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Shooting the Cold

A photo is worth a thousand words but how do you convey an abstract idea like the cold? Well it’s not easy, you could take a photo of something20150216-_E1A8222 like a thermometer showing how cold it is but most photos of thermometers are boring. Now, if you had a thermometer covered in ice on what appears to be arctic tundra, well then, that’s a different story. Unfortunately ice laden thermometers and arctic tundra are often in short supply so we have to settle for other means. If you look at the photo to the right, it’s a shot of the Toronto skyline just after sunrise. It was around -23C when I took this photo and the winds were light. Needless to say, it was actually cold, but skylines on their own don’t necessarily convey that cold feeling. In order to achieve the cold look several things came together. Firstly, it was clearly sunrise in the photo and the viewer would understand that it was taken just after daybreak which is typically the coldest time. Secondly, the lake provided a natural steam covered foreground as it literally looked like it was boiling. Third, the rock outcropping to the left of the photo is ice-covered and lastly, you can see ice sheets covering the water’s surface closest to the point of the observer. Everything else, the tones in the sky, the smoke from the buildings and the ducks relaxing just help to enhance the message and convey the feeling of coldness. Capturing a photo like this requires that as a photographer you’re in the right place, at the right time, on the right day. It’s not hard, you just need to time and plan things correctly.

There are many other ways to convey coldness without needing a steaming lake. In the photo below to the left, there is really nothing special 20140206-IMG_5679going on. No steam, no frozen lake, no smoke rising, yet it still looks very cold. Again, this photo was taken just before sunrise but for the observer this could be sunrise or sunset. It was around -22C when I snapped this near Stouffville. The overwhelming cool blue tones accented by the orange from the sunrise with the dark silhouette from the trees and snow covered foreground all just seem to scream cold. One thing I have found with cold photos is that you can fake them, but nothing seems to actually replace a photo taken on a truly cold or down right frigid day, unless of course, you remove the colour.

Subconsciously the human mind for some reason associates loneliness and desolation with cold. This photo of Woodbine beach to the right was taken on a cool -5C night which is not exactly cold by 20140123-IMG_3945Canadian standards, but the fresh coating of snow, the lack of colour and dark tones in the sky gave it a desolate appearance. The lack of any other structures in the photo really make it feel like this is a lonely output on some barren landscape. So while physically it was not really that cold, the photo still manages to overwhelmingly convey that feeling. Now I will stress that while it does convey a cold feeling, a steaming lake or a photo taken on a really cold day seems to still convey that message more strongly.

Here’s a great example of a frigging freezing day which looks warm! The fluffy snow, the bright 20140203-IMG_4850daylight, the “warm” blue sky, all the whites and the overall fluffy feel of the photo makes it feel or at least appear much warmer than it really is. When I took this photo I particularly remember thinking that I was going freeze &%^ my fingers off. There was a very light breeze but it was around -20C and I was trying to capture a snowy owl that was hidden from view in the nearby cluster of trees. So I was outside for a good 15 to 20 minutes just loosing body heat. I remember snapping this photo as part of a smaller series before giving up on the owl and heading home. You can see that it’s easy to convey different messages either intentionally or accidentally despite what the reality of the situation is depending on people’s reference points and the subject matter.


20150113-DJI02103 Sometimes though you can achieve more dramatic results through unique images that really reveal the environment. Here’s a photo I took from the foot of Humber Bay West Park with a small UAV flying out over the open waters of Lake Ontario. Fortunately, Lake Ontario does not really freeze and for the most part it remains open water even in the coldest of winters. On this day it was around -24C and the winds were blowing lightly from the north. The sun was still rising along the eastern horizon and the steam fog from the lake was also depositing ice along the bolder covered shoreline. It’s a photo that is unique and naturally feels cold. I took the close up image of the rocks below form the shoreline to capture some of the steam. I needed the contrast from the rocks to reveal it. This would be a more traditional photo, and while interesting it lacks the same power that the aerial image delivers just by virtue of the fact that it is more or less traditional and people have come to expect such images.20150113-_E1A7075In fact I would argue that UAV based aerial images are the biggest thing to happen to photography in the last 30 years only to be outdone by the digital revolution itself. Sure, image stabilization came along, auto focus became quick and accurate and ultra-telephoto lenses got better but until now, photography and the standard SLR or DSLR have not really changed all that much. Digital photography brought us the ability to shoot almost unlimited images with instant, constant, predictable results and the freedom from being locked into a specific ISO or ASA. Film is a beautiful medium that really is different yet similar to digital photography, but at the end of the day, UAV’s have allowed cameras of any and all types to go places normally not possible and produce unseen perspectives.


20140122-IMG_3824Now before I get too far off topic, let’s return to the concept of shooting the cold. As far as subject matter goes, animals are a great start. We’ve all seen photos of woolly looking cattle covered in snow during a blizzard or the warm foggy air created by their breathing hanging on a very cold day. These are the types of photos that link the physical cold to living creatures, things that actually feel and react to the environment in an immediately visible way. Here I’ve posted a photo of Canada Geese that were likely sleeping in the warm lake all night to avoid the bitterly cold air. Their feathers as a result are covered in ice crystals and they look visibly cold. But remember, you’re not just limited to images of birds or cows, humans make great subject matter too! The more layers, the better!


20140205-IMG_5329-2As an example here’s a man walking uphill during a cold snowy February day. He’s walking through about 15 centimeters of fluffy snow and marching along without gloves. Needless to say, it was not all that cold during this storm, but you’ll note his face is covered up and people’s eyes naturally gravitate to faces. As a result, the first thing most people will notice is that he’s bundled up and then realize that he’s not wearing gloves. It all comes together to form an interesting traditional winter photo. You know, the kind of photo that goes with the kind of story where your grandfather walked uphill both ways in 3 feet of snow with tattered shoes just to get to school and only suffered minor frost bite because that’s just how the world worked back then? Here’s another example of a really cold looking photo with some brave guy’s in a boat fishing. Fishing is great, I just prefer to do it while drinking a beer and getting a tan on a nice hot summer day!


20140313-_E1A7829One area where I find photographers sometimes miss the cold is in the more traditional urban and suburban environments. Here’s a shot of highway 401 looking west with the rising sun to my back. This was a brutal day, there were accidents occurring every few seconds because the road was glazed with ice. It was also a bone chilling -20C at the time. If you look at this photo and have any knowledge of winter, you don’t need to be told it’s cold. The fact that the freeway is covered with ice, it’s sunrise and the smoke on the horizon is billowing, all screams cold. Plus, people can relate, if your only used to tropical weather then you’re very lucky, but for those of us who experience four seasons and know all about shivering half way to work while the car tries to warm up, this photo speaks volumes.

20140313-_E1A7745Here’s another shot from the same stretch of roadway. If you’re wondering why I’m stopped, it’s because there is a jacknifed tractor-trailer blocking three of the 4 available lanes behind me. The whole gallery is visible here within my spot news album on Flickr. This photos conveys the state of the roadway which was partly due to poor road maintenance, but greatly aggravated by extremely cold temperatures that were preventing the deicing solutions (salt in this case) from working properly.


20140107-IMG_2477As a photographer, remember that you don’t just have to take pictures because they’re pretty, always remember in many cases there is also some journalistic value and a deeper story. In this photo I was romping around Dufferin County because many of the local roads were closed and had actually been closed for several days. Believe me, I did not choose to go out looking solely for pretty winter photos, I was there because it was a blizzard and downright dangerous! High winds and very cold temperatures basically combined to created endless snow drifts that buried roads, stranded motorists and made all the above life-threatening. If interested, I do have a storm chase account here which goes through everything about the blizzard in great detail. In fact, from this little photojournalism adventure, I acquired some impressive news worthy photos that you would not achieve any other way. Not only do the photos convey how cold it was, but they also tell the story of the what was going on and how bad it really was.

20140107-IMG_2177To that point, let me also include that the wind is always a great help to “lower” your photos temperature. The wind always makes the air feel cooler, so if you combine some wind, snow and cold air you will convey a much deeper effect through that imagery than you would otherwise. This photo was one of those “my bad” situations. I was driving along, going way too fast, caught a patch of ice, went sideways, corrected myself and just managed to catch a sliver of a plow windrow. This was enough to haul me deeper into the snow pile and firmly anchor me. Fortunately, my friend showed up and saved the day! I snapped this photo as he was pulling me out. I can’t remember exactly how cold it was at the time but it was around -25C and the wind was steady at 50-60 km/h lofting the loose snow everywhere. It was actually impossible to stand outside for any length of time without freezing or having your face suffer frost nip. The real world windchill would have been -43C meaning there was a high risk for frost bite occurring in 5-10 minutes and frost nip almost instantly. Now that I think about it, this photo does not actually convey how cold it really was but it still says “very cold” no matter how you look at it!


20140210-IMG_6174So remember these key concepts for your cold weather photos. First, a cooler or more blue white balance always makes a picture look colder than warm oranges and reds. Second, photos taken at midday always have too much sunlight, dusk, dawn, pre-dawn and early morning or late afternoon are the best times to achieve your coldest looking photos. Third, use your subject matter in a creative sense, look for ice, steam/fog/smoke, animals and people who look cold or anything else that physically binds the air temperature to an immediate and visible effect on the environment. Fourth, isolation, desolation and loneliness all convey a cold feeling to the human mind, especially if it is clearly winter in the scene. Fifth, if possible, look for unique angles and if available, use unique tools such UAV’s, graduated ND’s, long exposures on the order of 1-3 seconds to blur steam/fog and take your time to get those photos that are not immediately visible or easy. Sixth and last, remember that you’re not going out just for pretty photos, think about the journalistic side of things, why go to a regular park on a cold day if there’s a big broken watermain up the road flooding the neighborhood and encasing everything in ice or a water treatment plant with frozen bursting pipes. The park may be pretty but the news stories can be made pretty with a “wow” factor because your showing cause and effect in one photo. Hopefully these tips will help you with your future photographic journeys.

Winter Aerial Photography

Winter RoofsIt’s winter, it’s cold, it’s cloudy, there’s snow, the daylight hours are short and the weather rarely cooperates with your busy schedule right? So what are you going to do? You might find caveats such as some elusive bird of prey that only shows up when it’s freezing out or maybe a beautiful scene the morning after a snow storm, but let’s be realistic, how often do these great outdoor photo opportunities arise in the winter? The answer is not all that often and the sun seems to cooperate less frequently which means without something to create contrast across that snowy landscape you’ve got a lovely bland white backdrop with little detail.

So what do you do? If you’re like me and have been fortunate enough to purchase a UAV/drone/quad-copter/remote control aircraft and have the abilities to take aerial photographs for pleasure, the winter is great! Aerial photos never seem to get boring. I have fun flying my quad copter around while seeing the world from the air and hunting for that perfect photo. The biggest drawback is the cold. In the summer you have those pesky mosquitoes trying to suck your blood but at least it’s warm, in the winter you need a good pair of thermal gloves with capacitive touch capabilities and layers of clothing. Even then no matter what, it seems after 20-30 minutes of standing still you begin to feel the cold penetrate. But the trade-off is that while summer landscapes are flush with colour, you still have an overwhelming amount of green, in the winter the landscape has little colour but the contrast is extreme.

20141230-DJI01868Recently I visited the Cheltenham Badlands on a cold -6 celcius weekday. These badlands are only about 25-30 minutes for my home so it’s a quick easy drive and I really love visiting this place. The problem with the badlands is that they’ve become extremely popular. If you visit on a weekend in the summer it’s like a theme park. If you visit on a weekend in the winter it’s less busy but still way too busy to take photos without people accidentally getting in the way or having some form of interruption. A cold weekday is the perfect time to have the place all for yourself and in my case, perfect to safely fly my UAV without curious bystanders interrupting or worse, someone who’s paranoid that thinks you’re photographing them from the air covertly (insert joke here). The badlands are also legally safe for UAV’s in Canada since they meet the minimum sub-2kg SFOC exemption requirements for population, airspace type, aerodrome distance and safety.

That said, in the winter with all the dead vegetation the Cheltenham Badlands really look like some sort of a barren desert landscape. There’s also something strange that happens with the soil, I’m not sure if it’s a product of water, the minerals present or just some sort of optical illusion but the contrast between the white patches of calcium, red iron laden clay and green oxidized clay is just extreme, far more so than anything I’ve ever seen in the warm season! The photos from the air reveal just how stunning the landscape looks and you seem some amazing symmetry that is invisible on the ground. That said, it’s also an amazing time for more traditional photographs too, especially black and white. Now there is one limitation with the badlands, there cannot be snow cover!!! The instant there is snow you lose your contrast and the lay of the land just looks like a bunch of white snow dunes or dirty muddy snow. Trust me, the snow dunes effect is very boring despite how “interesting” it may sound. Been there, seen it, don’t recommend it period… it’ll be a HUGE let down. Plus if your out on foot your might slip and take a good hard tumble down into one of the steep gullies (I’m speaking from experience).

Robinson CreekSnow covered landscapes in the winter can look bland from the air especially with a lack of sunlight since often white dominates and blanks out the more subtle detail. The best way to offset this white dominance is by using natural features such as creeks and rivers to accent the landscape. These natural geographic features also look great when accompanied by ponds, marshes, flood plains, trees, shrubs and woodlots. You wont find a ton of colour no matter how hard you look but you’ll sure find stark contrasts where you have shades of dark blues and browns against pure white. If your lucky and can get some sunshine then the contrast level jumps through the roof and any shows will just naturally dodge and burn your photo effortlessly.

Terracotta LakeNow, just like with other seasons of the year in the winter you’ll find unique events. The freezing over of lakes and rivers is a perfect example. In this image I’ve flown out over Terracotta Lake as the ice cover grew towards the shoreline. The natural slant of the land, stratus cloud cover and angle of the ice balanced the photo perfectly. This was one of those lucky and nice natural photos that just balanced itself. It was also a photo that would have been physically impossible any other way. The lake is too small to launch a large boat into, the angle of the image to high to be taken from the tip of a mast and too far into the lake to be taken from the shoreline. In otherwords, it’s a UAV only photo, something that no one else can capture any other way.

Lake Terracotta IceThe ice on Terracotta Lake also provided for some natural symmetry that is only visible from an aerial perspective. Here you can see cracks and fissures in the ice underneath a top cover dusting of snow blown by the wind. The end result of all this natural action is the cool jagged white frosty looking scene. If I did not know any better this might as well be a macro image of a frosty window. This photo also gets at another thing UAV’s can do that photographs can’t or at least should not. UAV’s can go where it is too unsafe for any person. Because it’s early in the winter season and many bodies of water are just starting to freeze over the ice is very thin and it’s naturally a crazy idea to venture out, but suppose it’s later in the season? The truth is that no ice is safe ice. Without actually sampling the ice or conducting a stress test there’s no way of knowing how much load any frozen water can hold and many people gave gotten themselves into trouble venturing out onto frozen bodies of water. Why take a chance for that perfect photo when you can send your UAV out safely? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost ventured out into the frozen water of Toronto’s harbour for some photos but turned around at the last minute out of fear. At least now I don’t have to such a daring fool! That said, I don’t recommend you send your aerial vehicle into a location that’s dangerous for it either such as say, a boiling volcano!

Pine TreesLastly, remember there is still some colour in the landscape. You don’t always have to limit yourself to shades of white and gray. There are many plants and trees that remain green throughout the winter and often the ground beneath the trees is a shade of red or brown thanks to pine needles or fallen leaves. You don’t have the same variety of colour or choice that you have in the summer, but there is still choice to be had. It’s not perfect, but it’s still there and you never know, there are plenty of great aerial shots waiting to be had!

Now there are a few things you need to consider about winter time aerial photos. Firstly, cold weather will adversely effect your battery life plus flight time and the colder it get’s the greater the effect. Secondly, depending on the make and model of your aircraft there is a minimum temperature limitation and it might just be too cold to fly safely without your motors grinding to a halt or electronics shutting down. Third, with less foliage in the winter and a more barren landscape, your craft will be exposed to stronger winds at a lower altitude more often and the winter tends to be much more windy than the summer in general. Forth, if there is snow cover, especially deep snow cover, keep this in mind since your landing area will be greatly reduced.

DJI Phantom

Despite all the negatives, there are some clear bonuses to winter time flights. Firstly, because there is less vegetation and far fewer leaves your aircraft line of sight for radio control becomes substantially better. Areas that had too much foliage to successfully penetrate are often easily penetrated in the winter. Second, there are less people out and about to strike up a conversation with you while your battery rapidly drains in flight. I love chit chatting, but when I’m finished flying, otherwise I get distracted and waste valuable battery life. Third, you can fly your UAV in light snow safely. While I don’t recommend it, you can get away with it so long as the air is cold enough to keep the snow dry and prevent it from sticking to your craft. You should never fly your UAV in rain, fog, mist or anything else that makes it wet. Water will damage your UAV. Last but not least, if you fall out of the sky and snow will cushion your landing. Yeah I know, it’s not a huge help, but at least it’s a better cushion than no cushion!

Safe flying!


White Balance

CN Tower

I’m not going to get deep into the theory of white balance, but let’s just say that white is what we make it. The short and sweet is that we speak of colour temperature in degrees kelvin based on black body radiation. A metal rod for example at about 2000 degrees kelvin glows a deep orange colour, at about 5000 kelvin it glows white and at around 8000 kelvin it begins to glow more blue. Your white balance basically assumes whatever colour temperature you set it to should be true white. For example to make candle light white you need a white balance of 1800k but cool tungsten is 2800k and hot tungsten is 3200k. Sodium lights are often 4500k and daylight is 5600k. Evening daylight is usually 7500 – 9500k and a traditional blue/purple neon light is 56,000k.

Now to blow your mind, colour does not exist! Colour is not real!!!

You might be wondering what the heck I mean? Well,  colour is not a physical property of photons or any electromagnetic radiation. The human brain is clever and it can manufacture colour by assigning what we see as the colour blue to visible light (photons) in the 450–495 nm range and colour red to light in the 620–750 nm range. But here is the catch, we have no idea and no real way of testing to see if we all see colour the same way. For example, what I see as the colour red might actually be blue to someone else because their brain is wired slightly differently. Remember, what we see as colour is a property of hue, not luminosity. So in theory we can change the perceived colour of light by changing the hue in our brains without effecting the luminosity. Scientists have discovered that women see red differently than men and some women actually have a fourth receptor in their eye.

Toronto 1Our brains assign colour to visible light the same way we assign colours to thermal infrared, near infrared, uv, x-ray and even gamma ray images. Animals that see other parts of the spectrum that the human eye cannot do the same thing, their brains create colour or at the very least shades of gray. It’s natures way to give meaning and make sense of the physical world around us. Think about feeling hot vs cold, you perceive hot and cold very differently yet it’s just a relative speed of atomic vibration and particle motion. Again, your brain and body give meaning to an energy property of matter.

So you might be wondering why I’m telling you all this? Well, in short, don’t be afraid to experiment with white balance. The photo of the CN tower to the right was accidentally shot with a white balance of 2200k. I could have corrected it in post, but the beauty of this cold colour temperature is that it allows you to see all the colours in the city which become washed out above 2800k. It’s also not that hard on the eye and even believable because most of the other colours of the buildings and points of light still appear close to the way they actually looked.