Winter 2018 was when I really buckled down and took black and white photography seriously, as a response to a few uninspiring grey-feeling colour rolls. I wanted to take command of that grey aesthetic, and quickly went through pushed ILFORD XP2 Super, Delta 3200 Professional, Delta 400 Professional, and even some SFX 200, looking to see which I could adapt into my visual style. This exploration snowballed into my current film photography workflow, which is almost entirely based on black and white 35mm film – something that would have been unthinkable to me as recently as 2017.
On film I really enjoy the aspects that shooting in lower light imply – thick grain, slower shutter speeds, greyer tones – all things that can be plied and manipulated to inform an aesthetic, rather than being things for the photographer to struggle against.
I know many photographers, especially street photographers, who feel somewhat “driven” by strong natural light, and who either make an effort to travel to sunnier climates in the winter months or even put their cameras down entirely for a few months (I advise them to use this time to curate or print, to at least keep within the bounds of the photography process). I think this is a shame because I think all lighting conditions are just as worthy to be shot in – if the eye can see it, the camera can probably capture it.
Whether your style relies on epic light-architecture or fleeting moments there are answers that allow you to continue to exercise your eye and craft across lighting conditions that many would avoid. For my photography, I actually began to appreciate, and now even prefer overcast light for street and documentary photography. I find that for faster-paced manual shooting diffused conditions are preferable – I only need to meter for the light once and then can put my entire concentration on finding, framing, and focusing the action.
In mixed lighting, I need to check my metering more often, which can potentially lead to being less aware of my surroundings. In diffused light, my attention can be more directed at seeking out interesting characters, situations, moments, and details – looking for real moments of action and interaction, and not just the “moment” someone walks through a patch of light, as many new-wave style photographers tend towards.
When you can’t “cheat” by using good light to imply, or force drama onto otherwise low-energy scenes then you have to rely on actual drama to capture something decent. I enjoy seeking out crowds, as there is always something to spot here, some interaction or oddity.
I recommend trying slightly longer lenses, from 90-135mm to really pick a crowd apart, to highlight the details and characters. Wider lenses, like 24-35mm would be better for getting close and finding lots of moving parts to create a richer scene – but this isn’t my style, and I’ve never been very successful at it.
Once those grey skies begin to offer harsher weather conditions, you can really take advantage of the altered scenery to produce some unique images. It’s surprising to me how many photographers, including film photographers, are averse to take their gear out into the rain. I think most cameras are pretty durable against water damage, and any that aren’t can easily be covered by a plastic bag and held under a jacket while not in use. When shooting in the rain or snow with my M6 I carry it on the inside of my jacket and shoot quickly – again not needing to do much in the way of settings after that initial meter. Something like a Nikon F4 or FM2 is absolutely fine in the rain, and I don’t bother protecting these at all.
If you’re really concerned, then some cameras can be had as cheaply as £10 and will produce just as good results as dedicated rainy day devices – my recommendation is a Nikon F301 or any Minolta X camera for a real beater option.
Using harsh weather can really lend something special to the mood of a photograph. I think there’s a lot of room to use weather to the advantage of a street photographer, and overcoming the fear of potential gear damage can go a long way here.
Saul Leiter is a wonderful artist, but the work of his that stands out the most to me is his iconic rain and snow scenes, foggy windows, and icy landscapes. Absolutely classic ambience and atmosphere.
Snow elevates things yet again – I absolutely adore the snow and photographing in the snow is wonderfully peaceful. It offers such a unique feeling, turns familiar settings into new playgrounds, and I wish I had the opportunity to work with the snow more often.
You might be interested in...
If a photographer’s style does rely on the new-wave style of light-architecture, silhouettes, and ambiguity, then there are some options available that use darker conditions as an asset rather than a detriment.
During the day there is excellent potential for moody silhouettes using the sky as a clean, grey background. This means getting a low angle and shooting upwards against whatever situations present themselves.
I particularly enjoy the way an overcast sky acts when reflected on a body of water. Shooting on a grey day by a lake or river can be a wonderful way to spend time, and really rewarding when a scene comes together. The reflected sky will usually be brighter than the subjects on it, so exposing for this allows you the same kind of silhouetted action.
Shooting at night opens up the possibility to use an entire world of artificial (but natural-to-setting) light, from streetlights, advertising billboards, even candle-light, or people’s phone screens. Any glimmer of light is enough to work with and create something dramatic. For low light street photography, I’m happy with either ILFORD Delta 3200 Professional or Kodak T-MAX P3200, as both are excellent films. It’s also a great opportunity to push any of the high latitude 400 films – HP5 PLUS and Tri-X 400 are great for this.
Colour films push very nicely, and I’ve had some great results from Portra 400 at much higher EIs.
I’m always looking for new places and exploring around London, but the winter is a great time to take that exploration indoors if you prefer to stay warmer. Shooting in pubs, galleries, museums is a great way to find new spaces and explore them photographically. They are great areas for people watching, and you can usually come away with some interesting scenes.
In pubs, especially during the day, I recommend sticking near the windows, as the soft window light can offer wonderful results. While in these spaces you could start a portrait project, and continue through the winter, as soft light is excellent for shooting characters – clouds are natures soft-box!
Another technique you can try – one of my favourites – is panning. This is especially good in low light when you would naturally be using a slower shutter speed, perhaps even while maintaining a wide aperture. By nailing focus on a moving subject and keeping everything else blurred you get a fantastic sense of movement and energy. This is, of course, possible to produce in bright light but can mean many more compromises in other areas of the exposure.
I make an effort to implement all of these ideas when planning out my weeks when I know the conditions will be grey, and I think my winter work has really benefitted from my adaptation to the conditions, rather than trying to force any kind of workflow onto the available light.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, I hope you’ve had some ideas for winter shooting while doing so! If you liked my work here please consider following me on Instagram! I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.
Share your knowledge, story or project
The transfer of knowledge across the film photography community is the heart of EMULSIVE. You can add your support by contributing your thoughts, work, experiences and ideas to inspire the hundreds of thousands of people who read these pages each month. Check out the submission guide here.
If you like what you're reading you can also help this passion project by heading over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page and contributing as little as a dollar a month. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.
It’s a great idea to use longer lenses, I don’t shy my gear that much in winter, but definitely don’t take it out that much, but this idea definitely makes sense to me, now that I read it. Thanks!
Glad you like that idea – I’ve actually written a fair bit about using longer lenses for street, you might be interested in these: https://petapixel.com/2019/03/08/what-a-longer-focal-length-can-offer-your-street-photography/ & https://petapixel.com/2019/12/17/telephoto-street-photography-in-india/!
One more time gorgeous pictures. Thanks Simon
Thank you Eric!
What a delightful collection of photographs and good ideas. One image of the many I am drawn to is the one with the young woman in a coffee shop (?) taken through a wet and steamy window. The subject is so clear but not surrounded by perfect bokeh balls. How can such good focus be gotten with so little sharpness? By raining or snowing on it, I suppose.
Thanks Ted – steamy windows are fantastic for diffusing light, and in this case limited the visibility to any bokeh balls!