Story and photography by F.M. Kearney
It may be the shortest month of the year, but to some, it can feel like the longest. Many of its days are dull and dreary. The few sunny days there are don’t last that long because it will be at least a month before Daylight Savings Time begins. Even people who love winter may be feeling that it’s high time to pack up the parka. As nature photographers, we find ourselves stuck in a sort of limbo between the last snowstorms of winter and the first blooms of spring. February can be a bit challenging in many ways, but when it comes to photography, it doesn’t have to be a barren wasteland.
If you’re lucky, you might catch one of those last snowstorms of the season. One of the most beautiful sights in winter are bare branches covered in fresh white snow. I’ve seen images that almost seem as though they were shot in infrared – where everything in sight is so perfectly and completely coated with glistening white powder. The image above, shot in New York’s Central Park, came close to those conditions. It really wasn’t much of a storm, but it did deposit a good amount of snow on the trees. Since I only live a block away from the park, I was able to get there within minutes. Even so, the rising temperatures prompted so much rapid melting (in some spots it felt like it was actually raining) that I only had about a half hour before this “wonderland” was just a memory.
If you don’t have any snow to work with, the one subject that’s never in short supply at this time of year are bare branches. Trees take on a totally different persona in the winter. A solitary tree in the middle of a summer field conveys an inviting and warm feeling. That same tree in the winter may invoke feelings of doom and gloom. The lack of leaves creates a stark, ominous look which provides a myriad of creative photo ops.
The photo above illustrates, perhaps, one of the more common ways to utilize bare branches in your photos. The graphic appearance of the branches may be enough to carry an image, but it’s the inclusion of the sun adds a really nice touch. Position a portion of the sun behind or in the crook of a tree and use a small aperture for a crisp sunburst effect. Wide focal lengths (24mm-28mm) work best.
Lakes are a great location to visit in the winter, especially during the early morning hours. The cold should keep a lot of people at bay – even in the heart of a bustling metropolis. The quiet serenity can really help to get the creative juices flowing. Although Central Park is practically in my backyard, but I prefer to shoot in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The absence of any surrounding tall buildings can give you the feeling that you’re in the middle of nowhere. Using the same sun placement technique, I was able to capture a unique double sunburst between these two trees in the image above.
As a nature/cityscape photographer, I often wait until winter to shoot certain urban scenes. Bare branches can serve as perfect framing elements for a variety of iconic landmarks – views that cannot be captured at any other time of the year. Don’t underestimate the hidden beauty that February has to offer.