Finding Color in a Black & White World: Ways to Liven-Up Drab Winter Photos

A waterfall is a great place to find color… even in the winter.
A waterfall is a great place to find color… even in the winter.

Story and photos by F. M. Kearney

Winter – nature’s bleakest season. Or is it? It seems so, considering the scarcity of photographers in the field at this time of year. Where you would normally have to fight for the best position, you will undoubtedly now have the entire place all to yourself. In addition, you don’t have to worry too much about anyone wandering into your shot. Yes, winter doesn’t get much love when it comes to photography. Perhaps, it’s the inconvenience of dealing with frigid temperatures, and all the precautions needed to properly protect yourself and your equipment. Or, perhaps it’s the belief that there just isn’t anything worthwhile to shoot. Let’s face it, outside of a majestic, winter wonderland captured at the break of dawn or late in the day, most winter scenes are pretty bland. The fact that winter follows autumn – the most colorful of all seasons – you might feel as though you’re now shooting in black and white. But that doesn’t mean there’s absolutely no color to be found at all. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look and employing a few simple techniques.

All the photos in this article were taken in the northern section of New York’s Central Park. Since I only live a block away, it’s very easy for me to get out and capture the aftermath of a surprise snowstorm – especially before the masses get a chance to trample the scene. The waterfall in the opening photo of this article is a favorite location of mine. I’ve gotten great photos of this area in every season. I captured this scene after a light snowfall several years ago. If you’re seeking color in the winter, water is always a good place to start. It reflects the colors of its surroundings, and if any rocks are present, there’s a good chance they may be algae-stained – adding more color to the scene. You should also look for any nearby foliage. Even in the dead of winter you can still find muted traces of color. Luckily, all of these elements came together for this photo. I further enhanced the colors and softened the image by applying a Gaussian Blur technique in Photoshop. I describe this technique in detail in my article, “Off-Peak Performance: Dealing With Pre- and Post-Peak Fall Foliage Periods,” in a September 2019 blog, “Off Peak Performance.” It’s a great way to boost the color in any season, but it’s especially useful in the winter. Selective burning and dodging are the final touches that really bring the image to life. Below is the image without the technique applied. The color is still evident, but not quite as pronounced.

Waterfall: Original scene without enhancements.
Original scene without enhancements.

Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit of shooting during a storm. The worst weather often produces the most dramatic images, but it also makes it that much harder to find color. I shot the image below using a dedicated 28mm lens – a non-zoom, single-focal length lens. My regular lens is a 24-70mm f/2.8, but I use the 28mm at times when I need to reduce the size of my gear. Shooting in a storm is one of those times. I don’t want to be dealing with a lot of equipment in these types of conditions, so I only carry one camera and one lens. With the much smaller 28mm lens attached, I can easily cover my camera with a plastic bag and keep it inside my coat – only taking it out when I’m ready to shoot. I sought out this area of the park near a body of water known as The Pool. Once again, I was able to find color in the rocks and a few dead leaves and twigs. My main source of color, however, was the yellow tree in the background – a bare-leaf, Weeping Willow. The branches of some varieties are yellow. Normally, the color isn’t that noticeable, but in the winter when the tree is bare, it actually looks like vivid, fall foliage from a distance. I also used the same Gaussian Blur technique to enhance it even further.

A Weeping Willow provided most of the color for this shot.
A Weeping Willow provided most of the color for this shot.
Trees and pond in snow. Color can still be found even at the height of a raging storm.
Color can still be found even at the height of a raging storm.

That willow tree also provided a bit (albeit, a very small bit) of color in the center of the image above. Shot from the other side of The Pool, the storm was now kicking into high gear. Were it not for the willow and the red branches and twigs in the foreground, this photo would be virtually indistinguishable from a black and white rendition.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, there may be occasions when you might not be able to find a single spot of color anywhere. This is when you need to get creative and simply make your own color. I used a flash for both of the images below, but I placed a red flash gel over the flashhead for the image on the right. It added a realistic amount of color to the ice and the stem, which balanced nicely with the early-morning light on the snow in the background. The key is to make it look believable. Red is a very dominant color that can easily overpower everything in the shot. I lowered my flash output to around -2 stops and hand-held it off-camera about two feet to the left.

Left: Without red flash gel.  Right:  With red flash gel.
Left: Without red flash gel Right: With red flash gel

Unlike the other seasons, color isn’t expected in the winter, and that’s precisely why it makes such an impact when it’s included in a photo. It may seem a bit elusive at first, but you will find it if you take the time to seek it out (or create it yourself).

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.