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The abstract nature of the winter landscape

Now that winter is upon us, it’s time to put on some extra layers of clothing and venture out into the cold and frozen landscape to discover its abstract beauty

17 June 2016

Now that winter is upon us, it’s time to put on some extra layers of clothing and venture out into the cold and frozen landscape to discover its abstract beauty.

In this article I will show you some examples of my own work and the photographic subjects that I have found while near Mount Cook, New Zealand, between the months of June to September.

What I love most about photographing ice crystals, or patches of frozen or snow-covered ground, is finding something that looks like something else. This psychological phenomenon is called pareidolia (parr-i-DOH-lee-a). It is where we perceive a familiar pattern in something that is initially ambiguous in nature.

Our minds generally want to solve problems; that way they can find closure and get on with other things. It is this response that attracts viewers to images that are initially hard to read.

I am sure you have found yourself stuck on an image, trying to ‘work it out’. If an image is too hard to read you can lose the connection with the viewer. Finding the right degree of abstraction requires:

  1. the right shooting technique
  2. the right composition
  3. the right decisions when editing
  4. the right caption or title — or even no title .

Technique for photographing ice and snow abstracts

  • Have sharp focus where you want it to be sharp. If you are shooting straight down to the group be sure that you are perpendicular to the surface that you are photographing and make sure that your depth of field is deep enough to keep the whole subject sharp.

  • I almost always use ‘live view’, because it allows me to pre-visualize the shot before the exposure is made. I am able to digitally zoom in and carefully manually focus, so I know it’s sharp and the manual focus won’t move off that mark unless I move it.

  • I also expose the image while live view is operating, so that the mirror remains locked up and won’t cause camera shake. At shutter speeds between one second and 1/15s it is very important to minimize camera shake, because at these specific slow speeds even the shake of the mirror moving up and down can create movement. In live view, the mirror is already locked up.

  • Expose the file so that the information is recorded to the right of the histogram. If I am photographing snow, I want my tones to be brighter than mid-tone grey because snow is white. Look at the exposure scale and expose to +1 — or if you want to use aperture priority, P mode, or A mode, move your exposure compensation to +1 or more.

  • If hand-holding your camera, make sure that your shutter speed is faster than the focal length of the lens. Use the image-stabilizing technology in your camera or lens to help with this and/or raise the ISO — the sensitivity of the sensor to light — to give you a faster shutter speed.

  • Better still, use a tripod so that you can use slower shutter speeds and retain the best possible file with lower ISOs. Most DSLR cameras usually suggest that you turn off image stabilization when on a tripod. You won’t have this problem if you have a mirrorless camera.  

  • Finding correct white balance can be a little tricky, because when you are in the shadows on a cold morning the colour temperature of the light is very blue. A custom white balance will remove all the cold blue light and as a result the image would not feel as cold. Try auto white balance (AWB), or shoot a raw file so that you can easily change the colour temperature of your file when processing it — all raw-processing software like Lightroom, Capture One, Camera Raw, etc., will be able to help you do this.

Tips on composition

  • Keep it simple and clear of unwanted twigs and rocks. Clean up the scene if you have to.

  • Crop in to simplify your shot

  • Or add space around your subject if it feels cramped.

  • Use a narrow depth of field (small ‘f’ number) and long telephoto lens (150–300mm) to separate your subject from other subject matter.

  • Use your depth of field preview button in the live-view mode to check that the depth of field is deep enough to keep all of your subject in focus. With DSLRs what you see in your viewfinder is the narrowest depth of field of the lens that you are using at the time.

  • Look for that something that makes the image special. The X factor!  

  • Shooting in monochrome with added contrast in your picture style will help you to see the shapes and lines within your compositions.

Other tips for cold-weather shooting

Don’t keep your camera gear in a warm room or warm car before you head out. If your gear is warm, the cold conditions will form condensation on whatever surface it contacts. If this happens, avoid changing lenses until your gear has cooled down.

You can use a lens cloth to temporarily clear the lens, or go for the foggy look, which can also be fun until your camera body and lens acclimatizes.

To keep your human body warm, use layers of clothes. Wear thermals under a warm coat, and for warm hands purchase lightweight silk gloves that go under fingerless gloves. You need gloves that will allow you to control the buttons on your camera without having to take the gloves off. And don’t forget to take a thermos of hot water.

In the images below I will discuss the intent behind each image and the setting I used to get the resulting file.

Exploring the focal plane

These three images were taken on a tripod with a narrow depth of focus (f/2.8). My idea was to find a narrow band of focus where the rhythm and patterns within the scene created a sense of harmony where, ultimately, the small dead flowers on the top of each stem would resemble musical notes.

Image 1: Canon 5D Mark III, 200mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s, ISO 160

Focus on the background grasses: using manual focus I began my series by focusing on the background, making the small dead flowers and the snow in the foreground totally out of focus. To me, the gesture of the grass makes this a calm and gentle image.  

Image 2: Canon 5D Mark III, 200mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s, ISO 160

Focus on the mid-ground grasses: I feel this image is the strongest of the three and fulfils my personal brief. The spaces between the stems and flower heads are interesting and rhythmical.

Image 3: Canon 5D Mark III, 200mm, f/2.8, 1/5000s, ISO 160

Focus on the foreground grasse: I find the sharp focus that reaches the snow is taking away the floating feeling that is present in the previous shots.

Exploring pareidolia

In all the images below a tripod, live view, and cable release or two-second timer was used. 

Image 4: Canon 5D Mark III, 66mm, f/11, 1/4s, ISO 100


An ice crystal had grown across a frozen muddy hole in the ground. To me, it looked like a sleeping lamb. At this stage I didn’t mind the contrast of warm-toned mud to cold-looking ice but felt that I wanted to push it to look more abstract.

Image 5: Canon 5D Mark III, 66mm, f/11, 1/4s, ISO 100

Editing the file to monochrome made the mud look like frozen ground, but I wanted the sheep to look more like a sheep.

Image 6: Canon 5D Mark III, 66mm, f/11, 1/4s, ISO 100

Nik Analogue Efex Pro was used to blur the surrounding edges to focus your eye on the lamb. Other people have told me that they see a fish, a crab, or a mouse.

Image 7: Frozen ice in colour; Canon 5D Mark III, 100mm, f/16 1/5s, ISO 160

Image 8: Frozen ice in monochrome; Canon 5D Mark III, 100mm, f/16 1/5s, ISO 160

Using the Monochrome picture style with added contrast, to my eye, makes this image less busy. Cropping in further helps me to communicate what I want the viewer to see — almost any picture can be cropped. It’s a matter of deciding what you want to say.

Image 9: Canon 5D Mark III, 100mm, f/16 1/5s, ISO 160

Can you see the animal?

Image 10: Head; Canon 5D Mark III, 100mm, f/11, 1/10s, ISO 250

This shot used the Landscape picture style with added contrast and AWB was used to balance the blue tones that are always very blue in the early-morning light

Image 11: Leaf; Canon 5D Mark III, 100mm, f/11, 1/10s, ISO 250


A small leaf was slowly melting into the sheet of ice. The leaf gives scale to the image. In order for you to find your own abstract forms you will need to get out of bed before the sun rises and explore a landscape that is always full of photographic opportunities.