What to Photograph During a Winter With No Snow

January 25th, 2012 by Jerry Monkman
Rocks and surf at dawn, Wallis Sands State Park, Rye, New Hampshire. (Jerry Monkman)
Rocks and surf at dawn, Wallis Sands State Park, Rye, New Hampshire. F16, 30 seconds. (Jerry Monkman)

If you live in the northern U.S., you are probably experiencing a low snow winter this year. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where I live, we haven’t had any appreciable snow since before Halloween! The gray and brown hues of a snowless landscape can definitely make it hard for a landscape photographer to be inspired enough to get out there and shoot. I feel fortunate that I chose his winter to start a new project I call 0630, where I go out every morning and make a picture at 6:30 (you can read more about the project in this post I made over at the Outdoor Photographer website.) The project has forced me to get out and shoot, when I normally would have stayed in bed, and it’s really getting my creative juices flowing and giving me good practice on techniques I don’t always use on a regular basis. For most of the last 6 weeks, I’ve been shooting primarily 30-45 minutes before sunrise, so here are some tips on what to do when it’s winter, it’s dark, and there’s no snow.

Find some light, any light! On clear mornings, I head to the coast, where I can use the pre-sunrise glow and colors to my advantage. Since I like to use low ISOs like 100 or 200, and small apertures like F16, that means I’m often shooting very slow shutter speeds, anywhere from 15 seconds to 2 minutes. A sturdy tripod is a must, and I really recommend using a cable release or the self-timer on the camera. Since most cameras have a maximum shutter speed of 30 seconds, you’ll need to put the camera in bulb mode for anything longer and then use a cable release to hold the shutter open the appropriate amount of time. What’s the appropriate amount of time? Let’s say the camera’s meter is telling you that F11 and 30 seconds is too dark of an exposure. Increase your aperture until the meter reads a proper exposure. In this example, assume that it now says F5.6, 30 seconds. This equates to F8 at 1 minute, F11 at 2 minutes, or F16 at 4 minutes. Put the camera in bulb mode, dial in F11, then trip the shutter with the cable release, locking it in the on position and keep the shutter open for 2 minutes. If you have an intervalometer (a fancy cable release), you can set it to automatically hold the shutter open for 2 minutes.  If you include a dark foreground like in the above photo, you will probably also need to use a graduated split neutral density filter to hold down the exposure in the sky and avoid blown out highlights.

Pre-dawn surf, Rye Harbor State Park, New Hampshire. (Jerry Monkman)

Pre-dawn surf, Rye Harbor State Park, New Hampshire. F16, 2 minutes. (Jerry Monkman)

On cloudy days, finding light is obviously even harder. I’m finding it’s still fun to make long exposures on the coast like the above shot, but there’s a lot less color. Though it’s not part of my normal subject matter, city scenes here in Portsmouth have proven to be a good thing to shoot when I need to find a little light on dark mornings. For many of these urban scenes like the below image of the Memorial Bridge in the fog, I’m finding High Dymanic Range (HDR) software to be a huge help. For this image, I locked my camera into the tripod and shot three exposures at F16, 2-stops apart: 4 seconds, 15 seconds, and 30 seconds. The combination of the three exposures captured detail in both the dark recesses behind the buildings and in the bright lights. I used Nik HDR Efex Pro to combine the three shots into one.

The Memorial Bridge in the fog, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. HDR. (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)

The Memorial Bridge in the fog, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. HDR. (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)

Trees silhouetted against the morning sky at Odiorne Point State Park in Rye, New Hampshire. (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)

Trees silhouetted against the morning sky at Odiorne Point State Park in Rye, New Hampshire. F11, 3.2 seconds. (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)

Another technique I like to use when a “normal” shot might not work because of mediocre light or so-so subject matter is to purposefully blur the photo to create an abstract composition. For the above shot of trees against a pre-dawn sky, I used a shutter speed of 3.2 seconds and moved the camera up while the shutter was open. This is a really fun technique because you never know exactly what you’re going to get. In addition to moving the camera up and down, you can try moving it horizontally or diagonally as well.

Captain Tobias Lear's 1781 tombsone in the Point of Graves Burying Ground in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)

Captain Tobias Lear’s 1781 tombsone in the Point of Graves Burying Ground in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. F4, 15 seconds (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)

Of course, you can always add your own light with flash, or as I did in the above photo, with a flashlight. “Light painting” with a flashlight is as easy as waving the flashlight across your subject during the exposure. For this shot, I just used a basic maglight that I bought at the local hardware store, and painted the tombstones during a 15 second exposure. I love the skull and crossbones, by the way.

I am enjoying shooting at this time quite a bit. Most days, I’m done shooting before the sun even comes up so I can go about my normal daily routine. I was actually startled to see the sun come on Saturday when I lingered longer than usual, and I have been so accustomed to shooting in the dark, that I wasn’t sure what to do with all that light!

The forecast is calling for a little snow tonight, but hopefully this post has given you some ideas of what to do on those dark, snow-free, winter days.

You can follow my 0630 project on Tumblr or by liking the EcoPhotography Facebook Page.

Check out my upcoming workshops here:  http://jerryandmarcymonkman.com/blog/

Until next time…

-Jerry

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