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Photographing in the starker cold months takes careful timing for light and natural elements like snow. Photo: Pierce Johnston

Capturing Winter’s Beauty by Camera Lens

Here are a veteran Hudson Valley photographer's tricks for getting the best of a starker season.

by Pierce Johnston

The Hudson Valley is a photographer’s playground, from the weathered mountaintops and towering cliff faces of the Hudson Highlands to the small peaceful estuaries that feed into the river. Photographing in each season comes with its own sets of benefits and challenges, but winter is set apart by the unique challenges it provides.

Whether you are out photographing a beautiful fresh snowfall with your camera, or just out on a walk with your phone enjoying a warm, bare day, these tips can help you improve your photography.

Explore new perspectives. One of the easiest ways to take more interesting and unique photographs is to play around with your perspective and position in a setting. This can be especially helpful if you find yourself going to the same places to shoot over and over again. Instead of snapping a photo at your normal eye level — the perspective that we’re most accustomed to — try lowering your camera closer to the ground, or move closer to a wall or line of trees. Simply moving around a scene or showing it from a different angle can help introduce a better sense of depth or element of surprise to your photograph.

A dam-generated waterfall shown from the side rather than the typical straight-on can introduce an element of surprise to a photograph. (Photo: Pierce Johnston)

Find a subject. It could be a tree, a waterfall, a bird, a weird piece of ice, whatever you want! Having an interesting subject in your photograph can immediately grab the viewer’s attention. The image below is of one of the most unique pieces of ice I’ve ever found. As far as I can tell, it was made by water melting off of one sheet of ice and dripping onto another sheet below. This odd shape, combined with the last moments of sunshine before sunset, created a gorgeous and mesmerizing visual effect in the ice that I could have stared at for hours.

A compelling subject like this unusual block of melting ice can immediately grab viewers’ interest. (Photo: Pierce Johnston)

Use foreground and middleground objects. This one goes hand in hand with trying out new perspectives. When you’ve found a scene you want to photograph, look for things around you that you can use as foreground or middleground objects. This could be anything from rocks or plants on the ground, to tree branches hanging on the side of a trail, to the edge of a body of water, and so much more. Whatever you decide to use as a foreground object, it can help frame your photograph, add a sense of depth, and if used correctly, help guide a viewer’s eyes through the image.

Trees or other objects in the foreground can help frame a photograph, add a sense of depth, and guide viewers’ eyes through the image. (Photo: Pierce Johnston)

Zero in on detail. This last tip can be very similar to finding a new perspective, and using a subject, but deserves its own mention; look for detail. Whenever I’m out shooting during the winter and I can’t seem to get anything good, I’ll try to find some small detail that I can get close to and focus on. I find myself doing this when there hasn’t been a snowfall for a while, but there’s plenty of ice or frost around. Both ice and frost can be incredibly compelling subjects to photograph, especially in the early morning or evening golden hours when the light is at a low angle.

Zeroing in on detail can especially help when there hasn’t been much snow, but frost or ice are around. (Photo: Pierce Johnston)

Search out color. Winter landscapes, whether covered in snow or not, can tend to be monochromic, meaning that the image is mostly one color. One great way to take a captivating photograph is to find a subject that has a vibrant or interesting color compared to the area around it. This could be a colorful bird against the browns of bare tree branches, a red brick building surrounded by snow, or perhaps you’re able to catch an early snowfall while there are still leaves on the trees like below.

Finding pops of color can really add dynamism to winter images. (Photo: Pierce Johnston)

Explore color balance. Now that you’ve braved the chilling winds of winter and have captured compelling photographs, the fun of editing begins! You can change so much about a photograph in the editing process that it could have its own article. But, one of the most effective ways to control the mood of a winter photograph is to play with color balance. You can quickly turn a cold and moody photograph into a warm and inviting winter scene, or vice versa, by simply changing the color balance. Here is a quick example of a snow-covered stream with a colder color balance on one side and a warmer color balance on the other.

Adjusting the color balance to be warmer or colder can shift the mood and feeling of the photograph. (Photo: Pierce Johnston)

Most importantly, my last and favorite piece of advice for winter photography is to get out and shoot as much as you can. I know dragging yourself outside for an hour or two in freezing temperatures can sound daunting, but it can lead to some stunning and exciting results.

So bundle up, grab your camera, and capture the beauty of the Hudson Valley this winter. And when you do, share your photos of fun activities and beautiful Hudson Valley scenes for our Snow & Tell contest by Feb. 18, 2024. Public voting will take place Feb. 21-25, and the winner will be announced Feb. 28.

Pierce Johnston is a freelance photographer born, raised, and based in the Hudson Valley. He works with organizations like Scenic Hudson, New York State Parks, and more to capture this area’s unique beauty.
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