Bare trees in Central Park shrouded in heavy fog. © F. M. Kearney
When Snow Isn’t an Option, Focus on Bare Branches to Add Interest to Your Winter Photos
By F. M. Kearney
It’s a damp, grey day, with temperatures hovering in the low to mid-forties. The last vestiges of fall foliage have long since faded to brown and withered away in the wind. It will be at least another month before the first blooms of the year make their colorful entrance into the world. If you live in the Northeast, February doesn’t exactly offer a cornucopia of subject matter for nature photographers. Also, since this winter has been mostly unseasonably mild, traditional snow scenes have been somewhat of a rarity. But, regardless of the unpredictable environmental factors, the one thing you can always count on each winter are bare branches. Sure, they may not be as exciting to shoot as a colorful garden of flowers. People aren’t going to travel several miles across the country to see them when they’re at their peak. Unfortunately, many photographers probably don’t even consider them worthwhile photo ops once they shed their leafy wardrobe. But nothing could be further from the truth. Bare branches impart a particularly graphic (almost eerie) quality to trees that is not exhibited at any other time of the year.
One of my favorite combinations in nature is bare branches and dense fog. Talk about eerie! It’s the classic setting for countless horror movies. Whenever I see these kinds of conditions I try to head out ASAP, because I never know how long they will last. I shot the opening photo and Photo “A” in New York’s Central Park during one such occasion. As they say, “the fog was as thick as pea soup” and visibility was extremely limited… not great for flying, but perfect for moody photos!
PHOTO A: Dense fog pairs perfectly with bare branches. © F.M. Kearney
Any color present in the shot will be extremely subdued, so why not remove it entirely? These types of conditions are great for black and white conversions. I shot Photo “B” atop a slate rock boulder on the same foggy day as the previous images. Using a blue/yellow polarizing filter, I added some unusual colors to the scene. Interesting… but it didn’t really capture the mood. The absence of color in Photo “C” totally changed that. When I look at this photo, I tend to imagine the scaly back of Godzilla, as he slowly rises from the bowels of the Earth. Or, maybe it just means that I watch too many monster movies. In any event, if you really want to create some eerie-looking photos, try turning foggy, winter scenes into black & white.
PHOTO B: Foggy scene (original photo PHOTO C: Black & white version ups the “creepy” factor. © F. M. Kearney
The main thing to keep in mind when shooting in a fog is to have a dominant element in the foreground. Not only will this add depth to the photo, it will also clearly show the density of the fog, as the trees (or whatever your subject may be) gradually dissolve into the abyss. Generally, shorter focal lengths work best. A long lens will simply produce murky-looking images if the foreground is eliminated.
Bare branch images don’t always have to be dark and gloomy. Take advantage of this time of year to incorporate them as graphic, foreground elements in your sunrise/sunset photos. I shot Photos “D” and “E” during a couple of cold, but colorful, winter mornings. I think images of this nature exhibit a certain type of ominous beauty that cannot be captured during any other season. Had I shot these in the summer, the leaves would have blocked much of the colorful sky – resulting in predominately dark images.
PHOTO D: Wide angle view of sun behind tree. PHOTO E: Telephoto view of sun behind tree. © F. M. Kearney
I’m not exactly sure what aperture I used to shoot these photos, because it was back in the days of film. But, I’m sure the settings were fairly small, most likely around f/16 or f/11. The reason the sun looks so different is because I shot Photo “D” with a 28mm wide angle lens, and Photo “E” with a 70-200mm zoom lens. Your choice of focal length will have a dramatic effect on the look of your photo – especially when it comes to sunrays. To learn more about focal lengths and how to creatively use them, check out this article I wrote here.
Of course, the sun isn’t the only celestial body that looks good behind bare branches. The moon is also a terrific subject. In fact, I would say that it’s an even better subject than the sun. It’s much safer to view through your viewfinder, and if it’s creepy-looking photos you seek, you will not be disappointed when shooting the moon behind bare branches at night. I shot Photo “F” shortly before dawn in the New York Botanical Garden. I got there early to avoid the crowds – maybe a little too early. The grounds were still dark and there was absolutely nothing to see. The only thing announcing its presence was a half moon shining brightly above. I composed a shot of it through a small opening in a cluster of bare branches. Being that this was another photo taken in the pre-digital era, I had to get a little creative to get the correct exposure. I used my 70-200mm lens and zoomed in as tight as I could and spot-metered the moon. I then removed it and attached my 50mm lens to get a wider view of the surrounding branches. I set my camera to manual and used the spot-metered exposure. After shooting a few bracketed shots, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best! Back then, there were no helpful histograms or blinking, overexposure indicators to help you. Luckily, I was able to get the correct exposure and retain detail in the moon.
PHOTO F: Half moon behind bare branches © F. M. Kearney
Bare branches are a much underrated subject. They’re so prevalent in the winter that they become almost invisible. But, they have the potential for creating some very unique images. They also help to reveal aspects of a scene that are normally hidden at other times of the year. Besides nature, I also shoot a lot of urban landscapes around New York City. Sometimes, however, I’m unable to get the composition I want because it’s either partially or completely blocked by trees. I simply wait until winter, when the leaves are gone, and I’m able to get a clear shot the scene. I actually wrote an article about this several years ago, which can be seen here.
So, if you live in the Northeast and you’re dealing with a lack of snow this winter, take a closer look at the bare branches all around you. There just might be a masterpiece hiding in plain sight.
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 email@example.com, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).