What a dreary time of year winter is! It’s still dark when we get up, the days are very short and it’s damp and cold, with huge heating bills to boot! But hang on a minute – with such short days the best times for landscape photography, sunrise and sunset are at a more sociable hour – after breakfast and before dinner – and when the sun does shine the crisp clear winter atmosphere provides a quality of light never seen on hazy summer days. So don’t hide the camera away over the winter months – it’s a great time of year to make use of some great light. Of course the winter weather can be severe and unpredictable, and a moment of great light can be fleeting and easily missed so it is essential to plan ahead to give yourself the best chance of catching it.
I like to have a few early and late light locations in mind which I can get to fairly quickly when the time is right. With this in mind, whenever I’m out shooting, I always carry a compass with me so that if I find a subject that doesn’t work quite so well at that time of year I can make a note of the direction it faces and come back on a more appropriate date. A sun position compass may help with working out the exact direction of the sunrise or sunset where this is critical, though as a rough rule of thumb I just work on the fact that the sun will rise to the south-east/set to the south-west at the winter solstice and will rise due east/set due west at the vernal equinox, so it will move between these directions in the intervening winter months.
Then it’s just a case of keeping a close eye on the weather forecast for the next few days, along with the sunrise and sunset times, and being prepared to act when the conditions look right. A sunset shoot is probably the easiest to do on a chilly winter day, but it’s also worth getting out early as sunrise can also produce some great light. Pre-dawn soft pink twilight can often accompany rising mist, so rivers and lakes can make good subjects along with the reflections of mountains or skeletal trees, for example. Even a freezing foggy night can sometimes help by adding a touch of hoar-frost to the trees and grass, and if the fog clears in the morning light the effect can be magical.
Silhouettes can make great winter subjects – especially of trees devoid of their leaves, such as the windswept tree clinging to rocks at Brimham Rocks (above), captured against a twilight sky.
A distinctive building or monument can also make a great subject. A dramatic sky behind the subject will always help – I had been planning to shoot a silhouette of the ruined King’s Tower at Knaresborough Castle, near where I live, for some time but had just been waiting for the right light – so when I saw bright pink cloud formations against a deep blue sky out of my living room window late on a winter afternoon I grabbed my gear and headed straight for the castle. I metered from the sky to ensure this wasn’t overexposed, leaving the castle ruin to go completely black.
Even during the day winter light can produce great results, as the sun stays relatively low in the sky all day. The deep ravine at Gordale Scar in the Yorkshire Dales runs roughly North-South so it’s not possible to get a good early or late light shot of it. But I achieved my best shot of it to date by shooting around noon on a blustery day in winter, when the scar was well lit, and the shadows of the rapidly moving clouds added a little drama to the scene.
I’m at my happiest photographing the landscape, but cities can also be rewarding places to photograph in the winter, as they tend to be a bit quieter, and it’s much easier to pop into a coffee shop if it’s cold! A city skyline on a misty morning can look wonderful in twilight. A clear afternoon is a great time to wander around a city photographing buildings, or just building details, as the sun sets. Cathedrals make excellent sunset subjects, as they generally face west. And after the sun sets, there’s still time to photograph floodlit buildings and bridges against a darkening sky before dinner.
So, I take it all back, winter isn’t dreary at all. The short days make it easier to make use of great light, and with a bit of planning and a touch of good luck with the weather you’ll need those long winter evenings to process all of the extra images!