The Season Of Solitude

Marc Adamus’ winter landscape images combine light, form and color to transport the viewer into a place and a state of emotion

Snow and ice blanket Crater Lake in Oregon. Nature photographer Marc Adamus is most at home in a winter wonderland. Based out of Oregon, he often spends months traversing any number of remote locations in pursuit of stunning winter landscapes and scenics.

Winter starts early for Marc Adamus. In 2011, he found snow in late September while leading a workshop in Glacier National Park, but his winter really kicked in when he landed in a remote Arctic range a few days into October. He’ll take winter wherever, whenever he can find it.

“Without a doubt, winter is definitely my favorite time to shoot,” says Adamus. “My whole interest in the outdoors and wilderness photography, it comes from a love of just being out there in the extreme weather. I love the cold and the wind and the snow. I’ve sought that out my entire life. It really puts me in a position where I can feel the power of nature.

Captured in Fremont-Winema National Forest, Oregon, vegetation contrasts nicely with a fresh snow covering in “Winter Grace.” About the image he titles “Cold and Alone,” Adamus notes, “Taken from a remote wilderness location days from a road or trail in Jasper, Alberta, this image depicts a small, curving line atop a nearly frozen stream running into an ice-covered lake. High mountain peaks and the setting sun complement the scene in the distance.”

“I was just as attracted to snow at three years old as I am now,” Adamus adds. “It’s a lifelong fascination for me, completely out of my control. I’m totally enthralled by it. I think it’s the most magical thing, and always have.”

Adamus seeks out that magic as early and often as possible, particularly enjoying early winter opportunities when snow is fresh and backcountry access is easy. There’s a difference, though, between early snow and real winter.

“In winter, new snow is critically important for a lot of things,” he explains. “It covers every last bit of landscape, and that’s what makes those exposures easy to handle and makes everything come together. When you have just patchy snow, like summer snow, little patches of it that have been hanging around in the landscape for a long time, those patches of snow stick out like a sore thumb on your photographs. They’re very difficult to control, exposure-wise. So if it’s new snow, it’s winter as far as I’m concerned. If it has been sitting around a long time collecting dirt and pine needles, that’s definitely a different type of situation.

“One of the things about early winter I absolutely love, and I always take advantage of,” Adamus continues, “is the first few storms of the season before the snow really starts to accumulate. You can get the best of both worlds: You can have all the same accessibility, or very close to the same accessibility, as you do in the summer. You can still follow a trail if there’s six inches or a foot of snow, or the road may be open if there’s only a few inches of snow. You can get into a lot of the same places that you can in the summer before the snow has really piled up. And you can get way out there into some of these mountainous landscapes. Take Glacier, for example—the first storm of the season hit us in September, and we got about six inches of snow on the peaks. I can hike up into those peaks, and it would be just like shooting a landscape in midwinter. Everything is completely covered in beautiful new white snow, and I can follow the same trail and the same road that I use in the summer to get there.”

One of Adamus’ favorite photographs is an early winter image made in Banff National Park. The dawn sky is on fire, reflected in the water and ice of the foreground, juxtaposed with bits of blue snow mirroring the predawn sky. It’s a stunning, color-filled photograph.

“My winter portfolio really reads like a spread of my favorite images,” Adamus says. “Most of my favorite stuff has come from winter. That sunrise in Banff, with the Vermillion Lakes with ice in the foreground, I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen a better show of light in my life. And I’m out there 300 days a year. I’ve never seen anything better than that in nature.”

Finding color in the winter can be challenging, but with patience, planning and practice, Adamus often is able to produce images with a lot of impact. This image, taken at Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, is a particular favorite of the photographer, who spends a majority of the year working solitarily in the field.

Adamus shoots with a digital SLR, and he’s unafraid of using Photoshop and postproduction to bring out the best of his images. Though his images aren’t born in Photoshop, he uses his tools to best represent what he experienced with his own eyes. With the Banff sunrise, he used technical prowess to rein in the dynamic range and match what he saw in the park.

“Most of the color comes from just the raw processing,” Adamus says. “There are some more specific fine-tuning and adjustments that go on in Photoshop—just isolating specific areas of color and getting the most out of them—but everything in that scene postproduction-wise could be dummied down to RAW processing of the sky in one image and then the landscape in the other so that you get the best out of both, then painting those together and a little bit of dodge and burn on top of that. The sun is right on the horizon in that image, and that makes for some pretty good color when you have those clouds up there.”

The glowing Banff landscape is highly representative of Adamus’ winter portfolio as a whole: The photographs are overflowing with color. It might be easy to imagine winter photography as devoid of vibrancy, blanketed in white, with high contrast between light and shadow and little of the color seen in other seasons. But winter can be just as colorful, and in Adamus’ photographs, it’s fully in bloom.

“I think people kind of have the idea in their head that winter is a time of death, a time when everything is dormant and stark and not very inviting,” he says. “Color really helps attract people to a scene. Plus, new snowfall is one of the great reflectors of light, one of the great catchers of light we have. When I’m shooting a fiery sunset or a sunrise or great color in the sky out there, all of that’s reflected onto that snow. And that just helps carry that beautiful rich color throughout the scene, which helps tie everything together exposure-wise and invites people into that scene. I’ll take every opportunity I can to get that color.”

Adamus continues, “Plus, ice around water is just tremendously luminous. One great way to photograph ice and water together is to find those reflected light opportunities. Ice and water look really cool, but they’re not the most photogenic things in the world until you find some way to separate the two. They have very similar exposure and luminosity values, so oftentimes when you see an image of the two together, it’s very hard to find that separation, that contrast that really drives the image. Utilizing that type of reflected light onto the ice or onto the water to distinguish the two can be really advantageous as well. Wherever I’m shooting, if it’s snow-covered or ice-covered or whatever, I’m looking for that reflected light.”

Marc Adamus’ Equipment
Canon EOS-1DS Mark III
(primary camera)
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Nikkor 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED AF-S

Novoflex adapter to use the Nikon lens with Canon DSLRs
Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4L USM
Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM

1.4x and 2x teleconverters
And “just about every filter under the sun”

Some photographers think of snow as a particularly tricky subject precisely because of those highly reflective qualities, but Adamus points out that when it blankets the winter landscape, it creates a uniform, low-contrast scene. Technically, it becomes easier to create accurate exposures—no neutral-density filters are required to bring down bright skies into equilibrium with the darker land. Even more important, however, a blanket of snow helps compositionally. Adamus can create graphically simplified photographs that are easily engaging.

“I find that winter landscapes, in general, are more simplistic,” he says, “and many times that really makes them a lot more photogenic than the same scene in summer. After all, rule number one in landscape photography is simplify. You have to cut a scene down to its most basic elements and eliminate those distractions so you get fluid lines, a fluid path through the scene. But when you have something intruding on that snowy landscape that’s not covered in snow, then it absolutely becomes a very challenging scene to control.”

Though he enjoys getting an early start on the season even if it means fighting with some of those intruding elements, Adamus is also unafraid of midwinter treks through the heart of the backcountry. This requires special preparation, but clearly his portfolio proves that the challenge is worth it.

“There’s nothing I love more than a good long extended hike way out there in the winter,” Adamus says. “Whatever landscape you’re going to be visiting, it’s like being the first person to ever see that landscape. The snow conditions have such a huge role in photography, and the snow conditions are ever-changing, so you never know exactly what that landscape is going to look like. I love that.”

Adds Adamus, “One thing that you have to pay real close attention to is exactly what the conditions of the snow are and how you’re going to get where you’re going. Obviously, there are skis and snowshoes, and there are advantages and disadvantages of each. But the main thing for me when I’m in the mountains is what the avalanche conditions are going to be like and picking the safest route of approach. People back East are saying, ‘Avalanches, really?’ Avalanches are a big killer out West here among winter backcountry enthusiasts. Every region has its own avalanche forecasting center, and they do a pretty good job of keeping you apprised of what the current avalanche conditions are, and just doing some snow pack analysis yourself—not just because of avalanches, but for ease of travel.

“For example,” Adamus continues, “if there was a warm spell or a few days of sunny weather, and we had a nice firm crust form on top of the snow, and then a new storm came and dumped a bunch of new snow on top of that, that might make for bad avalanche conditions because you have a real inconsistency in the snow pack—you have light snow on top of that hard icy snow—but it also makes for really good walking conditions. If it’s just been dumping and dumping, and you don’t have that firm crust anywhere to walk on, then you can find yourself even with big fatty skis or 30-inch snowshoes wading around in thigh-deep snow, taking the entire day to go a mile and a half. That’s not very much fun. Then you really have to try to pick the ridge routes that get windswept when that happens, and sometimes you just really have to scale back your ambitions on account of the snowfall. When it’s really light powdery snow and there’s a whole lot of it, I don’t care what you have on your feet or who you are, you’re just not gonna get all that far in it.”

In spite of the challenges of cold weather—actually, because of them—Adamus relishes his travels in the heart of winter.

“Oftentimes, people just kind of previsualize the winter landscape as dark and foreboding,” he says. “It’s not natural to them. But once you get familiar with it, and prepared for going out in it, winter can be just as beautiful as anything. Also, you can get out there and have these places completely to yourself in winter, which is another thing I really love about it, and the amount of unique picture opportunities it gives you—the combination of all those things just makes winter an endless source of fascination for me.

“Your best photographs are going to come from the places you know best,” concludes Adamus, “and the places that you’ve really taken the time to get to know and to care about. I just absolutely love the winter landscape. If I hated it, I probably wouldn’t make very good pictures of it. In any type of photography, it all just comes down to having a good relationship with your subject.”

You can see more of Marc Adamus‘ work at

Depth-Of-Field Blending Technique
To create the image Marc Adamus calls “Ice Art,” not only did the photographer capitalize on the winter landscape’s predisposition for reflecting beautiful skies in ice and snow, but he used a favorite advanced Photoshop technique he calls Depth of Field Blending. He recently has been teaching the technique in workshops, and he explains the concept behind it here.

“That’s a study of reflected light,” Adamus says of the “Ice Art” image. “I never would have been able to come up with a perspective like that, and get that type of separation and get everything sharp, if not for the depth-of-field blending. I was able to focus at 10 different focal points and blend them all together so that I had the image sharp. Otherwise, there’s no way that I could have come up with a perspective like that and have that type of separation.
“When people realize they can blend from different focal points to get the depth of field they need,” he continues, “they’re completely enthralled with the concept and think they should use it anywhere at anytime, and that’s really not the case. It’s something where you have to know what you’re getting yourself into because sometimes it can be excruciatingly painful.

“If you had a field of wildflowers and grasses, for instance,” Adamus says, “a finely detailed foreground, and you’re shooting a big wide-angle lens that has lots of distortion around the edges, the combination is just going to make depth-of-field blending really difficult. There are tools to help photographers—one is Helicon Focus, which was developed for macro photographers to help Photoshop identify the sharp pixels and keep only the sharp ones and throw away the soft pixels—but the fact remains that anytime you change the focal point, you’re also adjusting the focal length ever so slightly, and it’s that disconnect, that inconsistency, that really causes problems.”

Concludes Adamus, “Then again, there are other times, like ice, sandstone or anything with a very consistent texture throughout, or anything naturally layered or segmented in some way—it can be very easy to mask those images together. Sandstone, for example, has a very consistent texture. So even if your images don’t line up perfectly, it’s very easy to fudge it a little bit and make the blend pretty seamless.”