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The Less-Than-Perfect Storm: Getting Great Winter Photos Under Challenging Conditions

By December 1, 2021No Comments
Photo of a snow-covered landscape. Aftermath of “The Perfect Storm” in the New York Botanical Garden. © F. M. Kearney
Aftermath of “The Perfect Storm” in the New York Botanical Garden. © F. M. Kearney

By F. M. Kearney

I had always dreamt of photographing a Winter Wonderland – a landscape where every inch of ground and every branch and twig is totally coated in a thick layer of fluffy, white powder. In some parts of the world, that’s just an average Tuesday, but it’s quite a rare sight to see if you live in an urban area. In fact, in nearly the past 20 years, I can only remember one time when the snow conditions in the New York City area rivaled that of what one might typically expect to see in a rural, Midwestern locale. It was Christmas Day, 2002 – the first White Christmas the city had experienced in many years. Although we only received about six inches of snow, it was the dense, heavy kind that tends to stick to everything it touches. The photo above is one of the many photos I shot the next day in the New York Botanical Garden. As you can see, it was a photographer’s dream. Conditions were so optimum that I wrote an article about it back in 2015:

Urban Nature is a new feature of NANPA’s blog, a series of articles created to address the issues of nature photographers living in urban areas, with little or no access to conventional, natural environments. It will focus on topics ranging from finding subjects to finding inspiration. Also, in an effort to attract more beginners into the field, it will attempt to demystify the art of photography in general.

It’s not particularly unusual to see conditions like that during a storm or immediately afterwards – even in large urban areas. What made this day so unique was that these conditions lasted throughout the morning and well into late afternoon. Normally, pristine, wonderland-like conditions rapidly deteriorate soon after the snow stops falling. Branches that were once thickly coated in a beautiful winter wardrobe, start looking a little worse for wear as the snow begins falling off in clumps.

Working with less-than-perfect conditions

Such was the case last winter after a fairly decent snowfall. It continued snowing throughout the night, and I was hoping the next day would bring about the conditions I hadn’t seen in nearly two decades. In the morning, I had planned to go to Central Park. Since I only live a block away, I could get there much quicker than the botanical garden. I figured it was my best option to capture pristine conditions. But I was not impressed with what I found. Even though I got there shortly after sunrise, most of the snow had already fallen off the branches – leaving behind a very splotchy, uneven coating.

I walked around the park for a couple of hours desperately seeking wonderland gems, but it was not to be. The sun was now out in full force and the lighting was extremely harsh. I was ready to throw in the towel and head home when I came upon the area that really caught my eye (see photo below).

Bright sunlight shining on partially snow-covered branches. © F. M. Kearney
Bright sunlight shining on partially snow-covered branches. © F. M. Kearney

At first glance, conditions looked less than stellar. The snow was melting by the handfuls – leaving behind a disorganized mess. But then I started to see gems… not the classic wonderland gems I had hoped for, but gems none the less. The sun was backlighting the remaining snow and ice clinging to the branches – creating a sea of shimmering crystals. I knew amazing bokeh effects were possible using a long lens with a large aperture. Without having to move too much from that one spot, I was able to shoot a series of intimate branch images with sparkling backgrounds. The occasional patches of blue sky was a nice contrast to the warm highlights (see photos below).

Sunlight backlighting clumps of snow on branches photographed close up. © F. M. Kearney
© F. M. Kearney
Close up photo of Sunlight reflecting on snow and ice crystals.  © F. M. Kearney
© F. M. Kearney

I shot all of these images at 200mm and f/3.3. Unless I’m shooting extreme close-ups, I rarely like to open up all the way to f/2.8. I thought f/3.3 would give me a bit more wiggle room to get more of the branches in focus, while still maintaining nicely rounded bokeh.

Backlighting

Whenever you shoot backlit images, you’re facing in the direction of the light source. You need to be careful not to have any of the light shining directly, or even indirectly, into your lens. This will degrade your image by either muting the colors or causing lens flare. A lens hood is a must, but I’ve never found the hoods that come with most lenses to be very useful. They’re just not long enough to properly shield the lens in most situations. I carry a Flex Lens Shade that’s only 11 inches long and folds completely flat. It easily fits anywhere in my bag – unlike a traditional hood, which needs its own compartment. As its name implies, the Flex Shade is flexible and wraps around the end of my lens and is secured with a Velcro strap. Depending on how it’s positioned, it’s capable of blocking all but the most direct light. It really came in handy that day!

It seemed like that morning was a perfect example of turning lemons in lemonade. I didn’t get the images I was expecting, but in a way, I got something even more unique. I was amazed by the number of compositions and pictures-within-pictures I was able to create. So, even though you may not have a national park in your backyard (or a backyard, for that matter), great winter images can still be had in an urban environment – even in adverse conditions.

Close up photo of tree branches with sunlight reflecting on snow and ice crystals. © F. M. Kearney
© 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).