10 Creative Winter Jump Starts

Keep your photographic eye sharp by exploring the winter world

The old saying in Minnesota is that we have nine months of winter and three months of tough sledding. While this is a bit of an exaggeration, it often starts to seem that way to photographers waiting for spring wildflowers and lush green scenics.

But winter has its advantages. Sunrise in northern Minnesota in early January is a very tolerable 8 a.m. Yes, it may be cold outside, but at least you don’t have to get up ridiculously early to get sunrise shots. And sunset is well before 5 p.m., so you can have a full day of shooting and still be home for dinner!

Winter can make photography challenging, and it may take a bit more sisu, as the Finns say, to get out the door and start shooting, but the rewards can be worthwhile. I vividly remember one cold morning on the frozen banks of the St. Louis River. Hours in the blind waiting for romping otters left me cold and stiff. I finally gave up and sprawled on the snow to soak up some late-morning sun. Then a bald eagle started circling slowly over me, spiraling lower and lower. He thought I was a tasty rotting carcass! I slo-o-owly grabbed my camera and began shooting straight up. My reward for keeping my camera at hand and my mind open was frame-filling photos of a bald eagle against an azure sky with the snow acting like a giant reflector to fill in the shadows beneath.

A gray winter day may take all the sisu you can muster, but amazing photos are out there just waiting to be taken. Here are 10 ideas to make your winter photo excursion more productive.

Color In WinterColor In Winter
Some see winter as a stark, colorless time of year, but color can be found in the most unlikely spots. Ice will take on the color of its surroundings, reflecting sunsets, blue sky and spruce boughs. Lichens on shoreline boulders can add a splash of orange or green to a wintery landscape.

Nikon D40 back view
Snow As Simplifer
Snow seems to quiet the land and slow down our lives. Snow can also simplify landscape photos by covering up the complexity of vegetation. We’d normally pass up a photo of a bird in a tangle of bare branches; the scene is simply too complex. But a coating of fresh snow can make the same scene magical. Get out early after a new snow before wind or warmth make the branches bare.

Nikon D40 back viewPatterns Abound
Wind-sculpted snow, ice cracks on a frozen lake, frost feathers on a window pane—all are winter-dependent patterns that make beautiful photos when combined with the right light. Shadows define the shapes of windswept snow; shoot at an angle to the sun to capture the pattern.

And don’t forget winter vegetation, such as rushes arcing gracefully on a snow-covered lake, multiple red sumac heads or spruce boughs covered with a blanket of snow.

Nikon D40 back viewWillow Wond
Another source of color in late winter is the willow. Many species can be found in the north, and they all have bark that turns deeper shades of red, green and yellow as winter starts to loosen its grip. Isolate a plant of a contrasting color against a background of willows. Or shoot birds feeding in a dense stand; maybe even set up a bird-feeding station nearby so that they use the willows as a perch.

Aurora Borealis
It’s not that the Northern Lights are more frequent in winter (in fact, they’re more common around the equinoxes), it’s that they’re more visible because the nights are longer and we tend to be awake when they’re displaying. I always have a few shooting locations picked out just in case. I choose spots that have a clear view to the north with a distinctive element to silhouette: a gnarled tree, a lighthouse or a mountain. Try setting your camera to ISO 400 or 800 with an ƒ-stop of 5.6 or so. Start with 10-second exposures and adjust from there.

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Birds Don’t HibernateBirds Don’t Hibernate
About once every five winters, the northeast may experience an eruption of owls. Great gray owls, snowy owls, northern hawk owls and sometimes even tiny boreal owls fly south out of Canada in search of food. Luckily, most of these hungry owls are daytime hunters and undisturbed by larger, inedible prey (photographers). In the winter of 2004-05, more than 5,000 great grays were believed to be in the state. I saw 106 great grays and 42 northern hawk owls in one day! Other birds invade the north in the winter. Common redpolls, pine grosbeaks, purple finches and evening grosbeaks all come to bird-feeding stations. Bohemian waxwings descend on mountain ash and crabapple trees. White-winged and red crossbills flock to spruce and pinecones.

Carcass Sitting Carcass Sitting
I know it may sound unpleasant, but carcass sitting can be the surest way of photographing elusive mammals in winter. Road-killed deer dragged into the woods can attract hungry critters, including coyote, red fox, long-tailed weasel, pine marten, fisher, bobcat and timber wolf. Set up a blind a fair distance away and get in before sunrise. One photographer friend even constructs a snow cave (quinzhee) with windows to use as a blind.

Focus On Snow
Snow seems so boring—it’s white and just lies there. Perhaps, but you can also make interesting photos with a little imagination. During a fluffy snowfall, capture individual flakes by setting an old (and clean) windowpane across a couple of sawhorses. Put a blue tarp or blue posterboard well below to provide contrast (of course, snowflakes don’t fall from a clear sky, but the blue contrasts nicely with the white flakes). You’ll need a macro setup of some kind to highlight individual flakes.

Flash For Fun
I love playing around with on-camera flash in the digital age. You can instantly see if you’re spreading your creative wings or wasting valuable shooting time. When composing scenics, try flash at dusk to highlight a foreground element. Dusk skies may look dark gray to our eyes, but the digital sensor will often render the sky blue. Popping the flash at night with snow falling can create crazy round blobs of light for an artsy effect.

I said that color can be found in winter, but some scenes simply are expressed best in shades of gray. New printers using multiple gray ink cartridges allow for more accurate renditions of black-and-white images. To get a good black-and-white photo, try Photoshop’s Channel Mixer (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Channel Mixer). Check the monochrome box and adjust the red, green and blue sliders to find the best combination for your particular image. Many winter subjects lend themselves to this technique: winter landscapes, cloudscapes, convoluted melting icicles and snow-laden tree branches.

Don’t let the winter blahs bog you down. Set yourself a weekly goal to focus on one of these creative ideas.



    Hi Fellow Finn,
    I wholeheartedly agree about photographing winter. Having been born in Finland and travelling there often, I have a great appreciation for winter. It’s my favorite subject to photograph.
    I also find great inspiration and peace in being out in the snow when everyone else is inside. And you’re right about sisu. I have many times also braved the cold. I have a Winter Meditations gallery on my website. Loved your photo here. Thanks, Carita Aarnio

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