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Tips and techniques

FIELD TECHNIQUES: The Snowless days of winter, Story and photographs by FM Kearney

By October 6, 2014No Comments

S-217Winter is a time when many nature photographers look forward to photographing snow-covered landscapes, hanging icicles, frozen waterfalls and other wintry sights. But, what if the winter is mild and these types of scenes are difficult to find?

Such was the case a few years ago in New York. The winter saw only a dusting of snow, and temperatures rarely dropped below freezing. There were no pastures of puffy powder, nor fields of frozen fantasies.

Early one morning, I went to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to see what I could find. I was immediately struck by the beauty of the bare tree branches. Without their leafy wardrobe (or snow and ice), the trees took on a much different, almost ominous appearance. A multitude of possible images brazenly presented themselves wherever I looked.

A twisted cluster of intersecting trees by the lake caught my eye. I positioned myself to place the rising sun in the center of a small opening between them to create a starburst effect.By partially hiding the sun in this manner, I was able to significantly reduce its intensity, allowing for a much more manageable exposure. I also used a small aperture setting to create the sunburst effect. I was tempted to use a software program in a post called the Rays, which would have exaggerated this effect, but I thought the natural look sufficed. As they say, sometimes less is more.

The calm waters gave me a chance to take full advantage of the reflections in this shot and the next.

I composed the second shot near a clump of tall grass and waited for one of the many resident swans to swim into the frame. Unfortunately, while the swan came into the scene, it seemed just as enthralled with the location as I was and never looked my way.


I used a rectangular graduated neutral density filter to balance the extreme tonal ranges within this scene. A circular ND grad probably would have worked, but I find them pretty much useless in most situations. Rectangular filters are attached to the lens via special holders and slide up or down to match the horizon line, and this makes them infinitely more versatile.

Although the concept of these filters is simple, they do require careful attention to detail to achieve the most realistic results. I like to start by determining the strength of the filter I need by spot metering the sky and the ground (or in this case, the water). I then count the number of stops between them. If, for example, there are three stops, I use a 2-stop ND grad. This ensures a less noticeable transition line and prevents the sky from becoming too dark. With the camera mounted on a tripod, I adjust the filter into position. The effect can be seen more clearly if you depress the depth of field preview button while making this adjustment. Lastly, I place the camera on manual and shoot at the exposure set for the ground. These filters work best on “clean” horizons. If trees or cliffs are jutting up into the sky, I opt for the HDR technique.

These scenes may look warm and inviting, but conditions were brutal. It was one of the rare days that year when the temperature dropped well below freezing.

This wasn’t the typical winter I had hoped for, but it was clear that the lack of snow didn’t stop the show.

F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer, specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, please visit