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Winter in the City: Shooting Winter Scenes in the City (Without the City)

By January 5, 2022No Comments
Photo of a snow-covered scene framed by the branches of a tree. The branches are covered with snow and a sun star peeks out of the top of a branch near the upper left corner. New York Botanical Garden after a snowfall. © F. M. Kearney
New York Botanical Garden after a snowfall. © F. M. Kearney

By F. M. Kearney

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.

City living may have its benefits when it comes to a lot of things, but it might not be so advantageous if you’re a nature photographer seeking subjects to shoot. This is a problem all year around, but it’s especially difficult in the winter. Other seasons allow amble time to plan quick getaways to photograph spring flowers or fall foliage. But, if you’re trying to capture pristine, snow-covered landscapes without a hint of man-made objects, it’s not so easy if you live in an urban area. You can visit a local park, but pristine conditions won’t remain that way for very long. In no time at all, the place will be inundated with hordes of hyperactive schoolkids celebrating their snow day – forever erasing that delicate Winter Wonderland. Also, even in a large park, it’s still very difficult to avoid traces of civilization almost anywhere you point your camera. Of course, you can try to venture outside of your city limits, but what if you don’t have a car? Many people (myself included) who live in large cities do not own cars. They’re more of a hinderance than anything else. Public transportation is usually the best option. But public transportation may not get you exactly where you want to be at the time you want to be there. So, having said all of that… if you live in the city and you want to get photos of unspoiled, snow-covered landscapes, your best option might be to stay in the city.

The Benefits of Botanical Gardens

If you’re lucky enough to have a botanical garden in your town, that’s probably going to be your best bet. New York City has botanical gardens in all but one of its five boroughs – Manhattan (actually, I guess, Central Park could be considered Manhattan’s botanical garden). However, it’s the one in the Bronx, known as the New York Botanical Garden, that is the largest by far. If you’re a regular reader of my articles, you probably know that the NYBG is one of my favorite locations to shoot nature images. Covering 250 acres, it contains a conservatory, numerous outdoor gardens and a forest that houses the largest area of the original wilderness that once covered all of New York City. I shot the opening photo of this article there after a heavy snowfall the night before. Showing no traces of civilization, one might assume it was shot in a national park – not in the heart of the Bronx. Below is another image I captured in its forest area after a different snowstorm.

Photo of a winter scene in the forest area of the New York Botanical Garden showing a number of trees dusted with snow and some frozen water on the ground amid patches of snow. © F. M. Kearney
Frozen pond Winter scene in the forest area of the New York Botanical Garden. © F. M. Kearney

Whenever I show my friends some of the photos that I’ve taken in the NYBG, they usually ask the same question: “You shot this, WHERE!?” The Bronx is known for a lot of things, but unspoiled wilderness certainly isn’t one of them!

If you don’t have access to a large botanical garden, you may have to settle for a local park. But, if you want your photos to look like they were taken in the middle of nowhere, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

Eliminating Buildings

I used to always wait until after the storm to start shooting. There are few things in nature more beautiful than a snow-covered landscape bathed in bright sunlight under a crisp, blue sky, i.e., the opening photo. But I soon realized that I could capture a different kind of beauty and much more drama while shooting during the storm. This is also a perfect way to obscure (or completely eliminate) distant buildings. In the past, I’ve photographed areas within local parks that look like they were shot somewhere in the wild. However, the recent construction of nearby buildings have spoiled that illusion. But snowstorms have a way of turning back the clock. I shot the photo below in Central Park during a snowstorm at a lake called… well, The Lake (the developers weren’t very creative when it came to naming the bodies of water within the park). On a clear day, you would definitely be able to see buildings above the tree line on the other side of the lake. But, when cloaked within a frenzy of flurries, the photo looks as though it was taken deep in the wilderness somewhere – not in the heart of Midtown Manhattan!

Photo of part of the lake in Central Park, with a snow-covered shoreline and a few ducks in the water. Snow flurries help to hide the buildings surrounding Central Park. © F. M. Kearney
Snow flurries help to hide the buildings surrounding Central Park. © F. M. Kearney

Protecting Your Equipment

Shooting during a snowstorm does have its challenges, though. It’s important to protect your equipment from water damage. I normally transport all of my equipment in a large rolling camera bag with my tripod attached to the outside. But, in a heavy snowstorm, a rolling bag no longer rolls – it becomes a 25 lb. anchor! I have a smaller, backpack camera bag, but even that would be too cumbersome to use in storm conditions. Constantly opening and closing it would expose all of its contents to moisture. I find it easier to use just one camera and one lens. I wear it around my neck and keep it protected inside my coat – it makes me look about 50 lbs. heavier, but it gets the job done. I take it out only when I’m ready to shoot, then quickly cover it again.

For added protection, it’s also good to use some type of rain cover for your camera. There are many commercially available covers on the market, but I find a simple, clear plastic bag with a hole cut out for the lens works the best. It’s also a good idea to use a lens shade to help keep flakes off the lens.

Using Flash

Two photos of the same snowy woodland scene, without flash (left) and with flash (right). In the photo with flash, the snowflakes falling are plainly visible. © F. M. Kearney
Two photos of the same scene, without flash (left) and with flash (right). © F. M. Kearney

An interesting technique to try in a snowstorm is to use flash. The flash will light up the flakes closest to the camera – emphasizing that it is, in fact, snowing. The images above illustrate just how different the same scene will look when shot with and without a flash. I shot them years ago using an old Nikon F4 film camera. It didn’t have a built-in flash, so I had to use a large, external flash. Most modern digital camera have built-in flashes – making this technique much easier to do in the middle of a storm. To make the flakes stand out even more, it’s sometimes helpful to slightly underexpose the scene.

Eliminating Footprints

As I mentioned earlier, one of the problems with shooting in a local park are the visitors that will soon trample any unspoiled areas you may find. One way of getting around that is to simply get to the park before they do. Early-morning shoots are beneficial in any season because of the beautiful, warm lighting. But, if you get out early enough after a snowstorm in the winter, you might have the added benefit of being the first to witness the unspoiled aftermath of the storm. This is really the best way to ensure that no footprints will mar your scenes. I shot the photo below early one morning along a stream in Central Park. Besides the snow being undisturbed, it also reflected the colors of the early-morning light. If you’re unable (or unwilling) to get up before dawn to avoid the footprints, you can always remove them later in post.

Photo of a partially frozen stream winding through woods with snow on the banks. Early-morning light reflecting on undisturbed snow. © F. M. Kearney
Early-morning light reflecting on undisturbed snow. © F. M. Kearney

So, if you can’t get out of the city, shooting nature photos in a local park really isn’t that bad. In a way, it’s actually easier in the wintertime. The snow will cover well-worn paths – furthering the illusion that you’re in the middle of nowhere. If you can’t compose your photos to crop out signs of civilization, just shoot close-ups or “intimate landscapes.” But that really shouldn’t be an issue. The photo below, like all the other photos in this article, were shot in the heart of the busiest city in the country without a trace of any urban artifacts. As a twist on that famous song goes… “If you can shoot them here, you can shoot them anywhere!”

Photo of a body of water with snow-covered shores and trees with snow on the branches. The Pool in Central Park in a snowstorm. © F. M. Kearney
The Pool in Central Park in a snowstorm. © 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).