FIELD TECHNIQUES: Show the Snow by F.M. Kearney

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W-300 Story and photograph by F.M. Kearney

This winter has certainly been one for the record books. While most people probably long for the warm days of summer, I personally can never get enough of the cold and everything that comes with it.

There’s nothing better than photographing a freshly snow-covered landscape glistening in bright sunlight. For an added dynamic effect, I sometimes include the sun and position it partially behind a tree branch, to create an eye-catching starburst. Although stunning images like these “after the snow” photos are well-worth capturing, I recently began experimenting with taking pictures during the actual snowfall.

Falling snow significantly complicates the shoot. My first priority is keeping my equipment dry, so I carry as little of it as possible. No bag. No tripod. No filters. I take one camera and one lens, protecting them in a customized, plastic rain cover. I hang it around my neck and keep it dry inside my coat–only taking it out when I’m ready to shoot. Even after these brief exposures to the elements, I still have to wipe the lens after almost every shot.

The resulting images are okay, but for images that show that it’s snowing, you need to use a flash. A flash highlights the flakes closest to the camera while the ones in the rear are gradually darkened by the falloff. Conversely, a flash adds to the amount of equipment needed. A point and shoot (or a DSLR) with a built-in flash might seem like an obvious choice, but I find there are a number of creative advantages to using an external flash.

The flash sits a good six to seven inches above the lens. This amount of separation emphasizes the flakes at the top of the frame and works especially well if the sky takes up a large portion of this area. Although best-suited to a horizontal format, a vertical format can also work if your flash head can swivel in multiple directions. That way, you can avoid highlighting the flakes on the extreme left or right of the frame. When it comes to shutter speed, the slower the speed, the more intense the snowfall will appear. However, if you are working without a tripod as I do, you have to be careful not to go too slow.

Lastly, a slight underexposure will further emphasize all of these effects. I shot another version of this photo where I rendered the snow pure white. Since everything was the same tone, the snowflakes became virtually invisible. Both images worked, but if you’re going to go through the trouble of exposing yourself and your equipment to the snow, shouldn’t you at least be able to see it?

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of our natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. He is a frequent contributor to NANPA publications and the weekly photography blogger on www.contemporaryartgalleryonline.com. His 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 at http://www.amazon.com. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.

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