Short days and colder temperatures are here to announce winter’s arrival. As I’m writing these words our first snow storm is howling outside my windows. It’s the kind of weather that makes me want to cozy up on a sofa and sleep through the next three months.
But that would mean I was missing the unique photo opportunities that winter offers! These colder months can provide the perfect conditions for dreamy images. The key is to know how, when, and where to look for them.
So instead of simply shivering in the cold and wanting to hibernate, let’s take our cameras out and make some winter photo magic.
What makes winter sun different?
The path of the sun across the sky differs from season to season. Summer days are longer, with the sun traveling higher across the sky. By contrast, winter days are much shorter with sun travelling much lower across the sky. In the northern hemisphere, this means that the sun shines directly into south-facing windows. The sunrises and sunsets will linger longer in southeast and southwest windows respectively.
Take time to identify these windows in your home. Observe how light enters each room. In my home, I know I’ll find the first rays of the morning sun entering our dining area. Within couple of hours, the sun shifts farther south, providing constant direct light into the living room windows. Finally, at the end of the day I can count on that golden sunset light entering my girls’ bedroom.
When you’ve identified where the sun hits at specific hours, you are better equipped to know where your photo opportunities will be found. Then you can get creative with different techniques. The following are some of my favorites.
Create striking sun flare
There’s something magical about the shapes and colors sun flares add to a photo. While some consider them technical flaws, they are becoming more widely accepted as beautiful when used with intention.
To capture a sun flare, the sun must be directly in front of your lens or only partially obscured by an object. With winter sun low in the sky during most of the day, there are many opportunities to experiment with the sun shining into your lens.
*Note: never look directly into the sun, especially through a lens. This can cause permanent damage to your eyes.
Your aperture will control the intensity and definition of your sun flare, so play with different f-stops and see what effects you like best. I’ve found that f5.6 is a good starting point for the look I like. However, I’ve been able to achieve unique flares at all apertures.
Keep in mind also that different lenses create different types of flares. My 24mm is well-suited for unique flares but I have had interesting results will many different focal lengths.
Capture large starbursts
Sun starbursts are so much fun! And, it’s possible to capture them using both natural and artificial light sources.
The key is to shoot directly at the light with narrow aperture. Personally, I love to incorporate starbursts indoors with the sun shining through windows. I place my subject close to the window and position myself on the other side of the room, as low as possible. Then, I hide part of the sun with the window frame, while still letting some of the rays enter the lens.
While most landscape photographers use their highest apertures (f/11-f/16) to get well-defined starbursts, I prefer an aperture somewhere in the middle (f5.6-f11) to create larger, more spread out starbursts. Try out a few different f-stops to see what look you like best!
Get beautiful haze
When backlighting your subject and using a wide aperture, the lens floods with light and creates a haze in the images. I love using this technique to add a dreamy-quality to my photos.
Too much haze? You can control this effect by blocking some of the light with your lens hood. By contrast, you can enhance and intensify haze by adding atmospheric elements such as smoke, fog, or dust.
For the creamiest haze, a wide aperture (f1.4-f2.8) is key.
Seek out long winter shadows
Shadows add depth, provide visual interest, and create compositional elements in a photograph. The low position of the sun in winter helps cast interesting shadows in a room.
Take a day to observe the shapes your windows create throughout the day. Dramatic lines will appear in different areas of the room and you may find yourself inspired!
In our living space, one window casts shadows across the west wall in the morning. Then it moves straight across the floor creating a square shape. Gradually it turns into a diamond on the floor as it moves with the sun.
Keep an eye out for those shapes and how you can use them. They can act as leading lines. You can put your subject near the shadow shapes to see how the light and shadows play off of it. The shadows and shapes can even BE the subject! The idea is to play, practice, and find out what works for you.
Identify spot lights
Where there’s shadow, there’s light! When you are working to find and use shadows in your images, you can also switch gears and think about how to use the light. Move the focus to where it’s the brightest for a totally different look…even while working with the same subjects and objects.
While working with a spot light, expose for the brightest area to avoid blowing out details in your highlights. Everything else in shadow will simply fall away.
One of my favorite things about bright light is how well it reflects off flat surfaces. Even if your subject’s face is away from the main light source, it will still be highlighted by the reflected light from the floor.
Play with your exposure
How you choose to expose your image can make all the difference in the final product. In the exact same spot location, you can create dramatically different images by simply changing the way you approach your exposure.
By exposing for the highlights, everything in shadow will fade into darkness. This technique is perfect for silhouettes and garage portraits!
In that same scenario, you could choose to expose for the shadows. This will cause your highlights to “blow out” giving you perfect white in those areas while the shadowed areas retain all of their detail.
Both exposures are technically correct even thought they are wildly different. It’s a creative decision which way to shoot.
Take advantage of the early sunset
Yes, the sun sets early in the winter. Here in New York, it can set as early as 4:00 pm. While that can seem limiting, I actually like that my kids are still up and eager to go for a walk with me at this time!
Any time I see beautiful clouds rolling in, I’ll take them out to an open field or beach and try to capture their silhouette against the winter setting sun.
There are some great free apps that track golden hour and sunsets for you. Use these to help you plan and adjust as the sun’s patterns change through the seasons.
It may take a bit of a shift in your schedule, but it can be a good thing that you get take photos during golden hour, get home for dinner, and still get everyone tucked-in at a normal bedtime.
Keep shooting after sunset
Winter is a great time to take night photos. My family is still active after sunset in the winter. Even if it’s completely dark outside, there are virtually unlimited opportunities for utilizing artificial light for capturing beautiful, creative photographs.
You don’t need a bunch of lighting equipment to utilize artificial light. I use the lights in our household appliances (the refrigerator, microwave, oven, and the dryer), gadget screens (phones, tablets, laptops), and flash lights.
In the photo above we were coming back from errands when it started to snow. I seized the opportunity and captured my girls and the falling snowflakes highlighted by the car lights.
And here I took a self-portrait with my littlest, just as she was falling asleep in my arms.
Winter may be cold and gray but it doesn’t have to throw you into a creative rut. Let’s look at the glass as half full this winter and take advantage of all that winter has to offer. I can’t wait to see what you create!