Depending on which poll you consult, most people’s favorite season is either spring, summer or fall. Regardless of the rankings at the top, one constant across these surveys is that winter places last by a noticeable margin. It is generally seen as bleak, colorless and depressing. I hope to show you that at least as far as landscape photography is concerned, it is anything but.
Among outdoor photographers, I would wager that autumn is the prevailing favorite, and for good reason. Most popular destinations are less crowded, the temperatures become comfortable for hiking around with heavy camera equipment, and, of course, visual contrasts and extravaganzas of color abound as foliage goes through its yearly transformation.
Earth is covered by 3 trillion trees, and as they change, so does the landscape. While I greatly look forward to autumn every year, as soon as I’ve had a good dose of colorful foliage and cooler temperatures, my heart and mind move on. I begin my eager anticipation of the first snows and the peaceful quiet of winter.
#1 Keep It Simple
There are a myriad of reasons to enjoy winter as a nature photographer, and perhaps the most obvious are the visual qualities it imparts upon the landscape. As photographers, our job is to simplify the world around us. This process of composition is not only the placement of the subject and the arrangement of forms but also the exclusion of extraneous elements from the scene before us. We do this so that our photograph may effectively convey what we want the viewer to see, free of distractions.
In this regard, winter offers us an advantage. There is perhaps no better natural simplification than snow. As it blankets the landscape, complex palettes of potentially clashing colors become a uniform white. Chaotic ground cover may become a sea of graceful, undulating mounds. Subjects may be simplified to their form alone, with their color and texture hidden from view. And all colors go well with white, so if any color is still visible in combination with the snow, it is likely to be a palette that works. Scenes that were previously too messy may now appear pristine.
#2 Look On The Bright Side
Another positive effect of snow cover is that the landscape becomes much brighter. Why is that necessarily a good thing? Because our medium is light, and brighter objects are better at reflecting that light.
Many subjects in nature don’t lend themselves well to photography because they are too dark in relation to their surroundings. The viewer’s gaze is naturally drawn to luminosity, and it can be difficult to direct attention to your subject if it’s overpowered by the rest of the frame.
For example, take the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest in the summer. These peaks are composed of volcanic rock, which is quite dark (Mount Rainier’s impressively glaciated faces excepted), and in most mountain photographs, the peaks tend to be surrounded by much brighter sky. Thus, it can be difficult to make them stand out or to convey their interaction with light, since the lit surfaces of the mountain just don’t come to life as you’d hope during those magic hours at the edges of day, and the sky can easily overpower the intended subject.
But as soon as these peaks gain their winter coats, nearly any light can bring them to life, as the snow is highly reflective. Even better, the peaks no longer require intense light to glow; that can be achieved even with soft and diffuse light at the right time.
#3 Think Snow
This brings me to perhaps the most striking visual quality of the winter landscape, also related to its interaction with light. Snow, with its high reflectivity and neutral white color, will take on qualities of the light that lands upon it, and not just luminosity but color also.
Take, for example, the blazing red sunrise and sunset skies so many landscape photographers pursue. In winter, these skies may no longer be simple filler for the top of the frame above the horizon; they bathe the landscape below in their colorful glow.
When the landscape is sporting its winter coat, it will reflect the properties of the light show occurring above, creating visual interest throughout the frame. The sky may not need to be included at all to convey the splendor of this event, and new compositional possibilities are thus unlocked outside of the standard formula. This also applies to the daytime blue sky, which is reflected particularly well in shaded snow. Pure, refreshing blue-and-white color palettes are no longer limited to sea and sky; they become available on the land itself.
As an aside, the way snow interacts with light also applies to sand, and that is one of the main reasons I love photographing dunes. It just so happens that winter is a wonderful time to visit warmer climates like the desert. The weather becomes pleasant, and fleeting winter conditions can present unique contrasts in a landscape normally associated with heat.
#4 Winter Is A Wonderland
Winter is also host to a number of unique ephemeral conditions, which can transform a normally mundane landscape into a wonderland. On still nights with moist air, as the temperature falls below freezing, tiny ice crystals may condense on small branches and foliage, coating them in hoarfrost, which rewards those who wake up early enough to photograph it.
Any frozen puddle or pond may become a photographer’s playground with the cracks, bubbles and textures that form in ice. New shapes, contrasts and even optical illusions may appear as snow clings to the contours of the landscape and as it melts away in patches. Fog, another great simplifier of the landscape, is often prevalent in winter, and it may be combined with any of the aforementioned displays of light or atmosphere for truly magical potential.
#5 Embrace The Quiet
Beyond the visual qualities that winter imparts upon the landscape, there are other advantages for us as nature photographers. In contrast with event photography, for example, we may prefer to work alone, free of distractions. I personally feel most at peace when I’m lost in my viewfinder, composing an image, the only sound an occasional breeze or the shuffling of my own feet. It is in this silence that I make my best photographs, and winter makes these opportunities more plentiful.
Winter is the true off-season for most outdoor destinations. Even the most popular national parks, still bustling with activity in other seasons, fall quiet in winter. People hibernate in their homes, focus on their family and the holidays, and concentrate on their work rather than on their vacations. Their absence is our gain. Even highly developed natural areas may become quieter as snow mutes the sound of tires on nearby highways.
#6 Minimize Distractions
Having a peaceful working environment is not the only way winter increases the potential for photographic success. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter sun is farther south, and so it makes a lower arc across the sky, increasing the amount of time we have access to the directional light that makes the so-called golden hours so special.
Nights are also longer in the winter, which is a big advantage if you’re like me and have difficulty getting enough sleep before waking up in darkness to go photograph sunrise. While landscape photography always involves some challenges, in my opinion, it’s important to minimize distractions to remain mentally present and enable creativity. I will concede that being cold may be one such distraction, but that is why we dress for an outing.
#7 Get Inspired
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I simply feel most inspired by winter. I may be an outlier—it seems seasonal affective disorder afflicts me in the summer—but I prefer cloudy skies and cold temperatures.
I enjoy the dynamic opportunities winter weather provides for nature photography. I prefer peace and quiet over excitement. I strive to make photographs that most photographers have not made and that most people will never witness firsthand. It seems to me that these unique opportunities might be more likely to occur in what is generally the least-popular season.
It is often said that a great photographer could make a good photograph of any subject, no matter how mundane. While that may be true to a degree, I think this idea misses the importance of inspiration in our work. We need to feel interested in our subject to connect with it and to engage our creative faculties fully.
As much as I appreciate backpacking in the mountains in the summer or walking on carpets of fallen leaves in autumn, there is always a part of me yearning for winter. When it finally arrives each year, I feel at peace, ready to savor the present. I make sure my camera is ready to help me capture that feeling so that I may return to it for years to come.
See more of Alex Noriega’s work at alexnoriega.com.