Winter Etchings

Tune into the graphic, elegant starkness of the season
Black oak branches William Neill
Black oak branches in winter, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, 1994.

I love photographing in winter. When trees are bare, their graceful forms are starkly revealed. The tones of beige and gray or black and white form a subtle palette in the landscape. The lines of grass and shrub, ice and fallen leaves display themselves in simple, elegant design like a drawing or etching.

Winter photography offers us options at all scales. While winter scenes are less colorful than other seasons, I am drawn to their monochromatic qualities. Winter weather can often provide more interesting and dramatic skies with ominous clouds or clearing storms, which work especially well with broad scenics.

Many of my favorite winter images are vignettes of the landscape, such as my image of snow-covered branches. By zooming into a section of these oaks for my composition, the wonderful texture of the snow comes alive, and their lines form a dynamic graphic design that fills the frame. This image was made with my 4x5 camera and a Nikkor 360mm lens.

Among my favorite winter subjects are ice details. The endless patterns and textures fascinate me. When I first picked up a camera in college, I explored Boulder Creek in Colorado on cold winter mornings before heading to class, making close-up images of the crystalline forms. The Merced River in Yosemite is now my “go-to” location for ice imagery. I often find back eddies where ice forms around grasses at the water’s edge. These areas receive very little sun during the winter due to the high granite cliffs that form the valley’s southern rim.

Crystal Ice William Neill
Crystal ice and oak leaf, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, 2015.

I seek out compositions, like my oak leaf and ice crystals photograph, where brightly lit cliffs reflect in the ice to heighten their patterns. Currently, my favorite camera and lens combo is the Sony a7R II with a Metabones adapter and my Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift lens. In order to pick up the cliff reflections, I often need to use a low camera position. The lens’ tilt function helps me maintain sharpness throughout the depth of the subject area just as I used the same tilt function with my view camera. Although the ice is the main subject, I used the oak leaf as a small focal point of interest and context within an otherwise abstract pattern of ice.

When you are creating your own winter compositions, tune into the graphic designs to be found in the landscape. Study the winter photographs by the great masters of landscape photography such as these classic photographs: “Chicago, Trees in Snow, 1950” by Harry Callahan; “Redding, Connecticut, 1968” by Paul Caponigro; “Pine Forest in Snow, Yosemite National Park, 1932” by Ansel Adams; or "Stark Tree, 1956" by Wynn Bullock.

If you have a case of cabin fever this winter, give yourself the assignment of producing a winter portfolio of new images. Get out to your favorite local woods, lake or stream where you can return often in various weather and light. Working locally will give you many more opportunities to be out there after a fresh snow or a hard freeze when ice is everywhere. After all, it is only through practice that you will be ready to make your next great photograph. Enjoy the season!

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.

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