Story and photography by F.M. Kearney
Blizzards – a time to cuddle up by the fire (or a good heater) with a nice hot bowl of soup and watch the wonders of nature unfold from within the confines of your warm home. This may be the ideal way to ride out “bad” weather to some people, but to nature photographers, it’s a golden opportunity to capture some unique images under very unique conditions.
During a recent blizzard in New York, I went to Central Park in search of something different. But, before heading out, I had to make some adjustments to my gear. I normally keep a fairly sizable 24-70mm f/2.8 lens attached to my camera, along with a Vello Wireless Shutterboss connected to the hotshoe. When mounted on a tripod, this allows me to trip the shutter via a hand-held transmitter so that I don’t have to physically touch the camera. However, I certainly wasn’t going to try to use a tripod in a blizzard. To make it more manageable, I removed the Shutterboss and replaced the large zoom with a much smaller (and lighter) prime 28mm wide-angle lens. It was now small enough for me to cover it with an ordinary plastic baggie, with a hole cut out for the lens. As rudimentary as that may sound, it actually worked much better than most of the commercially available rain covers I’ve used in the past. After safely tucking it inside my coat, I was now ready to face the elements.
I spent a lot of time around the reservoir. Once, the city’s main source of fresh water, this 106-acre body of water is surrounded by a 1.5 mile running track. The opening image of this article shows a couple walking along this track at the height of the blizzard. Snow has a way of transforming familiar scenes into something new and unique. On a clear day, you can easily see the buildings on the other side of the reservoir. The blizzard created near whiteout conditions that reduced the scene to its simplest elements – creating the illusion of an endless abyss beyond the fence.
As the name suggests, there isn’t a lot of color in a whiteout situation. Color images can often be mistaken for black and white. Adding a bit of color can break the monochromatic monotony of the scene. Seconds before I shot the image above, a woman wearing a bright turquoise jacket skied right by me. I couldn’t believe my luck. Not only did she add some much-needed color, the inclusion of a human element made the image considerably more engaging. Also, the intensity of the blizzard is illustrated by the vanishing tree line.
Shooting during a blizzard can be quite an experience. Even though my camera was fairly well protected, I didn’t want to expose it to the raging winds and snow any longer than I had to. Whenever I came across a scene I wanted to shoot, I’d first visually compose it in my head, then quickly pull my camera out from inside my coat and shoot. Although I don’t usually take these types of “grab” shots, it was somewhat liberating to be free of the constraints of a tripod. It allowed me to capture images that I might have missed otherwise.
Exposure is another consideration when shooting in snowy or blizzard-like conditions. Of course, your physical exposure to the elements is extremely important, but I’m referring to the exposure of your images. Camera meters will render white snow as a middle-gray tone, so it’s often necessary to overexpose by +1 to +2 stops. This can either be done manually, or with the exposure compensation feature. I only overexposed these images by +1 stop. Since the snow isn’t completely white, I could have gone to +2, but I wanted to retain some of the gloom and grittiness of the day. If you shoot in RAW, you have the option of readjusting the exposure to whatever your preference in post.
A blizzard is a great opportunity to experiment with a lot of creative techniques. Slower shutter speeds will emphasize the flakes – making the storm seem infinitely worse than it was in reality. A flash will freeze (and lighten) the flakes in the foreground and create a painting-like effect. The main thing is to not shy away from “bad” weather. With the right preparation you might produce some very good images.