Photographing an Intimate Snowy Landscape

snow & light Old fire resting under the snow Snowcovered beast

The sun was out in a clear, light blue sky, the snow was deep, and the temperature was moderate at -8C. When the snow gets deep I’ll usually wear snowshoes, however, on this excursion I wanted to isolate and create from the intimate parts of the landscape. The usual large open scenics were not what I was looking to photograph, so that meant I would be kneeling, sitting, and lying in the snow. This would be that rare winter occasion when snowshoes and a tripod would just get in the way.

I crossed the unplowed road in front to my home and stepped into the familiar woods.  I began by kneeling deep in the snow to photograph a branch poking out of the snow, hoping that some future viewer would enjoy the same surrealistic elements of clashing shadows, and white highlights on the frosty branch that I was photographing.

The landscape was covered with deep, powdery snow and I had to be careful not to get a cold surprise down my neck as I trundled along, camera in hand, searching out intimate possibilities the snow, shadow, and light.

As I surveyed the scene I thought about a book I had just started reading, “Sketching Light,” by photographer, and author, Joe McNally. In it he writes, “As it always has been, light remains the language of all photographers, everywhere.”  What I was searching for really depended on the light. Too harsh and directional, or too soft and flat, or too dark, and everything would be lost. McNally is right. I needed just the right amount of light for my visual discussion.

I chose low angles, and had to be careful of the background influencing my subject. My lens choice was a short focal length 24-70mm and because allowing the camera to select the exposure with an automated mode would have taken the control away, I choose the manual exposure mode. Manual exposure meant I could determine how the bright high lights and how dark the shadows were.

I wanted graphic depictions that depended on the tonal elements more that the actual subjects. I will comment that getting back up after lying in the deep snow is easier said than done. Remember that the camera doesn’t like to be covered with wet snow, so with only one hand for support in the soft and shifting mass the word support doesn’t really apply.

I do like walking through a quiet, snow-covered forest because all sound is muffled. I couldn’t hear the distant highway, other people or even neighbour’s dogs. My boots made the only noise, although every now and then I would mutter some off-colour word as I struggled to regain an upright position after another prone camera angle. I expect some silent listener would have wondered at the sound of grunting, and then an exclamation that usually was followed by laughing, coming from the snow covered forest.

Photographers, except those macro enthusiasts, aren’t really interested in what I’ll call the intimate aspects of a landscape. They position their tripods for wide scenics or choose larger subjects like river valleys, waterfalls, meadows, and mountainscapes. After all, those are the scenes from the natural world that capture our imagination.

The vast and unending spaces shown in photographs by the greats like Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell are inspiring and I’ll admit to the lure of a mountain ridge or waves crashing along some sweeping ocean beach. However, every now and then I find myself seeking out shapes created by shadows and light that are easily passed by in the quest to artistically document open spaces and convey our appreciation of some expansive environment.

Snow & Light Sculpture

Those that don’t mind kneeling, sitting, or laying on the ground (or in my case deep snow) might enjoy looking closely into the landscape to photograph sculptures created by how the shadows and light changes an otherwise unremarkable subject.

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