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The Fruitful Rewards of Bare Trees: Using Nature to Enhance Urban Winter Photography

By December 14, 2020No Comments
Ominous-Looking Tree Overlooking Manhattan Skyline © F. M. Kearney
Ominous-Looking Tree Overlooking Manhattan Skyline © F. M. Kearney

Story and photos by F. M. Kearney

Aside from the cooler temperatures, which I greatly prefer over the blazingly hot, dog-days of summer, I look forward to winter. There’s something magical about capturing the fleeting beauty of a winter wonderland, festooned with snow-covered fields, sparkling ice crystals and dangling icicles. However, the weather’s been a bit on the mild side here in the Northeast. Some people are still running their AC’s! Indeed, winter can be unpredictable. In some years, you may be inundated with a steady stream of snowstorms, and in other years, there may not be a flake in the forecast for the entire season. But, no matter what, the one thing you can always depend on each winter is the abundance of bare trees. After they shed their fall foliage, most people usually don’t pay too much attention to them in the winter – unless they’re coated with snow and ice. But bare branches can provide excellent framing and/or foreground elements for a number of photography subjects in natural and urban environments as well.

I’ve shot a number of locations in and around the New York City area specifically because of the nearby trees. For a variety of reasons, some of these shoots can literally take years to capture. Since bare trees are the main focus of the shoots, I only have a narrow window of 3-4 months out of the year to get the shots. My window is narrowed even more if conditions are hampered because of weather, construction in the area, or any other things beyond my control. Sometimes, I have no choice but to wait until the following year.

The opening photo is a shot of Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights. Movie buffs might remember this view from the 1977 horror film, “The Sentinel,” about a blind priest attempting to keep evil at bay as the lone occupant of a creepy corner brownstone. The building, incidentally, is still there – located just a few feet behind the spot I took the photo. I discovered this tree while exploring the area on Google Earth – a perfect way to scout new locations. Fortunately, the Google pictures were taken in the winter so I could clearly see the potential for a great shot of it ominously looming over the Manhattan skyline. Unfortunately, when I visited the location, construction was taking place nearby and a Port-O-Potty was planted directly under the tree! The construction continued until the tree began to sprout leaves the following spring – completely changing the mood of the scene. I returned again next winter and was finally able to get the shot I was seeking. I felt the dead-end sign was the perfect accent to the image, which I titled, “The End is Near.”

Entrance to the Brooklyn Promenade © F. M. Kearney
Entrance to the Brooklyn Promenade © F. M. Kearney

Google Earth also helped me find another location not far from this spot. The photo above is one of the entrances to the Brooklyn Promenade – an 1800-foot-long pedestrian walkway in Brooklyn Heights built over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It’s one of the premiere locations in the city to see unobstructed, expansive views of Manhattan. But my aim was to get a slightly more obstructed view. The railings acted as leading lines and the bare trees provided a nice frame for the grand view.

Sometimes, interesting scenes can be found just by walking around town. While passing a park in the Flatiron District of Manhattan, I noticed a tree that perfectly framed the Empire State Building within its crook. I made a mental note to return a few weeks later and captured the shot below. Luckily, it was during the holidays and the building was decked out in Christmas colors, instead of its standard signature white.

Tree Frames Empire State Building Adorned in Christmas Colors © F. M. Kearney
Tree Frames Empire State Building Adorned in Christmas Colors © F. M. Kearney

My most difficult shoot was the George Washington Bridge, which took over two years to capture. This bridge spans the Hudson River, linking Upper Manhattan with New Jersey. On any average night, it’s an impressive-looking structure. But, on holidays or special occasions, the bridge towers are specially lit from within – creating a truly spectacular, and memorable sight. I’ve shot many photos of the bridge from the New York side, but it was the New Jersey side that really interested me. The bridge connects with Fort Lee, NJ, and the prime viewing spot is Fort Lee Historic Park. It’s located high atop a bluff on the Hudson Palisades – providing visitors with an almost eye-level view of the bridge. I first visited the area and took some preliminary shots with my phone. When I saw how the trees framed the bridge, I envisioned a shot of the illuminated towers surrounded by bare branches at night. Capturing such a shot proved a lot more difficult than I ever imagined. The bridge is specially lit only about ten times throughout the year. Out of that, only about three of those times occur during the winter months when the trees are bare. This closes my already narrow window of opportunity to a miniscule crack! I was unsuccessful the first year because the weather wouldn’t cooperate. On each of the nights the bridge was illuminated, the winds were forecast at about 15 mph. Due to the park’s elevation, those speeds would likely be over 20 mph – blowing the branches around into a blurry mess during a long exposure. Of course, I could have increased my ISO to utilize a faster speed, but for best results, I try to avoid going above ISO 100. If I was a tourist, I probably would have done just that, but as a local, I have the luxury of time and simply waited until the following year. I’m glad I did because I had much better luck. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, the bridge was specially lit and the winds were finally calm – allowing me to capture the image below.

Bare Trees Surrounding a Specially Lit George Washington Bridge © F. M. Kearney
Bare Trees Surrounding a Specially Lit George Washington Bridge © F. M. Kearney

I shot this image at sunset, but the real impact of the bridge’s illumination can only be realized after dark. Below is the shot I originally envisioned – two years prior. Believe it or not, I almost didn’t get it this time. I didn’t know it at the time, but the park officially closes after dark. However, an Eyewitness News crew was shooting a segment nearby and the police were nice enough to let me hang out long enough to get this shot.

Illuminated George Washington Bridge Tower Enveloped in Bare Branches © F. M. Kearney
Illuminated George Washington Bridge Tower Enveloped in Bare Branches © F. M. Kearney

Bare trees aren’t just great photo ops when they’re ladened down under in inch of snow. If you live in an urban area and find yourself wanting for interesting winter photos during a particularly mild season, take a closer at the trees down the block. Their graphic nature can provide a variety of opportunities to create unique juxtapositions between our natural and man-made worlds. 

Holiday Decorations on Fifth Avenue © F. M. Kearney
Holiday Decorations on Fifth Avenue © F. M. Kearney

Photo of F.M. Kearney F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at starcollec@aol.com, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).