Winter has come early to Northeastern PA, giving us our first snowfall just before Halloween.  The timing on this was perfect, as the snow stopped around midnight Saturday and was still in pristine condition at sunrise Sunday morning, which found me out in the park, ankle-deep in one hell of a great morning.  There are few better scenes that post-snowfall, when every branch and every stem is coated with a layer of white.  It’s a fleeting condition, vanishing in the first direct rays of the sun.  But for that brief twilight period, the combination of light and form is breathtaking.

I was in the field almost an hour before sunrise, to take advantage of the soft twilight light – what this means in realistic terms is, it was still dark when I got out of bed, and there was a sky full of stars overhead while I cleaned off my car and headed up the highway to the park, arriving just as twilight was setting in.  There is only one way to really shoot under these conditions, and that’s tripod-mounted.  We’re talking low light, small aperture, and the lowest ISO possible, all of which come together and cancel out any chance of hand-holding.

Almost all my shooting throughout the morning took place at ISO 100 (ISO 250 after sunrise, when I finally switched to hand-holding), f/8 – f/16, and shutter speeds as long as 30″.  Given the delicate textures and patterns, the overall smoothness of the snow, I wanted essentially everything in focus, and all of it creamy smooth and noise-free.  The real trick was capturing the color cast accurately – the morning really was as blue as it looks in the photos, and it as vital to me that I no lose that coolness.  I set the white balance to Daylight (a setting I rarely use), which did an excellent job.

I’ve always found that shooting in the snow simplifies the process of image making.  I suppose that it’s almost like cheating, since a layer of snow essentially balances out the landscape, smoothing over the rough patches and excessive detail, and bringing an image down to a level that’s really all about contrast.  The contrast of cool to warm colors, of white snow to dark elements, of harsh edges to rounded smoothness.  Of course it has its own challenges – the cold being near the top of the list.  But they are challenges that can pay high dividends if you take the time to work them.

There are good mornings in the field, and then there are great mornings.  This was a great morning, and the first in a long time where I had that excellent feeling, where as soon as the shutter tripped I knew I had captured something good.  At some points I was actually running through the snow, chasing the next image.  This is why we get up in he dark and stand shivering in the chill air – for mornings like this!

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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