Seasons on the Edge

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The four seasons can be a rich source of inspiration for nature photographers. Each one is commonly associated with familiar subjects that define the essence of the season. This makes it easy for photographers to tell stories that emphasize instantly recognizable themes related to the season. It’s no surprise that the seasons are best known for these signature type subjects.

  • Spring – wildflowers and waterfalls
  • Summer – colorful sunrises and sunsets, and dramatic weather during summer storms
  • Autumn – a bold display of vivid colors during peak foliage season
  • Winter – blankets of deep snow covering the landscape and mountains

Most nature photographers have a favorite season for photography. The bold colors of autumn foliage and spring wildflowers are a particular attraction to many of us. I desired to portray the beauty of autumn foliage in my native New England that led me to take up nature photography in the first place. To some degree, these classic subjects and themes of the seasons are similar to iconic photography locations, they are popular for a good reason, even though they are frequently photographed.

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My Favorite Seasons

However, it can also be very rewarding to look beyond the obvious and seek out more unusual interpretations of the seasons. When I am asked which are my favorite seasons for nature photography, my answer may surprise you, because my three favorite seasons are :

  • Early Season
  • Late Season
  • Off Season

Taking this unusual perspective on the seasons allows the photographer to portray them in ways that people are generally not accustomed to seeing. It inspires us to look beyond the cliches and tell more interesting nature stories with our images. It encourages photographers to explore powerful themes that are not typically associated with more traditional images of the seasons. This approach challenges photographers to think about familiar subjects in new ways, and can lead to making more creative and personally expressive images. For example, the freeze/thaw cycles of early winter often produce beautiful abstract designs in the ice of streams and ponds before they become covered in snow. Each of these ice patterns is unique, and they allow the photographer to tell a more subtle and nuanced story about the early winter season. 

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Moving Beyond the Obvious

When first starting in nature photography, I often took the classic approach to shoot the seasons but it was easy to fall into the trap of relying on cliches. For example, the abundant color of peak autumn foliage is very tempting and can lure you into making the easy and obvious images. Ironically, the beauty of peak fall foliage can make it harder to create unique images. Eventually, I found myself wanting to move beyond the obvious interpretations and instead find more creative ways to photograph the seasons. Shooting the early and late stages of a season proved to be a very effective way to accomplish that goal. Without the distraction of peak fall color, my early/late season autumn images have a “Less is More” advantage to them. Relying less on cliches such as bold color for impact, they become more about using strong compositions and visual design elements to create interest. The viewer is encouraged to appreciate the beauty of the subtle colors and textures that would otherwise be overlooked during peak season. 

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When I broadened my perspective on the seasons, it also added more variety to my collection of images. When I first created an online portfolio website, I decided to put my New England landscapes into galleries organized by season. In reviewing my spring images, I discovered they consisted mostly of wildflower and waterfall shots. I had some strong images, but as a portfolio, it lacked depth. So I decided to add more variety by focusing on an under-appreciated subject, the early spring foliage season. Early spring is a time of emergence and growth. And the colorful buds, flowers, and leaves on the trees tell a story about the transformation that takes place as the season comes to life. Concentrating on the delicate colors of early spring foliage allowed me to tell more subtle nature stories that added more depth and substance to my portfolio.

The Advantages of Early and Late Season

One advantage of early and late season photography is that it expands the amount of time available to shoot in a season. In New England, peak autumn color lasts for about ten days in mid-October. But the transition from summer to fall starts in late September. Early in the season, there is an interesting mosaic of colors present in the landscape. At first, isolated trees create a splash of red or orange against an otherwise green landscape. As the season progresses, I prefer to seek out foliage that has a mixture of green among the warm fall colors. The resulting color contrast often creates more visual interest than just having a solid block of peak fall color. Early season is an exciting time of anticipation of the changes that are about to unfold, and our images allow the viewer to share in that feeling.

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After peak autumn color, the trees start to lose their leaves, but that is no reason to put your camera away. As trees lose their leaves, their limbs and branches become more visible. The shape and texture of the branches now play a more important role in the image. Late autumn is the perfect time to reveal the interesting character of individual trees. Fallen leaves on the ground can also tell just as compelling a nature story as peak color itself. Even the decay of fallen leaves tells a story of the passing seasons that makes us pause and reflect on our mortality.

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New England is famous for the autumn colors of its maple trees, the predominant species. But I also enjoy photographing the late-season color of some lesser-known subjects. Tamarack trees turn color as much two weeks after the maples have lost their leaves. The haunting beauty of a lone yellow tamarack isolated against a hillside of bare trees can create more visual impact than shooting the same location during peak fall color. The isolated patches of color in an otherwise gray landscape tell a story about nature holding out against the passage of time. If my autumn portfolio only contained images of peak color, not only would it end up being a rather boring collection, but I would also miss out on the opportunity to tell stories that can connect with a viewer on a deeper emotional level.

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Exploration of Powerful Themes

One of the most significant benefits of taking this approach to the seasons is that it encourages the photographer to explore powerful themes such as :

  • Being on the Edge
  • Change and Transition
  • Beginnings and Endings
  • Growth and Decay

In my nature photography, I continually find myself being drawn to the edge of things. That might be the edge between a meadow and the forest or the edge between land and sea. Edges can be interesting places to explore in our images because they create contrast and visual interest. When I began to consider the early and late stages of a season as another set of edges to explore, it unlocked many new opportunities to photograph the seasons. Edges imply that something is undergoing change and transition, which is a natural theme to associate with the seasons. Images that tell stories about transition have a very dynamic feeling and can create a lot of impact. For example, I enjoy creating images of snow and fall foliage during late autumn snowfalls. The dramatic collision of the fall and winter seasons tells a powerful story about change and the end of a season. Our images reveal the inherent transience of nature, rather than just being about pretty colors and patterns. 

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Telling nature stories about beginnings and endings is an excellent way to engage the viewer on an emotional level. People experience emotional changes throughout the year that are tied to the changing of the seasons. Early spring is a dramatic time of growth and rebirth, that evokes emotions of hope and optimism. Images of new buds and fresh green leaves on trees can be powerful symbols of these emotions. Late autumn can create feelings of reflection and the passage of time. To capture these melancholy feelings in an image, perhaps look for the last remnants of leaves clinging to mostly bare trees. These types of images tell interesting stories about the changing seasons, which can create powerful emotional connections with the viewer.

Winter – the Ultimate Off-Season

Photography in the off-season has its advantages. Lodging and other services will be more available and less expensive. For heavily visited locations such as national parks, an off-season visit may provide a less crowded experience. The ability to enjoy some solitude while photographing nature is an important part of the creative experience for me. It makes me feel more relaxed and connected with nature, which helps me to produce better images. However, if you are one of those photographers inclined to shoot at iconic locations, then during an off-season visit, you might even find a little more elbow room among the tripod holes.

To me, winter is the ultimate off-season. It’s a time of year when many photographers put their cameras away into hibernation. But in fact, winter offers many exciting opportunities for creating dramatic images. With the sun lower in the sky during winter, the light during the golden hour has a richer quality, and it lasts longer. Late sunrises and early sunsets are another nice benefit as well. Winter has its own stark beauty, and fresh coatings of snow and ice create a feeling of purity and cleanliness in the landscape. But for me, the primary advantage of shooting in the off-season is that it allows me to portray familiar subjects and locations outside their normal context. 

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For example, I enjoy photographing the New England seacoast in winter because it allows me to depict familiar locations in refreshing new ways. Boulder Beach at Acadia National Park is an iconic location, with dramatic coastal rocks and cliffs. If you were to photograph sunrise here in summer or autumn, you might have a hard time finding room to shoot among all the other photographers. And your images from this iconic location will probably look pretty similar to what everyone else is shooting too. But if you visit Boulder Beach during winter, you will probably have the place all to yourself. And you may be lucky enough to capture fresh snow on the boulders, which provides a completely different take on a frequently photographed location.

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I am fortunate to live somewhere it is possible to incorporate the winter season into my seascapes. It allows me to take advantage of unique winter weather conditions, such as ice that forms on rocks along the coast, or the sea smoke (ocean fog) that appears when air temperatures fall below zero. Even though it often means shooting in harsh conditions, I much prefer to photograph the seacoast during winter. Incorporating elements such as snow and ice into my images allows me to move a step beyond just relying on colorful sunrises to carry a seascape image. And more importantly, viewers will see a familiar subject, but think about it in new ways, increasing their engagement level with the image.

While not everyone may be able to photograph the seacoast in winter, the concept of shooting in the off-season applies to other locations as well. For photographers, the American southwest is renowned for dramatic summer storms during monsoon season. However, some of my favorite images from the southwest have been made during winter in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. The contrast of white snow on red rock formations can create striking images. I have enjoyed several productive springtime photography trips to Arches and Canyonlands national parks near Moab, Utah. However, my most memorable and unique images from this area were made on a January trip during a period of snowy weather. Fresh white snow on the red sandstone buttes helped elevate my desert images to another level. The purity of the snow helps to simplify the complexity of the landscape and places even greater emphasis on the warm colors of the red rock formations.

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If you enjoy photographing the seasons but feel trapped by the cliches, I encourage you instead to explore the edges of the seasons, and the off-season. Taking this perspective on the seasons challenges you to see nature in new ways, and can take you in exciting new creative directions. It can be a rewarding way to re-discover the joy of photographing the four seasons while adding more depth and substance to your portfolio.

Author Details
Ed is a nature photographer who lives in Massachusetts. His work concentrates on landscape and macro photography. While he enjoys photographing in the national parks of the American West, Ed finds himself continually drawn back to the New England landscape. Ed’s passion is photographing the changing moods of New England’s wilderness landscapes during all four seasons. His images have earned numerous honors in photography competitions, including a Highly Commended in the 2016 USA Landscape Photographer of the Year contest, and the New England Camera Club Council (NECCC) Nature Image of the Year. Ed’s work has been published in Outdoor Photographer and the Nature Photographers Network.
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