One of the better metaphors I’ve come up with to describe the difference between mid-day light during the summer months and winter months is to compare them to an overhead lamp at full Wattage (summer light) compared to a desk lamp on a dimmer switch dialed down by about 30% of the lamps total output (winter light). And while you can reasonably argue that unless it’s cloudy, the same thing happens twice a day at sunrise and sunset, during the winter months the light glows warmly from a close distance to the horizon most all day long.
Like the summer sun, the ceiling-mounted lamp casts a bright even light that baths everything in it’s reach from a (relatively) uniform point-of-view. Desk lamps are different in that they light whatever’s around them from a lower angle that along with casting longer shadows, enables the light to reach inside the various creases, indents, and recesses of whatever is in range of the lamps glow, which thanks to the dimmer, has a soft gold quality to it compared to the full-Wattage of the overhead lights.
The reason winter light is so appealing to the eye has to do with warmth, shadows,and texture. At sunrise, sunset, and most of December and January, there’s a comforting look and feel to the light. Shadows become more pronounced, and more often than not, become integral parts of the dynamics of your image composition.
Unlike summertime shadows, which art midday are minimal at best, during the winter months the smallest pebbles cast long shadows, textures in walls, sidewalks, and the bark of trees become prominent, and at times, exaggerated beyond the scale and form of whatever is casting the shadow in the first place.
Color-wise, even on the chilliest of winter days, if the sun is out, it never has a cold touch to it, and even on the most monotone, overcast days, there’s often a warm edge to the otherwise seasonal gloom.
Something to keep in mind when trying to capture the warmth of winter is to make sure your camera’s white balance (WB) is set to daylight, and not ‘Auto’. The ‘Auto’ mode of your camera’s WB system is designed to keep the color range of your photographs neutral, and the last thing you want to do is neutralize the very warm tonality that made you stop and take the picture in the first place.
To maintain the warm ambience of winter and/or the light quality of a sunrise or sunset, it’s best to keep the WB set to ‘Daylight’ or 5500K, which sets the WB to record the scene as if it were a sunny afternoon in May, June, or July regardless of how golden the light becomes, which is exactly where you want it to be.
Text & Photographs Copyright Allan Weitz 2011