Hit the Books with Dan Milnor: Photographing in Winter

I spent most of my adult life in a one-season city. Much of the year was entirely predictable. I owned no winter coat and never really had to even think about the weather. Winter, in this locale, meant a sweater and perhaps a rain shower or two. Now, however, I live in city with four distinct seasons. Winter is but one of the four, but it sure does leave its mark. Does photography change from season to season? If so, how and can this change be a strategic opportunity to explore? I believe the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

1. What makes photography during winter different from the other seasons? Well, other than knowing we might freeze our fingers and toes, let’s think about the reality of the natural world. Winter brings short days and weak light. Winter doesn’t offer the same long, easy days those other seasons do, so our duration of usable light is less during winter (unless you live Down Under). Winter photography requires specific clothing logistics, camera logistics, and planning to ensure we capture what we need in fewer daylight hours.

2. Does winter offer its own palette? Yes and no. In certain regions where the weather is consistent from season to season, there might not be much change when it comes to palette, but in places like New Mexico where I live, there is a distinctive shift in color or lack thereof. Sure, we still get plenty of sunlight here in the mountains, but we also get a fair amount of grey. Grey skies provide both risk and reward. The risk can come in the form of flat, dull images, while the reward can come in learning to take advantage of a more monotone scene by working with the nuance of middle grey.

3. Is there any specific technique that reminds you of winter? Easy, black and white photography. Now, I’ve primarily been a black and white photographer since I first picked up a camera, and even for me, winter still feels like the time for black and white. As I mentioned before, those flat scenes and grey skies are perfect for accentuating what is not in the image. In this case, color. It’s possible in winter to make color images that look nearly black and white.

4. How does winter impact the actual logistics of photography? There are several things we must consider when shooting during the winter. First, as I said before, there are shorter days and often what feels like less light to work with. This often requires higher ISOs, so knowing what your camera can handle is key. You also run the risk of having your gear fog up. If your cameras are inside in a heated house and you emerge to photograph, the temperature shift can cause your cameras to fog. Leaving your cameras outside to get “down to temperature” is key.

5. Any clothing or camera recommendations for shooting during winter? Think hands, feet, and head. Your body core can stay warm if you keep moving even if you lack that one extra layer, but your hands, feet, and head are essential to keep warm. I’ve found I can still have fun if I feel a bit chilled, but if my hands, feet, and head are freezing, I find winter photography to be a real challenge. We all have our favorite camera brand, but winter photography often comes with the need for gloves so whatever camera allows you to access your settings is key. I use a variety of different camera systems from Sony to Leica to Fuji and Hasselblad. But my favorite winter camera is the Fuji simply because the controls are so big and easy to access even when wearing my thickest gloves. And the Fuji rarely requires me to access menus which often require taking off my gloves.

6. Are there winter pitfalls to avoid? Try not to fall, which is something I’ve done more times than I can count. Shooting on pure snow is one way to fool your in-camera meter. When the meter sees reflected light off the snow it can force the camera to overcompensate thus resulting in dark imagery. Handheld light meters are your best friend in any situation like this. If you don’t have a handheld meter, then use your camera’s exposure compensation dial to open up your images. Now, in cases of extreme winter cold, for those of you working with analog materials, you should be aware of things like static electricity or even snapping your film if the conditions are frigid and you are using something like a motor drive to advance your film. Personally, I have not experienced this kind of cold, but I have heard of other photographers having these issues.

7. How does winter photography impact your bookmaking? Fewer daylight hours mean more time inside. More time inside means more time to make photo books, so winter is often a very productive time for my bookmaking. Short days aren’t all bad. I also think winter confines my internal color palette, at least to some degree. So, when I design during the winter, I often find myself designing simple, minimalist spreads often nearly void of color. This feels like my body and mind are merging with winter instead of fighting it.

8. Do you have any favorite winter locations? Tahiti. Just kidding. My best photography is made when I put myself in situations that offer a specific spacing of the objects in the frame. I am not a street photographer, nor do I enjoy the confines that street photography provides. I am also not a landscape photographer but for the exact opposite reason. I don’t enjoy the wide, wide vistas. My winter photography takes place in the middle spaces. My favorite middle spaces are found in places like the US/Mexico border. These places offer a spacing that fits my “middle distance” demands, and winter is the perfect time to work in these places because the daytime temperatures are often near perfect. Gone are the blazing midday temps of summer and in are the short, moody days of winter.

9. What about photographers who specialize in winter? I don’t know anyone who only works in winter. I’m sure there is someone out there, but I’m not familiar with them. But when I think about winter photography, a few names come to mind. As I write this, I’m sitting in my office looking at a photograph from the National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig. The image depicts a woman in mid-winter photographed through the ice-covered window of her car. She is smiling at the photographer but still looks cold. I also think of the quiet solitude of English photographer Michael Kenna. His minimalist, winter landscapes are totally unlike my own work, but this is partly why I love them so much. He makes me ponder the world in a new way. I also recently discovered the work of Emile Ducke who created a wonderful piece about the Road of Bones in Siberia and some of the imagery depicts a truly harsh and unforgiving cold. And finally, although there were images made in bright sunlight that might have been any season, I think Catherine Leutenegger’s book Kodak City which depicts the home of Eastman Kodak, Rochester New York, is spot on when creating the mood of what it feels like to be in this location. I once worked for Kodak, so flipping the pages of her book makes me feel as if I am back in the grey of a New York winter.

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