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Urban Nature: Capturing the Intimate Details of Winter

By December 6, 2022No Comments
Sunlight peeking through snow piled on an evergreen branch. Backlit billowing particles of snow. © F.M. Kearney

Backlit billowing particles of snow. © F.M. Kearney

By F. M. Kearney

One of the problems for nature photographers who live in large urban areas is the ability to capture those quintessential “Winter Wonderland” scenes – rolling fields and stately trees coated in fresh, white powder. The problem for most city dwellers is that optimum conditions are fleeting. Unlike other seasonal highlights, i.e., spring flowers or fall foliage, which might last a few weeks, optimum winter conditions might only last a few hours. In a heavily populated area like New York City, it can even be reduced to minutes! Rather than trying to capture those “grand scenes,” try to get out as soon as you can (maybe even while it’s still snowing) and concentrate on intimate details.

Shooting During a Storm

Shooting during a snowstorm has the potential for creating very dramatic images. I shot Photo “A” during a storm in New York’s Central Park. Besides ending up with images that are predominately monochrome, there’s the added hassle of having to take the necessary precautions to protect your equipment from the elements. While I definitely believe the end results are worth the effort, don’t neglect the charm of a bright, sunny day.

Photo of snow falling in a meadow surrounded by trees. There is a bend in the meadow. PHOTO A: Shooting during a storm can yield dramatic results. © F.M. Kearney

PHOTO A: Shooting during a storm can yield dramatic results. © F.M. Kearney

Story Behind the Opening Photo

After a late-night snowfall last winter, the forecast called for clear skies the next day. I headed out to Central Park to see what small wonders I might find. Most of the trees were heavily coated with snow – temporarily transforming the place into an urban, winter oasis. I say “temporarily” because, as I mentioned earlier… these conditions don’t last long. The snow was constantly falling off the trees – sometimes in large clumps. Standing directly under a tree would have been risky business. As the morning wore on and the temperatures rose, it looked like it was raining in some areas of the park. Every once and a while, the wind would kick up and blow a fine mist of snow off the branches. Needless to say; there was a lot going on. In situations like this, it pays to slow down and survey the scene. The key to many successful images is anticipation… that is, anticipating where and when the action will take place, and being prepared to capture it. I was standing next to a large spruce tree that was getting pretty beat up by the wind. Its branches were shedding snow all over the place. I noticed one area where the wind seemed to be attacking on a fairly consistent basis. It was noticeable because that spot was backlit by the sun. Every time a gust came through, it would create a short-lived, mini blizzard, with a sea of crystals glistening in the backlight. The opening photo is one of the shots I captured of this spectacle with my 70-200mm lens. I isolated one branch and simply waited for a gust to stir up some trouble. By shooting fairly wide at f/4 and 1/8000 sec., I was able to freeze the particles as perfectly rounded orbs of light. I used a flash (set to high-speed sync) in order to combat the strong backlight. Because I was standing directly in the “line of fire,” I had to quickly shield my camera and lens from the shower mist raining down on me after each shot.

PHOTO B: Ice-coated trees around the Central Park Reservoir © F.M. Kearney

The Ice Storm Cometh

I’ve always been super-jealous of anyone who’s ever experienced an ice storm. Now, I know most people who actually have experienced one would probably say that it’s the last thing they would ever want to deal with. I can’t say that I blame them, though. Slippery roads, downed trees and power lines are certainly not things I would find enjoyable. But, as a photographer, it’s an absolute paradise! These storms usually occur in the Mid-West, but this past February we had one in the New York area. As I had seen so many times on the news, every bush, branch and tree were encased in a thick layer of ice. I could not get to the park fast enough! The trees around the Central Park Reservoir were really a sight to see (Photo B). From a distance, it looked like they were covered with snow. As beautiful as the scene was, I think the real charm of an ice storm aftermath, are the innumerable possibilities you can get with close-up details.

PHOTO C: Use colored flash gels for a creative effect. © F.M. Kearney

Emphasize Reflective Qualities

The reflective qualities of ice are amazing. I always knew exactly what I wanted to do if I ever had a chance to shoot an ice storm… break out the colored flash gels! Photo “C” is a close-up of ice-coated, spruce pine needles I shot using a flash with a red gel. Flash gels are a great way to add a creative touch to your photos. They’re very affordable and available from a variety of manufacturers. I use a set made by Rogue Photographic Design, consisting of 20 filters: 6 for color correcting, and 14 for special color effects. During the early-morning or late-afternoon hours, I normally use a warming gel to better balance the white light of the flash to the warmer, ambient light. Here, I used the special effect red gel. Since I only wanted a hint of color, I dialed down the output of my flash about two stops. Anything more would have been too overpowering. At that output, I was able to add some color to the branches and a red accent to the ice – giving the green needles a Christmas-like appearance. I wanted to do some double exposures so I could introduce another color, but it was a little too windy to pull that off. The needles would not have been in the exact spot for both exposures, which would have resulted in “ghost” images.

Use Urban Artifacts

Shooting nature photos in an urban environment can be challenging. The natural desire is to eliminate as many man-made objects as possible. Sometimes, however, that may not be possible, or even advisable. While shooting the ice-coated pine needles, I found myself actually seeking out urban artifacts to include in my shots.

In Photo “D,” I used the light of an arching park lamp to frame the tips of a branch. If you look closely, you can see the arch of the lamp coming in on the right. In Photo “E,” I filled the space between the needles on the left with a red traffic light and an amber park lamp. I added more interest to Photo “F” by including another park lamp and some park goers in dark clothing, strolling along a path. I shot all of these photos in the 160-200mm range at f/4-f/3.3. This limited depth of field rendered the man-made artifacts as items of interest, rather than annoying distractions.

PHOTO D: Using a park lamp to highlight a branch. Photo of ice-covered spruce pine needles

Ice-covered spruce pine needles. © F.M. Kearney

Two photos of ice-covered spruce pine needles. PHOTO E (left): A traffic light helps fill the void. PHOTO F (right): A park lamp and strollers add interest. © F.M. Kearney

PHOTO E (left): A traffic light helps fill the void. PHOTO F (right): A park lamp and strollers add interest. © F.M. Kearney

So, if you find yourself in the middle of a large, metropolitan area and you’re treated to an epic snow or ice storm, try to look beyond the obvious. Small details (and seemingly annoying artifacts) can provide many opportunities for great images.

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 He can be contacted at, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).