Winter in the City: Shooting Winter Scenes in the City (Without the City)

Photo of a snow-covered scene framed by the branches of a tree. The branches are covered with snow and a sun star peeks out of the top of a branch near the upper left corner. New York Botanical Garden after a snowfall. © F. M. Kearney
New York Botanical Garden after a snowfall. © F. M. Kearney

By F. M. Kearney

Urban Nature is a new feature of NANPA’s blog, a series of articles created to address the issues of nature photographers living in urban areas, with little or no access to conventional, natural environments. It will focus on topics ranging from finding subjects to finding inspiration. Also, in an effort to attract more beginners into the field, it will attempt to demystify the art of photography in general.

City living may have its benefits when it comes to a lot of things, but it might not be so advantageous if you’re a nature photographer seeking subjects to shoot. This is a problem all year around, but it’s especially difficult in the winter. Other seasons allow amble time to plan quick getaways to photograph spring flowers or fall foliage. But, if you’re trying to capture pristine, snow-covered landscapes without a hint of man-made objects, it’s not so easy if you live in an urban area. You can visit a local park, but pristine conditions won’t remain that way for very long. In no time at all, the place will be inundated with hordes of hyperactive schoolkids celebrating their snow day – forever erasing that delicate Winter Wonderland. Also, even in a large park, it’s still very difficult to avoid traces of civilization almost anywhere you point your camera. Of course, you can try to venture outside of your city limits, but what if you don’t have a car? Many people (myself included) who live in large cities do not own cars. They’re more of a hinderance than anything else. Public transportation is usually the best option. But public transportation may not get you exactly where you want to be at the time you want to be there. So, having said all of that… if you live in the city and you want to get photos of unspoiled, snow-covered landscapes, your best option might be to stay in the city.

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The Less-Than-Perfect Storm: Getting Great Winter Photos Under Challenging Conditions

Photo of a snow-covered landscape. Aftermath of “The Perfect Storm” in the New York Botanical Garden. © F. M. Kearney
Aftermath of “The Perfect Storm” in the New York Botanical Garden. © F. M. Kearney

By F. M. Kearney

I had always dreamt of photographing a Winter Wonderland – a landscape where every inch of ground and every branch and twig is totally coated in a thick layer of fluffy, white powder. In some parts of the world, that’s just an average Tuesday, but it’s quite a rare sight to see if you live in an urban area. In fact, in nearly the past 20 years, I can only remember one time when the snow conditions in the New York City area rivaled that of what one might typically expect to see in a rural, Midwestern locale. It was Christmas Day, 2002 – the first White Christmas the city had experienced in many years. Although we only received about six inches of snow, it was the dense, heavy kind that tends to stick to everything it touches. The photo above is one of the many photos I shot the next day in the New York Botanical Garden. As you can see, it was a photographer’s dream. Conditions were so optimum that I wrote an article about it back in 2015:

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Photography 101: Using a Polarizing Filter:

A Simple Tool That Can Produce Amazing Results

Photo of pink water lilies and lily pads with all the glare removed by the polarizer. AFTER: Waterlilies and pads shot with polarizing filter.
AFTER: Waterlilies and pads shot with polarizing filter.

By F.M. Kearney

Back in the days of film, I used to carry a complete assortment of filters in my camera bag. I had warming filters, cooling filters, neutral density filters, graduated neutral density filters, special effect filters and, of course, a polarizing filter. The digital age had made life much easier. Most of these filter effects can now be applied in post with much greater precision and in varying degrees of intensity. Not having to carry so many filters is a definite plus, but there are some filter effects that can’t be created digitally… yet.

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Night Blooms:A Unique Way to Combine Our Natural and Man-Made Worlds

Close up photo of cherry blossoms with blurred city lights in the background. "Cherry blossoms amid city lights and sunset skies." © F. M. Kearney
Cherry blossoms amid city lights and sunset skies. © F. M. Kearney

By F. M. Kearney

I often write about the challenges of finding nature subjects in an urban environment. Of course, even the largest concrete jungles aren’t all concrete. There’s always a local park or a botanical garden somewhere nearby. Places like these are perfect locations to capture unique compositions of natural and man-made subjects.

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Finding Nature in the City: A Young Photographer’s Quest

Photo of a creek with the water rushing over and around medium-sized boulders. On the banks of the creek, trees are showing the yellows, oranges, and reds of fall. Rock Creek winds through the heart of Washington, DC. © Dhruv Cohen
Rock Creek winds through the heart of Washington, DC. © Dhruv Cohen

Most adults don’t think of young people as nature photographers, or of there being lots of wildlife in a big city. Wrong on both counts! Dhruv Cohen is a high school student who lives in Washington, DC, and is interested in biology and mathematics. He’s also an avid bird photographer. And he has a lot to say about photography, wildlife, and the experience of being out in nature with a camera.

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Photography 101: Focal Lengths

The left photo was taken with a 16mm fisheye lens while the right photo was taken with a 24mm lens. © F. M. Kearney
The left photo was taken with a 16mm fisheye lens while the right photo was taken with a 24mm lens. © F. M. Kearney

By F.M. Kearney

In last month’s Photography 101 article, I discussed what I consider to be one of the most fundamental basics of photography: apertures and shutter speeds. Following closely behind in terms of importance are focal lengths. Simply put, the focal length describes the angle of view of a lens, as compared to natural eyesight. It’s a measurement (expressed in millimeters) of how much of a scene it captures. A long focal length lens, such as a 200mm lens, captures a narrow angle of view, or an enlarged view of the subject. These types of lenses are known as telephoto lenses. A short focal length lens, such as a 28mm lens, captures a much wider angle of view, making the subject appear smaller. As their angle of view implies, these types of lenses are known as wide angle lenses. Lenses that encompass multiple focal lengths are known as zoom lenses. They are easily identifiable with ranges such as 12-24mm, 24-70mm or 100-300mm. A variety of focal lengths can be achieved simply turning or sliding a ring on the lens.

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Photography 101: Apertures and Shutter Speeds

Apertures and Shutter Speed

Photo of the previous waterfall in a gorge with the water in the falls very silky or cottony and the surface of the water at the base of the falls very smooth. 15 sec., f/11 – Extremely long exposures can reveal unusual patterns in water. © F.M. Kearney
15 seconds, f/11 – Extremely long exposures can reveal unusual patterns in water. © F.M. Kearney

By F.M. Kearney

Perhaps you were intrigued by the photos you saw in magazines. Maybe you wondered why your own photos never came close to matching them, or even the scene you just photographed. It might simply be that you’re just curious about the purpose of all those strange-looking buttons and dials on your new camera or lens. Whatever the reason, you’ve decided to get a little more serious about photography and you’re interested in elevating your skills to another level. If that’s the case, then this article was written just for you.

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Urban Nature

Story and photography by F.M. Kearney

How can I crop out the edge of that building?

Has the traffic completely cleared the scene yet?

Are those tourists ever going to move?

If you’ve ever tried to shoot nature photos within an urban environment, you’ve undoubtedly asked yourself questions like these at one time or another. I often write about the difficulties of pursuing a career as a nature photographer in a large metropolitan city. It’s not always economically or logistically possible to escape city limits and venture into the wild to capture true nature. You sometimes have no choice but to shoot nature wherever you can find it—amidst all the inherent distractions of a concrete jungle.

I used to go to great lengths to avoid any man-made objects in my nature photos, believing that any hint of urban artifacts would lessen the impact of the natural subject. This would be true if the objects were only in the shot due to careless oversight. However, it’s an entirely different story if their inclusion is deliberate and done for creative purposes.

Cities come alive with color in the spring. You probably won’t have to go far to find a beautiful flower display. Instead of attempting to isolate it from its surroundings, try to incorporate the natural and the artificial worlds.

Looking down Park Avenue

Looking down Park Avenue

In New York, colorful tulips adorn the median of Park Avenue for several miles. With the traffic zooming by just a few feet away, it’s amazing that they survive. Yet, not only do they survive in this inhospitable environment, they flourish. And for a couple of weeks during the season, they really put the “park” in Park Avenue. Countless tourists photograph these flowers each year, but very few hang around until twilight. That’s too bad (well, it’s great for me since I practically have the whole place to myself), because the city and traffic lights add a lot of vitality to the scene. Instead of waiting for the traffic to clear out of the shot in the photo above, I waited for it to enter. I wanted to use the light trails from passing vehicles as a dynamic framing element for the tulips, as well as a way to help draw the viewer’s eye into the shot. I chose this particular spot in between two glass towers for more symmetry and more colorful light reflecting off the windows. Lastly, I used a 16mm fisheye lens to emphasize the “tunnel” effect of the scene. Continue reading

Field Technique: Nature . . . in a most unusual place, Story and photo by F.M. Kearney

WF-72Kearney8-14New York is a city known for its attractions: the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Bronx Zoo, the Brooklyn Bridge Waterfall. Waterfall? Yes, for a brief period during the summer of 2008, there was a waterfall at the Brooklyn Bridge, thanks to the imagination of artist Olafur Eliasson.

The Brooklyn Bridge Waterfall was part of a public art project consisting of four artificial waterfalls situated along the East River and the New York Harbor. They were created by pumping river water up and over 100-foot-tall scaffoldings. The Brooklyn Bridge Waterfall was placed under the bridge’s tower. Of the four waterfalls, it was the most picturesque.

Like a typical New Yorker, I suppose, I never really paid much attention to public art installations. One in particular, installed a few years earlier in Central Park, left me more puzzled than anything else. It was known as The Gates–a winding, 23-mile-long row of saffron-colored fabric sheets strewn along the park’s pathways. Personally, I didn’t get it and I didn’t see the fascination. However, a waterfall flowing under the Brooklyn Bridge is something else. There aren’t alot of waterfalls to shoot in New York City, so even though it was artificial, I didn’t want to miss it. Continue reading

FIELD TECHNIQUES: Cherry Blossom Time by F.M. Kearney

Cherry Blossom Time (CB-109a(D)

Story and photograph by F.M. Kearney

I had almost forgotten what it was like to see vibrant colors in my viewfinder. Despite that and a nasty fall on the ice that took me out of commission for several weeks, I still prefer winter over the insufferable dog days of summer. Yet, as this winter–one of the harshest on record–comes to a close, I’m rejoicing along with many others the long-awaited arrival of spring.

One of the first jewels of spring are colorful cherry blossoms. In New York City, the place to go is Cherry Esplanade in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Every April, two rows of Prunus “Kanzan” trees–a gift from the Japanese government after World War I–adorn this area of the garden in a sea of pink. The month-long cherry blossom season known as Hanami ends in a weekend celebration called Sakura Matsuri. Continue reading