|The Magic of the Season!
December is such a great month! The magic begins with the instant switch from fall to winter, from bright color dancing on the trees to a white drape, defining their bare limbs. I live in a place where we have more snow months than summer months, where 20 feet of snow in the front yard is the norm (sure cuts down on lawn mowing). Yet, with the first snow there is a fresh and new excitement in me to get the camera out and shoot, as if I hadn't seen snow before. December is such an incredible month with all of its many tangible and not so tangible gifts; celebrate all that the month has to bring with your camera!
No matter if your camera is big or small, now is the time to charge its batteries, not put them away! There is so much to photograph, winter almost puts spring to shame. For various reasons though, photographers slow down in the winter rather than keep pace. There is wildlife and then there is wild life to photograph. Here are some tips and ideas to help keep the home fires burning.
The Wild Life Probably more than most months, December is the month to be with the family. The majority of us all have fond memories of December locked away forever in our minds. But do you have them recorded on film to share with others? Like any other father and probably more than most, I spend a lot of time photographing my boys and family activities. In fact, the hardest subjects I have ever come across to photograph are my family. Typically when a camera comes out, they run! That's partly because I do it a lot but mostly it's because the photos seem to end up in the darnedest places! With this challenge has come some insights; let me pass them along.
One of the best ways to capture a moving subject is when it stops moving, the family is no exception. Exhaustion can be a friend of the family photographer. I use this theory a lot on Christmas day. While getting up early to open presents on Christmas morning can be hard on us parents, as we get older, it also slows down the kids a tad when it comes to ripping off the paper and exposing what's inside. This is a great time to pull out and use the "pocket camera" instead of the big SLR.
What, a pocket camera…Moose?! I love photographing candids and the pocket camera works like a charm. Being that I shoot all digital, I used the Kodak DC4800 for a couple of years and have just switched to the Nikon Coolpix 775 (and probably will photograph this Christmas with the new CP5000). One of the benefits of digital is the ability to quickly change the white balance to match the lighting. This is great when you have light streaming in from a window or the glow of the lights on the tree.
Another cool thing about using pocket cameras is their flash. Their flash has a very limited range because of their lack of power. You can use this to your advantage. The image of my youngest son just opening a present is a great example. Getting close physically to my subject, my son, about six feet, setting the camera to its widest angle and using the small built-in flash, he pops visually in the photograph. The limited flash of the pocket camera can act like a mini spot light, making the subject pop! If I had used the D1H and SB-28DX, the whole room would have been lit and my subject, lost in all the clutter of spent wrapping paper.
Being able to use available light and shoot with the correct white balance is a real creative plus! This is something you need to think about and plan prior to actually using this technique. Combining tungsten/incandescent light in your photograph can bring a drama and warmth that you can't easily create with flash. The photo of my exhausted son on Christmas night is an excellent example of what I mean.
Again, using a pocket camera, in this case the Kodak DC4800, I was able to "sneak up" on my son to compose the image you see. The DC4800 is a real quiet camera compared to the D1H and the last thing I wanted to do was wake up my son. By moving the table lamp over to light my son and scooting back to take in the corner of the room, I was able to use the two light sources so you see a warm tone on my son with the cleaner white light in the corner. Easily capturing this combination of light is only possible with digital.
Another key photographic technique to use is getting down! Photographing from the level of the subject is important, especially during the holidays. It is very typical to shoot everything from standing height, but you'll have a lot more visual interest and impact if you shoot from the subject's level. For example when photographing someone opening presents, lie on the floor to get the photo. If I'm lying on the floor, it's pretty obvious so getting the "surprised" photo isn't easy. Here's another great advantage of the pocket camera. I often rest the camera on the floor and aim by making an educated guess, then squeeze off the shot while the subject has no clue what I'm up to. The angle and surprise make the technique well worth using it as often as possible!
After Christmas there are even more photographic possibilities with all the new gifts to be played with. Our family loves to cross country ski and is another great time to use the exhaustion method of capturing images. For example, at the top of a hill where there is a flat area is a great place to grab the family portrait. Here is another great time for the pocket camera since it's light, small and easy to have in the front pocket of your jacket for quick access. In this case, I simply popped up the built-in flash, waited until they stopped and clicked the camera. I just love photographing in December!
The Other Wildlife When the snow hits, my camera is clicking! There are so many great subjects, that it's a delight to get out each and every day! The magic of the season becomes quite apparent as soon as you step out the door on any December day!
The further up the globe you head, the fewer the wildlife subjects you're going to find. But those you do find are well worth it! Living through the winter is more of a challenge for wildlife; this is especially true when it comes to finding food. If you find a food source, I guarantee you'll find a subject to photograph. Here are some quick examples.
Big game, moose, bighorn or thinhorn sheep, deer and the like must have forage (even though to us it doesn't appear to be much). For these big creatures to find forage, the snow depth needs to be minimal at best, which is typically south facing, wind swept areas. Birds aren't much different except that they move around a whole lot more and their food isn't grasses buried under snow. Bird feeders are great places to spend a snowy day. You might want to refer to my Vividlight articles on photographing backyard birds.
This is going to sound really too obvious, but once you find the subject all you need to do then is fire the camera! There are a couple of things you might want to keep in mind when it comes to the creative and communication process. What makes photographing subjects in the winter special is all the white stuff around them, snow! Excluding the snow from the scene takes away the unique qualities that this time of year brings to the wildlife photographer willing to go out. Don't be afraid to photograph in the snow and include the snow in the photograph!
One element of winter photography that seems to stop more photographers than any other is snow. Not that it's cold and wet, but that it's white! The fortune some writers have made from writing about how to expose when photographing in snow is mind numbing! I always get a kick out of reading these articles since I live in so much snow and shoot in it so many months of the year. I can always tell when writers have never been in snow and are just perpetuating the old myths.
As soon as you step in snow the last thing you want to do is automatically dial in any compensation! You need to do your homework long before you take that first step and it's this simple. Get a white bed sheet, put it in the sun, in the shade, in mixed light and throw something on it like a stuffed animal and take some photographs!!!!! You CANNOT go by the rules others spew out when it comes to exposure compensation in snow; they are all wet! Each photographer has something different to communicate, uses different cameras, films, film processors, each determining if you should or shouldn't compensate in snow.
Let me illustrate my point. With the D1, I could shoot in snow (as in snow in the foreground and background) and never have to dial in any compensation. With the D1H, I can shoot in bright sun, any sun at all, in slight overcast and never worry about dialing in exposure compensation. But if I'm shooting in dark overcast to stormy weather, I need +1 stop compensation. This is something I never had to so with the D1. My point is that each one of our cameras and each one of us are different. Another example, the F100, it meters beautifully except when you have a white on white situation. You'd best know about that and how to handle it before the photo of a lifetime is staring you in the face! If you want to know what compensation to use, TEST!!!! Don't take the advice spewed in those articles, as they aren't giving you good information!
Keep in mind one thing about photographing in snow. With all the white stuff bouncing light every which way, you can shoot nearly all day long! Shadows are naturally filled in by all the light being bounced off the snow and up into the shadows. If you have great light to start with and then you add this added bounced light, your images will be stunning!
This is especially true in capturing scenics. One would think that if I live in a land of snow, I sure would have had my fill of snow and cold temps by now without heading off to the Yukon and its minus 10 degrees to find more. But I don't! With the first new snow, I'm a mad man photographing all the white stuff. Each and every year something new comes along that I haven't photographed before. This year there was a snowstorm when it was only 3 degrees. The snowflakes were light, fluffy and weren't smashing each other down. When the morning light first hit them on the railing of my office deck, they sparkled like thousands of diamonds, grabbing my imagination!
In my house slippers, off I charged out to the deck with the D1H and 60f2.8 micro in hand. I spent 40 minutes stooped over, photographing all the patterns I could capture before the sun took them away. I did most of the images at ¼ life-size, some at ½ life-size. It was so much fun!
Another great phenomenon to photograph in the cold is Hoar Frost. This occurs when fog forms and because it is so cold the fog sticks to everything in a fine, white veil. When I was in the Yukon this past month, there was hoar frost everywhere, transposing the landscape into a magical playground! I didn't have enough Lexar CompactFlash Cards to hold all the images I captured, it was incredible!
The shortest daylight day occurs in December, but the decreased light in each day shouldn't stop you from shooting more! The joys of the season and spending them with family are heightened by the hours spent indoors together. With those great big smiles that come so naturally with the season, I can't think of any better time to put the camera through its paces. Stepping out the door into the magical white palace that Mother Nature so carefully crafts for us is reason to ask for your stocking to be stuffed with film (or CF cards). Use the passion of the season to fuel your passion for photography! Run out right now with your camera and start capturing the Magic of the Season for yourself...to be treasured all year long!
All of us at WRP wish you and yours the Happiest of Holiday Seasons and a Happy and Bright New Year!