Winter Has Arrived, Summer is Coming
Outdoor Photography In Blizzard Conditions
Camera: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 85mm f/1.2L II USM
Focal Length: 85mm
Shutter Speed: 1/400
White Balance: 6000K
Camera Mode: Manual
Lighting: Natural light reflected off the snow on the ground. Snow is a natural reflector.
The scenario was a cold winter day, Jan. 5, 2014 in Kokomo, Indiana; Heather and I were after the concept “summer is coming” vs. “winter is coming,” hence the swimsuit. The message was to provide hope and warmth instead of cold and darkness. The location was a public park several miles from Heather’s house, driving to and from was a major challenge that day.
The Story Behind The Photo
In the first episode of season one in Games of Thrones, Ned Stark tells his wife Cat that “winter is coming,” after she objects to their son Bran seeing the deserter from the Night’s Watch being beheaded. These three words became the most iconic words from the series and it was Ned Stark’s way of reminding his wife that trouble times are coming and they must remain on constant caution—he should know, as the Starks, being the lords of the North, get hit the hardest during winter and winter is coming is the motto of the House of Stark.
According to the Games of Thrones co-executive producer George R. R. Martin, also the novelist who wrote the epic series A Song of Ice and Fire upon which Games of Thrones is based on, winter is coming “expresses the sentiment that there are always dark periods in each of our lives, and even if things are good now (summer), we must always be ready for a dark period when events turn against us (winter).”
Born and raised in Texas, I’m not an “old man winter” type of guy, I prefer warmer climates, but unfortunately I experienced one of the worst winters in late 2013 and early 2014. Winter wasn’t coming, winter came during that period and I can’t ever remember in my life being around subzero temperatures for so many days and seeing so much snowfall. It was so horrible that I swear while watching Games of Thrones DVD episodes every time a cast member said “winter is coming” my mind heard “I’m sick of winter.”
In fact, cabin fever was so bad one day that Heather and I decided we’d go shoot some photos in the snow. It was our kid-free weekend, it was Sunday, and the town was in whiteout and blizzard like conditions. At times snow was coming down at over an inch per hour and by 2:30 p.m. that day over eight inches of snow had fell to the ground and the day would end with 10.5 inches total.
Our goal was to produce a winter photograph that would indicate summer is coming; we wanted to send the editorial message that there was hope in the upcoming warmth of spring and summer. We were done with winter, so Heather put on her black one-piece bathing suit given to her from her Princess Cruise Line photo shoot she had done the previous Fall when I was conducting a photography workshop in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She then put on a heavy winter coat, as did I, and we boldly went where no photographer and model have gone before, at least not in Kokomo, Indiana during blizzard conditions.
It was so white, blinding at times and of course, guess who was driving Heather’s SUV? Moi, and I wasn’t too comfortable with that as it was barely a month old with less mileage on it’s odometer than the miles between San Antonio and Dallas. I don’t really remember the temperature the moment we pulled away from Heather’s home, but earlier that morning it was -13 degrees Fahrenheit and the high was forecasted at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
We headed out to Highland Park even though the news and weather reports where telling people to stay home—sometimes to get the shot, you’ve got to take risks, something I learned a long time ago in photojournalism, and besides, I had spent three years in Germany while in the U.S. Army and driving in the snow was nothing. Heck, I remember once where we flew in a blizzard one Thanksgiving Day from the Fulda Gap of Germany to Frankfurt in a Blackhawk helicopter—it was so bad, the pilots had to locate an autobahn to follow back home, hovering above the cars and reading the road signs for directions until we reached more clear, visible conditions.
However, sometimes confidence can kick you in the ass and it almost did as we shot fast and when it came time to leave, the SUV was sliding and we almost got stuck in a snow bank. It was isolated, not one car or person in sight, and thank God, with a few prayers we managed to get unstuck and find our way home.
Winter is coming was far from our minds, the warmth in the car was our comfort and we finally arrived home where we talked about the risks we took and how we barely got out of the park and back home. Ironically, the following year, Heather and I found an antique style Shell gas station and even though it was cold with snow on the ground, there were no blizzard conditions so we went after creating another winter-land image.
Working outdoors in freezing conditions is a challenge to anyone, but to photographers, a few things to keep in mind. First, wear gloves, metal will stick to fingers and you must avoid the possibility of frostbite. Second, dress warm, and take breaks, Heather and I left the car running with the heater on, so we’d jump back in the car after a few minutes of shooting for our protection against frostbite.
When doing outdoor photography, it’s easier today with digital cameras as you can look at your LCD screen and make on-the-spot corrections. I tend to shoot in manual mode, and my first shot I take to check the lighting guides my adjustments until I get the exposure correct. It’s important to note when you’re shooting high-key, as the white snow produces that effect, the histogram will shift more to the right, or the highlights side of the image, so if you’re looking at your histogram and the majority of the data is toward the left, chances are your image is underexposed.
Another factor to take into consideration is condensation. If your camera and lens is warm and you immediately take it outside in the cold, you run the risk of condensation forming inside the camera body and lens, this is not good. You will also have condensation on the front of the lens and the viewfinder making it difficult to see what you want to capture.
The solution, leave your camera in the camera bag, and set it outside to cool it down, or in the cold garage of your house, for at least a half hour. This reduces the risk or amounts of condensation to zero or on the case of the lens and viewfinder, a tolerable amount that can be easily wiped off. Also make sure you have a spare battery and the battery in your camera is fully charged as cold weather robs them quickly of power.
It is very important to return your camera body and lens back into your camera bag, then bring it inside the house and do not open it up for at least a few hours. Then you can remove the digital storage card as it too must slowly acclimatize to the working conditions in your home—remember, your computer is warm and if you insert a cold digital card into your laptop or tower, it will heat up fast, so give it time to warm up naturally.
While I shoot manual, if you’re going to shoot in snow-like conditions in an auto mode of any type that relies on metering, it’s best to use spot metering and meter the skin tone of your subject. If you do not have time to do this, you may want to adjust your over/under exposure compensation to at least a plus 1/2 stop or more as your meter will be fooled by all the white and want to expose for the snow instead of the skin tone of your subject which results in your subject becoming dark. In conditions where the snow is too bright, expose your subject just a tad dark as you can always bring them out in post production while maintaining detail in your highlights, or in this case, the snow. The rule is to not “blow out” or overexpose your highlights, as you can’t bring that information back.
In blizzard like conditions obviously driving slow is the way to go. It’s important to realize that you can hit patches of ice that can send your vehicle sliding out of control and sliding on ice out of control isn’t like steering yourself out of a normal dry-pavement skid. Also make sure your vehicle is fully gassed up as if you get stuck, as we almost did, your car running with the heater on can save you from frostbite and hyperthermia should you have to wait for hours for someone to come to your rescue.
Again, wear gloves. If the temperatures fall below freezing your fingers can stick to your camera. A rubber eyepiece cup on your camera viewfinder helps too as you don’t want to risk your eye getting stuck to your camera anymore than you don’t put your tongue on an ice-cold metal pole.
Wear shoes that have traction and be cautious as it’s easy to slip plus fall hard on the ground and gain an injury that will result in a snow-white colored-cast for a many weeks to come. Working in extreme cold conditions isn’t about winter is coming, it’s about winter is here and old man winter isn’t always very friendly, in fact, set your mind on thinking he’s the grouchy old man out to get you when you least expect it, so expect that everything can go wrong. You must always remain cautious to avoid any trouble as the message is so eloquently implied in the phrase, “winter is coming.”