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Painting in Winter


Article © 2007-09 by Jenna Caplette, with tips from our staff at F-11 Photographic Supplies


Darkness arrives early in the weeks before winter solstice. The days are compact. By six, the night is velvety deep, glittering with stars. If the year were a day, Solstice would be the darkest point of night. Then on December 22nd, the balance of light to darkness begins its ever so slow awakening toward spring. Winter is a season of tentative, emergent light. Photographers call it thin light.



Light has color, intensity, and direction. In winter, the sun is never really overhead. Its light can be flat, “thin,” blue with cold, or glaring when reflected from snow. In photography, light defines the subject matter, can become the subject matter. Without it there would be no pictorial photography as we know it. In a literal sense, photography is painting with light.


A vivid, January day can be perfect for panoramic Montana “Big Sky” photographs, where white and blue reach to infinity. But that’s only one expression of Montana’s beauty and character. In winter, on the short grass prairie east of Livingston, the sky can be a yellow-gray. This color of light won’t provide very much relief to the scene with white snow on the ground. Look through your camera’s viewfinder, snap a shot, and review it on the LCD screen on the back of the camera. What you see will be infused with a flat, empty light and will lack definition. It may not make a “pretty” picture, but instead evoke another of winter’s moods.


Still photography works in two-dimensions to create the illusion of three dimensions by capturing patterns of light and dark, of shadow and light. Shapes are defined by areas of highlights and shadow, as well as color or tone. Look for a particular subject matter, like an abandoned farm building, maybe a barn. Notice how when the light shines on the barn, coming in from the side, it creates textures on weathered walls, giving the building more relief. If you’ve been taught never to photograph a subject with the light at its back, you’ll miss capturing the barn surrounded by a halo of light.


Try working under the night sky. Set up your camera on a sturdy tripod and shoot long-exposure images of the barn with the night sky behind it, the snow illuminated by moonlight. Flip on an outdoor halogen light to see how the scene changes. Each of these will deliver a different image, a different effect, even though they are of the same subject.


Light itself can be the subject of an image; though more often, a photographer will look for an object that expresses the light. While light is always one of the most important elements, photographing light itself – like a sunset – creates a pretty common image. As a photographer, learn to look for that unique element that will make a gorgeous, evocative, image.


Find a subject matter that excites you, and return to it in various qualities of light to experience how light defines an image. Go out on an overcast day. Look at the details rather than the whole picture. Practice noticing how light interacts with photographic subjects whether or not you have your camera with you. Look from the micro to the macro level. Learn to recognize photographic opportunities. Learn your camera and shoot often so it becomes an extension of your vision, rather than an interruption of it.

The path that leads to capturing an extraordinary image is not the subject matter itself, but extraordinary light. Let your photography be a vehicle of exploration, for noticing and capturing how each season, each time of day, of night, expresses itself.



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