatures, and start getting pokey as the temperature drops, until they freeze up altogether. For this reason it's always a good idea to carry several fully-charged batteries in your inner pockets and rotate them when they start getting sluggish. LCDs also start getting balky as the temperatures start dropping and at a certain point go blank altogether. The camera might work, but you’re shooting in the dark so to speak.

You should also dress in layers, and in case you haven't read it yet, we recently ran a terrific article on protective clothing and photo gear protectors designed to allow for shooting under less than balmy circumstances. Some of the protective shooting gear mentioned in this article include thermal gloves that feature openings for fingertips, making it possible to easily adjust camera settings or handle memory cards, change lenses, etc, without having to expose your entire and to the colder temperatures.

LensCoat tripod leg protectors are also highly recommended. In addition to protecting the finish of your tripod against dings and scratches, the foam padding makes it more comfortable to handle the tripod legs by acting as a thermal barrier between your hands and the colder metal surfaces. Along the same lines, we also stock an extensive line of protective camera skins, which fit around your camera and lens for protection against sudden meetings with harder surfaces and to make the camera easier to handle in the cold.

To keep snow and moisture off the front element of your lenses, it’s wise tokeep protective filters on your optics, and if you plan on shooting in higher altitudes or snow-covered environments heavy UV filters are recommended for cutting through atmospheric haze and eliminating the excessive bluish cast common to these type of shooting scenarios.  And we’d be totally negligent if we failed to mention Polarizing filters, which increase color saturation and image detail by eliminating glare and stray light. (If you use a Polarizing filter you can also bypass the UV filter.)

If your travel plans will be taking you to extreme climates, you might want to consider fitting your lenses with Kaeseman Polarizing filters, which are thoroughly sealed against the elements for maximum protection.

For shooting in snowy or wet environs it would be a good idea to also pack along protective weather gear for  your camera and lens. We carry a variety of easy-to-stow fowl weather gear designed to protect your cameras, lenses, and flashguns from rain and snow while you go about the business of taking pictures.

Lastly, for photographers wanting to head out into the frozen tundra without a camera bag slung over their shoulders, keep in mind we also stock a number of rugged point-and-shoot cameras that can withstand snow, hail, and cold tempertures down to 14°.

And happy shooting!