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Winter photography: Working with the elements

by Timber Press on March 7, 2017

in Craft, Gardening

Photographs by the author unless otherwise noted.

Garden photography depends hugely on weather. When planning photography shoots, keep a close eye on the forecasts, taking note of three separate predictions and averaging out the results. Winter weather—frost, snow, and mist or fog—poses unique photographic challenges as well as stunning opportunities. Developing an understanding of it can help you to anticipate when it will be at its best and how to adapt when conditions are less than ideal.


The “hoar” in hoar frost comes from an Old English word that describes showing signs of old age; in this context it refers to the frost that makes trees and bushes look like white hair. The difference between hoar frost and rime frost is how the ice crystals form. A hoar frost develops when water vapour freezes, going directly from a gas to solid, whereas rime frost forms when super cooled liquid water droplets freeze on contact with cold surfaces.

Frost looks wonderful when the crystals are pin sharp, but don’t be tempted to oversharpen the image using a post-camera application. If I sharpen anything at all, I look at the image at 100 percent magnification on my computer. Otherwise the sharpening tool (which only ever gives the illusion of sharpening) can make the edges have an unfortunate haloed effect like tramlines or train tracks.

Sometimes when you are photographing in frosty conditions it helps to use a small reflector (or even a piece of aluminum foil) to reflect light into the shadows and enhance the image.



How cold does it have to be for snow? Surprisingly not as low as the freezing point. The heaviest snowfall often occurs when the air temperature is between 32 and 35°F (0 and 2°C). If the temperature is warmer than 35°F (2°C) then snowflakes will melt and fall as sleet, and if it’s warmer still then the precipitation will fall as rain, which is not often something we want to photograph.

Snow can appear blue in pictures when it is receiving no direct sunlight but is simply being lit by the sun reflecting the blue sky. To eliminate the threat of an unwanted blue cast and give a neutral tone to the snow, I’d recommend setting the white balance feature on your camera to auto. That will usually get strong colour casts right at the capture stage. The white balance control helps ensure that neutral colours are captured accurately. Simply, we need to be sure that our pictures look as if they are illuminated by white light and not tinted with another colour—unless that’s what we intend.

You can also colour correct an extreme blue cast in-camera by taking a preset or custom white balance from the snow. If you use a more sophisticated DSLR and photograph in RAW you could leave that until later in post-camera processing and not worry about it at this stage, but personally I’d rather get it right in the camera and spend less time correcting casts in front of the computer.

If you use post-camera applications such as Adobe Photoshop then a quick way to colour correct an image is to use the dropper tool. Select an area you know to be neutral grey. Click on that point and the software will sample the colour data and adjust the whole image so that the sampled point is neutral. In effect it relates all the other colours to that neutral colour, rendering the whole image colour correct. If you do not have a neutral grey in your photo you can also use the dropper for black or white to achieve the same results.


Photograph by Ian McKellar.

Mist and fog

Fog and mist lower the contrast of your surroundings and mute colours in a way that would be hard to achieve with any kind of post-camera processing application. The difference between mist and fog is visibility. On foggy mornings visibility is reduced to less then one kilometer, or a little over half a mile; mist is lighter and does not reduce visibility as much. One benefit of misty or foggy mornings is that they extend that golden hour, offering more time to enjoy and photograph the muted light.

Because of the layers of atmospheric density, exposures will become longer. Use a tripod if you have one. Watch out for any movement during long exposures, such as branches or long wisps of grasses that move in the breeze and could appear blurred. If you are using a camera with a manual override, use a shutter speed faster than the movement, say 1/125 of a second, and if necessary increase the ISO rating to accommodate this. In order to prevent the sky from becoming dark and gloomy or unwanted silhouettes from forming, open your lens aperture up a stop.



Over the last 25 years, Andrea Jones has built an international reputation for her photographs of landscapes, gardens, and plants. Among other awards she was voted Photographer of the Year by her peers in the Garden Media Guild. Her website is andreajones.co.uk.


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