Beauty in Bleakness

January 05, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

Patterns in WhiteWinter LaceAs heavy, wet snow rapidly falls, it clings to tree branches creating a design of dark tree limbs against the white snow and sky.

Newfields, New Hampshire
The first few lines of the poem-turned-Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter paint a vivid picture:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow...

The image that conjures up probably has something to do with the way you feel about winter in general.

As a kid, I loved it; you'd routinely find me ice skating after school. Following any significant snowfall we had to haul shovels down to the lake to clear enough ice to create a "rink," but that was a minor inconvenience. If we weren't skating we were sledding. As for the cold, we didn't seem to feel it.

Somewhere along the way I soured on the whole thing. Adulthood probably had something to do with it.

If you live in a northern climate there's no denying the fact that winter can be a challenge. It's sometimes bitterly cold. It can be gloomy when the sun decides to stay in hiding for days - or weeks - at a time. Driving becomes difficult. Keeping driveways and sidewalks cleared is a chore.  

I'll admit I had to rekindle my affection for the season, but the feeling is definitely back, and I have photography to thank for the change of heart.

Yes, winter can be harsh. Unforgiving. (And driving on slippery roads is not fun.) But winter can also be elegant, understated and quiet. Gorgeous.

The slumbering landscape, stripped down to its essence, is starkly beautiful. It's often soft, delicate and ephemeral: hoarfrost, blankets of snow, sea steam, ice-encased twigs. Jack FrostJack FrostSub-zero temperatures and fog create hoarfrost overnight, decorating the cottonwoods along the Gros Ventre River in white. While the peak of Grand Teton is in full sunshine, lingering fog below heavily filters the light.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Cloudy days create soothing and understated monochromatic scenes. When the sun does make an appearance, it casts long shadows. On those clear nights, the stars appear brighter than at other times during the year. 

There is something wonderful in the minimalist simplicity of winter. It begs to be photographed.

We're all at the mercy of how efficiently snow is removed from the roads. After all, you've got to be able to get to wherever it is you want to shoot. Beyond that, though, as long as you're dressed appropriately, you can stay one step ahead of the weather. 

If you're new to winter photography, here are a few tips to help you stay warm:

Wear layers

Even when bitterly cold, it's possible to become overheated. Wick away moisture by choosing wool, not cotton, for your base layer. Then add items like an insulated vest and balaclava. Invest in a good pair of snow pants.

Chemical warmers

For me, these are game changers for both hands and feet. They last for hours. I wouldn't be able to stay out nearly as long without them.

Get a knit hat with a liner

This makes a huge difference; the liner will cut the wind. If your head is warm, the rest of you will be warm(er).

Avoid touching equipment with bare hands

Tripod legs can become extremely cold; don't handle yours without hand protection. Even with gloves, if I'm going to be carrying my tripod for a while I don't grip it with my hand - the cold quickly cuts through in spite of my hand warmers. Instead, I balance the tripod on one shoulder and drape my arm over the front of it.

About those gloves

Dials, buttons and filters all require dexterity to manipulate. This is a challenge when you're trying to keep your hands from freezing in bitterly cold conditions.

I still haven't found the ideal solution. Believe me when I tell you I've tried many things over the years. (Then again, my hands are very cold-sensitive.) Gloves aren't great; the chemical heat warmers can only nestle part of the way down in them, which leaves my fingers out in the cold, so to speak. Also, for gloves to provide sufficient warmth they've got to be fairly bulky - which makes it nearly impossible to adjust the camera. I've tried silk glove liners with no success. I've also used battery-operated heated gloves but because I have to set them to "high" in order to feel anything, they quickly run out of juice.

Mittens are a non-starter for obvious reasons.

Currently, I'm using mittens with trigger fingers. They're warmer than gloves, provide much better dexterity than regular mittens, and enable me to comfortably handle my bag and tripod. That said, I can't operate the camera wearing them so still end up briefly removing a mitten every time I need to make a camera adjustment. (I double up on chemical warmers to compensate.) This is not ideal, but until I come up with something better it has worked, even at -24F on brisk Yellowstone mornings.

Each season has something special to offer. Even winter! Don't miss the many beautiful scenes just waiting to be captured this time of year. If you and winter aren't currently in simpatico, getting out there with your camera might change your attitude. It worked for me.

In Local News

If you're going to be visiting Teton Country, drive carefully. I'm not kidding when I say municipal snow removal around here seems to be little more than an afterthought. It's crazy. There were 245 slide-offs and crashes between December 14 and 26 in Eastern Idaho. 12 days!

Beyond the lousy road conditions, remember that even in the dead of winter wildlife are out and about, especially at dusk. Be on the lookout and slow down. On the evening of December 29th 13 bison died after being struck by vehicles just north of West Yellowstone, Montana. Some were killed upon impact while others had to be put down due to the severity of their injuries. Tragic. 

On a happier note, ski resorts are rejoicing as the La Niña weather pattern continues to produce plentiful precipitation. Grand Targhee, Jackson Hole, and Snow King are all enjoying above-average snow totals season-to-date. 

Look UpLook UpSnow squalls moving in create angry skies over hoodoos silently waiting for the rough weather to arrive.

Bryce Amphitheater at Sunset Point
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah


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