As Old Man Winter lowers his cold frosty mantle upon the earth, creating dark chilly nights and crisp wintry days, many video producers think of hanging up their gear until Spring returns. But from shots exploiting winter's lovely light reflection to the striking colors of the magic hour, the dead of winter can be an enlightening time to shoot creative scenes of beauty, peace or desolation.
Short days and long nights often leave people with a feeling of loneliness and a need to cozy up by the fire in warm slippers with a hot drink. But video producers take advantage of the light and dark in very creative ways. Get your gear prepped for the weather, and check out these 6 simple shooting tips to use winter's cloak as your video palette.
#1: Long Shadows: In the winter, the sun hangs at a lower angle in the sky, so you don't have that bright beacon blazing uncontrolled light all over your scene. When the sun casts rays lower in the sky we get some incredibly long shadows that play well with mood and harmony and gives you better light reflection. Faces photographed in full noon-time sun in Spring and Summer's harsh light will have shadows cast from their eyebrows and noses, but the angled sun of winter can act as a lovely gentle fill and a neutral density filter can pull the subject out from the background.
Shadows are fun to play with, you can make them the main focus of the shot, and leave the subject in soft focus, creating a bokeh effect. These shadows can work for good or evil for your video scene. Long shadows in a light-filled valley appear to call one home, whilst long shadows in a lonely woodsy park can chill the nerves and render thoughts of wolves lying in wait for Red Riding Hood.
#2: Color my Sky Blue: Yes, winter is often overcast, wet and hazy, but on sunny winter days, the sky appears more vibrant, clearer, and bluer with less haze in the air. The deep rich color can make a desert scene pop - without the need of color enhancing filters! When your ground is covered in frost or snow, the blue sky gives you an even sharper delineation for nice long horizon shots. Colors in the winter are often subtle, since most plants are dormant, but a colorless landscape also makes objects that DO have color appear brighter, more vibrant and alive.
#3: Natural Diffusion: Most people look out upon a gray hazy winter sky and bemoan the pall cast upon the Earth; photographers and video producers look at the dismal scene with delight. Soft shadows, diffused light and an even tone are perfect conditions for shooting closeups of people. Overcast and gray conditions mean you don't need to lug along the diffusion tools - although a reflector and neutral density filter might be necessary to balance subjects shot against a bright white snowy background.
Wide shots of landscapes with an overcast sky can appear colorless and flat - which is perfect for a "desolation of the earth" scene or a shot of a long road to travel. High-key lighting doesn't always work for scenes like this, and it's hard to shoot barren dreary landscapes when the sky is happy and full of light without going into the filtering tools!
#4: Magic Hour: Shooting at night and that time of day/evening known as "The Golden Hour" or "Magic Hour" comes sooner in the winter- no need to wait until 8:00! Golden Hour denotes the time when the sun is almost set, but still sits on the horizon, casting colorful rays of light through the clouds and haze, washing the late afternoon in gold and pink hues. Portraits taken at this hour are gorgeous, as are landscape scenes, and in the wintertime, the Golden Hour might pass quicker, but it's often richer and the chances of light reflection and color more plentiful.
Blue Hour is roughly the half-hour after the sun has set when the sky is darkening and night-time scenes shot at this time have a magical cast to them. The sky is not quite dark yet and glows a deep rich cobalt blue. Stars appear as natural twinkle lights that help evoke melancholy and want of loved ones long gone, or the joy and comfort of knowing the warmth of home and hearth are nearby.
#5: Rain, Snow, Icicles and Fog! What you can make with these beautiful forces of nature! Yes - they can be major annoyances to the video producer; and snow can be especially difficult, read our "Shooting in the Snow" tips for more. But when outdoor conditions don't matter, take advantage of inclement weather to capture the wet wintry elements when you can. (Make sure you protect your gear properly, though!)
The coolest thing about shooting watery elements like fog, snow, rain and icicles is how well they play with light. Glittery icicles, sparkly snow, light-shrouding fog and droplets of frost capture light reflection so beautifully.
Raindrops on the road are easy to capture, rain in the sky requires thought and technique. Here's a couple shooting tips to capturing rain: In the daytime, shoot the rain coming down against a dark background like a building or dark trees - it shows up better. At night, use streetlights to backlight the rain.
# 6: Twinkle Lights. These inexpensive props add romance, mystery or magic to a scene's background - no decorated holiday tree required. People don't just decorate their homes and yards for holidays, they're also warding away winter's gloom with light. Out-of-focus twinkle lights backlighting a scene can make it appear more romantic or magical - and it adds Z-angle depth to an otherwise flat shot.
I've strung twinkle lights along a dark pathway to give depth to a romantic scene that showed a young couple meandering under a grape arbor... they could have been at a clandestine rendezvous, or a romantic weekend getaway touring wine country on California's coast, but in reality, they were in their own backyard.
I've hung them in trees far away from the subject at dusk to give a soft illumination to a dull lifeless background. Out of focus lights also helps mask elements in the background you'd rather not see.
If you don't have twinkle lights designated as "video props", now is the time to buy, and might be your only chance until next year. Check after Christmas sales for half price or less. Many twinkle lights use LED technology, so they are safer, will last longer and cost less to run and come in "warm" glow along with the cooler white.
Some of the easiest uses of twinkle lights are for faces, to capture light reflection in closeups without blazing out details and to add highlights on a subject's hair or depth to a dark background to make a sweet moment more magical.
Winter really is a beautiful time of year to shoot - as long as you protect your gear and don't over exert yourself! As Robert Frost wrote: " Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. ... The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. But I have promises to keep..."
So as winter approaches, and you ready your gear for the chilly onslaught, check out these shooting tips and read up on tricks still photographers use in photography courses. Remember there's always a silver lining to those clouds filling the sky, and they make beautiful light and subjects to play with!
Enjoy the Magic of the Winter Wonderland in your neck of the woods!
Jennifer O'Rourke is Videomaker's managing editor.