Right now, some of us in the Northern Hemisphere are in winter’s icy grip. I know here in central Pennsylvania, USA, it’s the coldest winter in twenty years! That’s far, far longer than I’ve been shooting, for sure. As tempting as it is to stay inside, safe and warm, street photography in wintery conditions can be very rewarding and yield fantastic images. It’s not without risk, though. If you’re hardy enough and prepared, it can give you great rewards.
The Beauty Of Winter
I love the look of snow blanketing our cityscapes. It adds a new perspective to the same scenes we see 3/4 of the year. It changes it. Not drastically so, but enough to make you look at it differently. I see it as a fresh start… both the end and beginning of a year. It quiets the city some and can slow it down. That being said, it also changes how people move about and how they act.
Being out on a street hunt when the snow is first falling, just starting to accumulate, is an amazing opportunity. For example, fresh footprints on an untouched sidewalk or pavement make for great leading lines to a subject. The falling flakes, especially when big and slow add a surreal feel to even the filthiest of urban landscapes. Snow building up on the same architecture, signs or sculptures that we normally see bare, also give us new perspectives on familiar objects. The same city you normally prowl is transformed into a different metropolis.
The people we capture are a different story. Since I’m stuck shooting on the weekends, the one most obvious fact is that there’s less activity on the streets. People are simply not out and about, enjoying the weather. There’s no outdoor activities in the small cities where I shoot. On larger cities there may be, for example, an outdoor skating rink. Not here. The people that are out here are on a mission: to get from point A to point B. Maybe walking the dog as an exception, but generally they’re just going somewhere and they’re not enjoying the weather!
Also, the people that are out are in a hurry, and a big one at that. When it’s brutally cold out, they want to get where they’re going and fast! As a street photographer, this means your reflexes have to be even quicker. The pace of someone braving the elements to get to the corner store in below freezing weather is going to be much faster than someone strolling on a pleasant spring day.
Another thing that I’ve noticed about the locals that are out on these blustery days is that they’re always looking down! Surely this is to keep their faces away from the stinging winter wind. This also adds another challenge to the street photographer. Since it is so hard to get a full on shot of their faces, it’s time to think about different compositions, different angles. Use the background to your advantage! Or try focusing on different parts of the subject, like hands or feet!
Also, how people dress in the winter can be used for a different approach. Colorful hats and scarves can be great focal points to shoot for.
The key is using the snow and winter elements to your advantage. Bright white snow, and even the gray mounds of street slush that are piled up act as fresh new canvases to paint your picture upon. Approach it with fresh eyes!
Braving The Elements
I love winter, but it can be cruel. Sub-freezing temperatures are a bear to shoot in. If you add wind on top of that, it becomes quite unpleasant. Exposed skin takes a beating and can ruin your adventure very quickly. Dressing appropriately is the key. This is common sense, of course. Bundling up in layers is the ticket. A wind resistant jacket is a great outer layer if you’re going to be out for a while. And boots. I’ve found heavy lugged boots to be a great ally on my treks. Not only are they great for the snow-covered streets, but also for the mounds of hard, plowed-up snow and slush left behind from the snow removal equipment.
Boots are great, but sure footing also requires balance on slippery terrain. Remember, if you’re going to slip and fall… you’re only going to have one hand to help you break it. That other hand is going to be holding the camera. Slippery, snowy terrain would be the only time I consider using a neck strap instead of a wrist strap. Trust me, I’ve got a terribly sore wrist right now from this weekend’s trek. The sidewalks were bare, but the mounds of frozen slush surrounding them were treacherous. Be careful. Watch where your footing is.
And what about the hands? I cannot wear gloves when shooting. I find my camera unmanageable when wearing them. I’ve even tried the slim, touchscreen-friendly variety and found them unsatisfactory. The only real solution I’ve found is to keep hand warmer packets in my jacket pockets. These can be found at any sporting goods store or major department stores. Since I don’t use a neck strap, I alternate hands for holding the camera. One goes in the pocket to warm up, the other holds the camera. Easy.
One last note, also consider your batteries. I currently have four and I make sure their all charged up proper to going out. The reason? This weather can can easily bring anywhere from hours to days without power. I know some folks here that have been without power for over three days. It would be horrible to miss great photo opportunities because you didn’t have extra battery.
Oh, and I forgot one other source of heat when shooting in the winter weather… the adrenaline! Nothing will heat you up quicker than the rush of a great capture!