Seeking Inspiration in the Dead of Winter

Tips & Techniques

Winter can be a struggle for me. I long for idyllic, colorful autumn to continue unabated, but instead the land has taken on a stark barrenness. The joy and fun of the holidays is a distant memory. Springtime feels like a universe away.

The shorter daylight hours and frequent overcast have me thirsty for light. I feel the beginnings of seasonal affective disorder setting in. Carbohydrates are calling my name. This, for me is the dead of winter.

fresh Ohio snow
A fresh winter wonderland snowfall gets me out the door
NIKON Z 50 + NIKKOR Z DX 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR @ 44mm, ISO 100, 1/40, f/10.0

When these feelings take hold in January and February, I know it’s time for some photographic self-care. Inspiration is my natural medicine. The camera is the pathway to the cure for my winter blues. It’s time to push through the resistance of physical and mental lethargy, get out into the land again, and create.

Seeking inspiration in winter requires me to look beyond the surface, to see more simply – and yet simultaneously deeper – to discover what the landscape is offering me. The easy pickings of spring and fall are non-existent, so I must let go of expectations and focus on being out there, experiencing things and receiving the little gifts when I find them.

Shawnee sidelit forest
Clear afternoon sun highlights Ohio’s Shawnee Forest in February
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S @ 220mm, ISO 500, 1/320, f/11.0

Photographically it’s a return to foundational, unadorned subject matter – trees, water, sky, rocks. Seeing these basic elements with fresh eyes. And watching for the favorable conditions of low and clear winter sunlight, fresh snow, ice formations, reflections, or compelling clouds.

icycles
A cold winter day gifted me icicles decorating a gorge
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 24-120mm f/4 S @ 66mm, ISO 64, 30/1, f/11.0

With color being rather scarce in the dead of winter, I’m looking for subtle shades and using the tools available in developing the digital negative to coax out all the potential. At times, I’m able to use a brilliant winter blue sky as my color palette, and for other scenes, I find that black & white perfectly suits their winter personality.

Utah winter aspens
I love aspens in autumn but their graphic beauty remains in winter
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S @ 24mm, ISO 64, 1/100, f/11.0

Most of my inspiration-seeking happens locally, within an hour of my Ohio home. The Midwest is not high on the list of landscape photographers seeking grandeur and glory, but there is a quiet and gentle beauty here when I allow my eyes to see it, and it’s a kind of beauty I find soul-soothing and calming. My philosophy of “there is beauty everywhere” is put to the test in the real world when I head out with camera in hand in winter, exploring my humble region.

December beech leaves
No, it’s not fall – these Midwest beech trees hold their leaves in December
NIKON Z 50 + NIKKOR Z DX 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 VR @ 64mm, ISO 200, 1/60, f/11.0

On occasion, it means forcing myself out of winter blues mode onto the road, traveling away from the everyday familiarity to shake things up. Recently I found myself driving through Alabama in February and was delighted to find a tall waterfall to focus on with the simplicity of black & white tones. And driving further afield into the Southwest, I’ve enjoyed the elements of bare winter trees and rocks, sometimes decorated with snow.

Alabama waterfall
Black & white fit the winter mood of this waterfall in Alabama
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 24-120mm f/4 S @ 70mm, ISO 64, 4/10, f/22.0

The results of seeking beauty when it feels so elusive to my winter-worn soul are very much worth the effort. Finding those small sublime scenes and savoring the moments is the primary reward and does wonders for my moods. Afterward back at home the rewards continue when I develop the images and especially when I make a print – reliving the creative inspiration is more of that powerful feel-good medicine. And finally, sharing the best of my winter images with others, whether friends and family or strangers on the internet, can bring blessings to folks who may also be struggling in winter and could use their own glimpse of soul-lifting beauty.

winter sunset
Looking to the sky in winter often brings a reward
NIKON Z 50 + NIKKOR Z DX 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 VR @ 165mm, ISO 220, 1/80, f/9.0

Though winter can be challenging for me, it is a necessary part of the seasonal cycles. And I’m reminded that when I intentionally engage the season creatively rather than retreat into easy despair, then I benefit and grow. Pushing through resistance in the dead of winter has once again brought life and renewal to my mind and emotions, and birthed a few more photographs that are now dear to my heart.

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