Photographing the Colors and Shadows of Winter Light

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When it comes to outdoor and travel photography, every season has its signature attributes. Springtime is about the pastels of awakening flowers, summer is about the lushness of landscapes in full bloom, and fall is the final riot of color before the onset of winter. And winter? Winter is about light, and wouldn’t you know it—that’s exactly what photography is about.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2021

During the winter months, the sun never tracks high in the sky, which makes for long shadows all day long.

Photographically, winter is an interesting season, and much of it has to do with the way the sun travels across the sky between sunrise and sunset. As any experienced outdoor photographer can tell you, the prettiest light is always during the first and last hour or so of the day. This is when the color of the light is golden and the shadows are at their longest. And gone is the glare of the harsher midday sunlight.

During the summer months, when the sun climbs to a much higher apogee in the sky, you have to wait up to 12 hours between the prettier and picture-friendlier light of dawn and dusk.

It’s not that you cannot take pictures during the midday hours of the summer months, because you can. The problem is that because the sun tracks high, the light is high in contrast, with harsh shadows that among other things create racoon-like shadows under people’s eyes when photographed outdoors around lunchtime.

This isn’t the case during the winter months. If anything, the shadows are picture-friendly all day long. The temperatures might be cold, but the light is sweet throughout the day during the winter months.

Winter Shadows

If photography is about the interaction between light and shadow, no season illustrates these interactions more than winter. Walking down the street, it’s hard to ignore the exaggerated marionette-like movements of people’s shadows as they seemingly mimic the very people casting them.

Light reflected from the reflective exteriors of midtown office buildings creates bold flashes of light and shadow that illuminate streets that would otherwise be bathed in months of relative darkness.

The long shadows also bring a sense of drama to even the most mundane street scenes. At times, the interplay between shadows and highlights can appear theatrical in nature.

Shooting from a low angle with a wide-angle lens accentuates the highlights (top) and shadows (bottom) the winter sun brings to city streets.

Winter Light—Warm and Cool

Winter is a mishmash of contradictions. The temperatures are typically cooler, yet the sun, which transverses the daytime hours at a low angle to the horizon and which causes the light to travel through denser layers of air, dust, and atmospheric pollution, has a warmer color temperature than the cooler midday tonality of May, June, and July. The warmth of winter light is one of the attributes that makes it so emotionally attractive to the eye.

Winter sunlight has a warm, comforting look, due to the low tracking angle of the sun throughout the day.

The canyons of Midtown can look as cold as they feel when the sun cannot reach ground level, but every now and then stray bolts of sunlight reflected off of nearby glass towers can bring small touches of warmth into otherwise chilly locales.

A study in contrasts: The main avenues of Manhattan appear even more cold and canyon-like during the mid-winter months when the sun only skims the tops of the surrounding buildings (top). Sunlight reflected from the windows of a nearby office tower removes the chill from the air as it passes through the window of a midtown café (bottom).
The lower tracking angle of the sun during the winter months enables its golden rays to light up nooks and crannies that typically fall into darker shadows during the summer months.

Winter Light Shooting Tip: To faithfully capture the warmer nature of winter light, it’s important to set your camera’s White Balance setting to “Daylight,” which is typically set for the “cooler” 5500K to 5600K color temperatures of the summer months.

If your camera is set to Auto White Balance (AWB), the camera will most likely try to “correct”—that is, cool off—the warmer light you are trying to capture.

Snow

Depending on where you live, snow is part of the winter experience and here, too, the visual effects of warm tonality combined with the lower angle of the sun greatly affect the look of your pictures.

Though snow is white, photographically snow is often rendered with...
A fresh blanket of snow accentuates the long shadows of winter, which...

Nighttime in Winter

The possibilities of shooting nighttime winter scenes are best when a coating of snow covers the landscape. With the exception of barren tree branches, without snow there are few clues that it’s really winter.

Even though modern cameras feature ISO sensitivities that make capturing sharp handheld photographs at ridiculously slow shutter speeds surprisingly easy, I always recommend mounting your camera on a tripod or other suitable camera support regardless of how bright or dark a scene might be. Why? Because tripods allow you to take your eye away from the viewfinder, perhaps walk away from your camera to grab another piece of gear or filter, or perhaps explore a different angle knowing that nothing within the confines of your viewfinder will have changed when you return. And that’s something you cannot say about shooting handheld.

What’s your favorite season to take outdoor photographs? Are you hardy enough to venture out into the cold when common sense says stay home and keep warm? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments section below—we’d love to know what you think.

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