With the nights and mornings pretty close together for the next few months, and the sun taking some time out to recoup, many photographers head indoors to escape the dark and the rain. Plenty of us are tempted to hang up our cameras until the Spring, with a brief interlude should a decent amount of snow make an appearance.

Don’t be one of those photographers.

Just because bright light and blue skies are a rarer occurrence in the winter months doesn’t mean we have to stop taking pictures. There’s still plenty you can do, provided you’re prepared to use some imagination. Here are a few ideas to keep you shooting until the better weather returns.

Still life

I used a gold sheet of card from a craft store to send a little warmth back into the subject from the left hand side. The diffused flash was positioned on the right, and contrasting the white light from the flash with the gold light from the reflector emphasizes the warm effect

A good mastery of still life photography should help improve your photography across the board, and the winter months are a very good time to get some practice in. Working with a few objects on the table top with just a single light and a reflector is an ideal way to teach yourself more about lighting, exposure and composition.

If you are new to this area I suggest starting with just an orange and a table lamp, moving the lamp around the orange to see how the direction of the light changes the way the orange looks. Once you’ve done that and looked carefully at the way highlights and shadows control the sense of three dimensions in the image you can move on to everyday objects laying around the house.

Keep things simple by using just one or two objects in your scene, and try lighting with just one source and a couple of reflectors to moderate the shadows.

Here I used a single LED panel at the top of the frame, and a couple of mirror tiles to the left and right of the handle to throw some light back in the opposite direction. A wide aperture created a shallow depth-of-field to draw the eye diagonally up the handle to the point of focus.

The blueberry doesn’t need to be sharp for us to know it is a blueberry, and it is used as a counterweight to the main area of interest

Knives, forks and spoons offer interesting shapes and compositional challenges, and natural objects saved from the autumn, like nuts or dried leaves, give you the chance to bring nature into your work. The supermarket is also filled with interesting fruit and vegetables, and home stores and hardware stores stock nice cups, glasses and industrial looking bolts, screws, springs and fascinating sheets of metal/plastic/wood that will make interesting backgrounds.

One of the nice things about still life is that you can take your time and there is usually no rush, so you can look really carefully, try things out and try again when it doesn’t work the first time.

Tips:

  • Work slowly and really look at the effect of the light on your subject
  • Use silver, gold, white and black cards to bounce/block light
  • When used as a reflector, mirrors throw back so much light they can save you having to buy a second flash

Macro

Planning ahead for your winter shooting can involve collecting interesting items from the garden during the Fall. If you didn’t manage to do that don’t worry as your local florist will almost certainly thought of it. Here a little light either side is used to demonstrate the three-dimensional qualities of the seed head and the stem, and to lift it from the black-cloth background. I used a pair of hotshoe flash units fired through mini-softboxes attached to an adapter ring

An extension of still life, macro photography will test your ability to see details and to look more closely than usual. Successful macro photography is all about finding hidden textures, patterns and features of everyday objects as well as capturing tiny plants and animals that might otherwise escape our attention.

Macro does require at least some specialist equipment, whether that’s a reversal ring, a coupling ring to mount one lens backwards on another or an actual dedicated macro lens. Using a lens designed for macro will make your life a lot easier and will deliver the best quality without too much effort, but high-quality macro lenses can be costly.

Extension tubes are very affordable, and can be added to a standard lens to help you get a little, or a lot, closer, and a micro adjustment platform for your tripod head can help when it comes to getting accurate focus in the closeup range without having to move the tripod.

Lights don’t need to be expensive. This was lit with a small pocket flashlight positioned to make these pasta shells glow in the dark. A sheet of white paper under the lens was enough to throw a touch of light back to reveal some of the details of side of the shells closest to the camera

Cable and remote release devices will help to avoid camera shake with dramatic magnifications and tethering software will allow a bigger preview to ensure anything is perfect before you trip the shutter. How about using the long winter months to teach yourself focus stacking so you can control exactly what is and isn’t sharp in your images?

Tips:

  • Having a dedicated macro lens will make your life easier
  • Use a tripod or support, don’t think you can do this handheld
  • Be aware that depth-of-field is tiny in macro work, so add lots of light if you need small apertures

Window portraits

Late afternoon light on a winter’s day softly passing through a bay window was all that was needed for this portrait. I kept the sitter well back from the window to produce nice soft contrast but still retaining enough to show the shape of her head and features. Using the white balance in Daylight mode shows the coolness of the light and lets us know this is a winter image

It doesn’t matter what time of year it is actually – daylight gliding through a north-facing window will always provide some of the best kind of lighting for natural-looking portraiture. On rainy and overcast days the light levels might be lower but that light will also be softer and more flattering.

Position your subject close to the window if you want more contrast and further away for less, and try turning them 3/4 against the light to get a more dramatic effect. Using a black card on the unlit side of the face can help to deepen shadows if there’s more light than you want bouncing around the room. A net curtain or sheet of thin paper across the window can diffuse the daylight on a sunny day or when you only have south-facing windows to play with.

Positioning the subjects directly in front of a sunny window gives them this stark and very direct frontal lighting. I stood with my back to the window and pulled the shutters across to create the stripes on the groom’s jacket. The light on his face is reflected from the white top-side of the shutters.

As he is close to the window the light drops off quite quickly, leaving his friends visible but much darker. This helps to express who is the most important player in the scene, and who are the secondary elements.

Extra diffusion will also cut down the light making it easier to achieve a wide aperture if you want shallow depth-of-field.

Try experimenting with white balance too, so you can create a warm or cool effect whatever the conditions outside.

Tips:

  • Try the sitter at different distances from the window to vary contrast
  • Move your sitter between each end of the window to alter how the light wraps around their face
  • Use net curtains, bubble wrap or paper to diffuse the light even more

Home studio

Using quite a small soft light creates strong direction but avoids razor-sharp edges to the shadows. The small light also allows a rapid fall off, so the subject’s head is lit more brightly than her body, and positioning the light just slightly behind illuminates the front of her face while leaving the side closest to the camera dark – drawing attention to her closed eyes. A small direct light from behind her lifts her shoulders from the background and helps to create a sense of depth in the picture.

Opera singer Golda Schultz for the BBC Proms Magazine

When there’s not too much natural light coming through the windows, or we need more for smaller apertures and lower ISO settings, it’s a good time to think about alternative light sources. Domestic lights can be very useful for lighting in a home studio but they don’t always deliver enough power, so sometimes we need to look at flash.

There have never been so many flash units available for photographers so we have plenty of choice. Big studio monoblock type studio flash offer the advantage of power and a modeling bulb so we can see what we are doing, but they can feel expensive for the enthusiast. A useful alternative is to use one of the host of hotshoe flash units that are available – either from the manufacturer of your camera or from one of the many independent brands that have sprung up over the last ten or so years.

This is the set-up for the shot above. You can see that I believe in keeping things simple. The lights are Rotolight Annova Pro on the left and the Neo2 on the right. I used a Veydra Mini Prime 35mm T2.2 cinema lens – for a softer feel – on the Panasonic Lumix DC-G9

Modern hotshoe flash units are remarkably powerful, flexible and easy to use, and with auto and TTL modes they can be set to do all the work for you. In manual mode they offer more straight forward options and with wireless control becoming the norm you don’t have to leave the camera position to make your changes – or to check the results of any adjustments you’ve made.

What makes hotshoe style flash units so useful now is the mass of accessories and modifiers that can transform their light to be indistinguishable from that of a professional studio flash. I use adapter clamps so that my flash units can fit inside the softboxes, dishes and snoots that I use with my main studio units, and enjoy the convenience, the shorter set-up time and that they fix in smaller spaces.

Tips:

  • Keep the flash/light source away from the camera for a more three-dimensional effect
  • Bounce light from a white wall/ceiling to create a larger/softer light
  • Use an adapter that allows you to use soft-boxes and accessories with your flash head for a wider range of lighting looks

Summing up

I’d find it easier to hold my breath all winter than to keep my lens cap on between the end of November and the middle of February. In fact, shooting in the winter months is exactly as exciting as shooting when the sun shines all day, we just have to think differently and to create shooting situations rather than relying on nature to do it all for us. Indoors we can still enjoy the wonders of natural light but just through a window, and when there’s black clouds we can use normal domestic lights or a pop of flash to do the same thing.

All that’s required for winter shooting indoors is a little imagination and sometimes a tripod to support those longer shutter speeds. So take a look around your home to see what/who you can aim your camera at, and perhaps take a trip to a florist/hardware store or secondhand shop to see what treasures you can find. The cold weather and shorter days are no excuse – keep on shooting and keep those creative juices flowing until Spring.

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