When the temperature drops in winter, and the darkness feels like it lasts all day, it’s all too easy to go into hibernation mode and watch the camera gear slowly gather dust: and before you think I’m aboout to go all self-righteous on you, I can assure you that I do precisely that on a regular basis. However, every so often I do successfully manage to give myself the much needed kick up the rear-end to snap out of it, and whilst there have been many occasions I wish I had simply ignored myself; there have been many other occasions to prove that sometimes making the effort really does bring special rewards.
Although the cold and dark are usually more than enough to kill incentive, there is one slight benefit to winter photography and that is that my (and most other photographers’) favourite time of day to shoot the countryside, sunrise, does at least come around at a slightly more civilised hour than it does in the summertime!
The race for the sunrise
As I’m sure many of you already know, photographers are obsessed with light, and especially that legendary ‘Golden Hour’ which occurs just after the sun comes up, and again, just before it disappears. Although sunsets are not exactly easy targets (which I’ll come to a bit later), sunrises tend to be even trickier, primarily because they are a lot less predictable. The key to good sunrise photography is getting into position well BEFORE the sun makes its appearance; this means planning where you want to be in advance of the shoot and stumbling around in the dark when the chosen day arrives. And don’t forget of course that it is invariably pretty darn cold as well as dark – such fun! However, in order to maintain the ‘glass half-full’ slant here (I am supposed to be convincing you that winter photography is worth it after all), let’s not forget that one of the usual benefits of sunrise photography – getting your chosen location to yourself – is generally multiplied in the winter precisely as a result of these factors.
So – you’ve given yourself the required kick up the rear end; you’ve planned where you need to be, and you’ve managed to get yourself there on time: now all you need is for the sun to ‘play ball’ with you. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees here. When it’s pitch black as you leave the house, it is near impossible to see what the sky is doing and the level of cloud cover in place: ideally you want some cloud but not too much. What Mother Nature is going to provide you with only starts to become apparent as the moment of truth draws closer. Sometimes things will go against you and the sun will just creep up under heavy cloud and daylight slowly but steadily appears – that is the nature of the game here. Go home, warm up, and try again another day. That is also a ‘half-empty’ outlook: remember, even if you don’tget the shot you want, you will have had the opportunity to check out your ideal position for when you come back to try again another day; and you might still be able to get some nice detail shots even without the glow of a Golden Hour. However, when Mother Nature does decide to play ball, you can find yourself rewarded with a sunrise that often comes with much softer and gentler colours than at other times of the year.
On the day I shot this image at Turf Fen it was bitterly cold, as can be seen in the level of frost in the foreground of the picture, but the air was incredibly crisp and clear, and the often bold red and gold of sunrise materialised as a delicate soft pink which was really quite beautiful. On a cold and crispy morning such as this one, the ‘Golden Hour’ that comes along after the sun has come up also has a wonderful crispness and clarity to it that just seems to make everything stand out from its surroundings.
A good sunrise is always rewarding, no matter what time of year it appears.
Take advantage of low light
As already mentioned, photographers will regularly rave about the joys of the ‘Golden Hour’, and winter brings an added benefit here in that the sun tends to stay very low in the sky much longer at this time of year (as you will know if you are a driver) meaning that opportunities for some nice back or soft lighting of subjects become greater. If your winter’s morning outing is taking place on a day cold enough for some frost, you may be able to combine this benefit (it may not seem like a benefit when you think your fingers are going to fall off with frost-bite) with some low sunlight to highlight frosted details.
Waiting for sunset
I started this post talking about the unpredictability of sunrises. Now, I’m not going to try to convince you that sunsets ARE predictable, but they are certainly slightly more predictable in as much as you have the benefit of monitoring the weather during the day and watching how the sky is looking as you head to mid-afternoon: this can often give an indication that there is at least a reasonable chance of some sunset colour, or if the sky is covered in heavy cloud and rain, you can be pretty sure you won’t get much. If you are a ‘storm chaser’ of course you may have a different view, but we’ll leave that for another day.
As with sunrise, the key rule for sunsets is exactly the same: you need to get yourself into position long BEFORE the sun starts to go down. And then it is a waiting game……… but don’t get complacent, as when things start to happen, they tend to happen very quickly. In addition to getting to the right spot at the right time, one skill that is absolutely essential here is a thorough understanding of your camera’s controls around exposure settings. Most photographers would recommend shooting on ‘Manual’ here as it gives you the full flexibility you need to capture the scene in the way you want, but it is absolutely essential that you know your camera’s controls inside out here: ideally you should be able to change settings without looking at them. The peak colours during sunset often only appear for a couple of minutes before they start to fade so you need to be able to move fast to adjust settings to follow the dropping light.
And don’t be too quick to pack up your gear when the sun disappears as depending on conditions, the best colours can sometimes appear after the sun drops below the horizon, particularly if you are shooting at the coast.
Going for the double
So, are you convinced to give it a go yet? I do hope so.
One final thought for you here: I’ve already mentioned the benefit of winter sunrises being at a more civilised time due to the sun rising later in the morning, and at the other end of the day, it sets earlier too, so if you’re really adventurous, why not go for the double and get both!
A few years ago, my wife and I spent a long weekend in the Scottish Highlands at a hotel on the shores of Loch Linnhe. After much persuasion, I managed to convince my wife to join me for a sunrise shoot one morning (the loch side was only across the road from the hotel so not too far to walk!). Thankfully, we were rewarded with a lovely crisp morning and she thoroughly enjoyed the experience. After a lovely day exploring the area, we were heading back to the hotel late afternoon when the weather was still being good to us, so I decided to push my luck and suggested that we head for the loch side again to watch the sunset. I’m so glad we did as we were rewarded with what I still consider to be the most spectacular sunset I have ever witnessed.
Another lesson I learned on this particular occasion was not to be complacent on picking your spot. From our morning outing, we already had a good idea where the sun would go down so knew that we needed to head back to a similar spot on the edge of the water to that used in the morning if we were to get the best of the sunset. When we returned to the hotel after watching every last drop of colour disappear from the sky, we met another couple staying at the hotel who had watched the event unfold from the hotel’s large panoramic windows which overlooked the loch. “Oh, did you see that beautiful sunset?” the lady asked us. “Yes, we certainly did” I replied. “I have some lovely pictures” the lady continued, “Can I show you some?” She duly invited us to join her and showed us some of the shots she had taken. She certainly did have some lovely shots taken looking onto the loch across the hotel lawn. “Yes, they are lovely”, I commented, “We walked across the road to the water’s edge to get our shots”. When I showed her some of the shots I had captured she was astonished at just how different they were. Her very comfortable view from the sofa over-looking the garden still showed the spectacular colours, but by simply walking across the road in order to get a view looking down the loch to where the sun was setting behind the hills, my views were very different, and considerably more dramatic. All achieved from a 60 second walk for a different perspective.
Enjoy winter: yes, it can be challenging, but it can also be very rewarding.