Exploring NYC, Part 2: A Day in the Snow

Few things are as magical as a visit to New York City during the holidays, when stores put on extravagant displays, Santa is available for a visit, and holiday markets pop-up across the city. Add a fresh heavy snowfall into the equation, and you have a truly memorable winter wonderland in the city.

A New York City Police Officer prepares this police horse for a ride in the snow

A New York City Police Officer prepares this police horse for a ride in the snow

A couple seeks refuge underneath an umbrella during the snowfall

A couple seeks refuge underneath an umbrella during the snowfall

Photographing snow can be a bit of a challenge. Bad weather always makes for a great photograph, but it's not as easy as just stepping outside, taking a quick image, and having success. I walked over 10 miles in the heavy snow to get these images, and faced several technical challenges along the way.

Snowfall blankets a quiet New York City intersection

Snowfall blankets a quiet New York City intersection

A man strolls through the snow in Central Park

A man strolls through the snow in Central Park

First was the challenge of keeping the camera dry enough. The Leica M10 is technically not weather sealed, but it is pretty hardy. Unfortunately the temperature outside was just warm enough that the snow melted almost instantly when it made contact with my body and the camera, making my hands and the camera very wet (never mind that it also made me very cold!). After several hours, this caused the viewfinder to fog completely.

During periodic breaks indoors, I wrapped the camera in a dry shirt with the hopes that it would help dry out the camera's viewfinder. That worked to an extent, but the remaining moisture would condense anytime I subjected it to a temperature change stepping between the outdoors and indoors. 

A man emerges from the 14th street subway station

A man emerges from the 14th street subway station

Steam rising from street vents adds to the dramatic effect of the snowfall on this New York street

Steam rising from street vents adds to the dramatic effect of the snowfall on this New York street

Second to keeping the camera dry is the challenge of keeping the lens dry. I was far more successful in this endeavor because I kept the camera oriented in my hand so that the lens was either facing downward, or facing downwind of the snow. I never - EVER - use a lens cap when out taking photographs, and certainly was not about to miss a shot because I had covered the lens. 

Taxi cabs lined up on the streets of Times Square during a late evening snowfall

Taxi cabs lined up on the streets of Times Square during a late evening snowfall

A streetsign covered with snow outside Times Square

A streetsign covered with snow outside Times Square

Finally, capturing snow can be a challenge. In a close-up photograph, snow can appear like a blur, rather than a snowflake. The trick was for enough of those blur's to be present in the photograph that the viewer would understand it was not a mistake, but that it was a snowflake.

I don't know how much snow fell in New York on this particular day as it never accumulated beyond a slush on the streets, but it certainly made for a beautiful day of photography.

Two women - presumably en route to a holiday party - stop for food from a street vendor in the late evening snow

Two women - presumably en route to a holiday party - stop for food from a street vendor in the late evening snow

(White)stone National Park

When I planned my fall trip to Yellowstone National Park, I had certain expectations for the types of art I would have an opportunity to create: fall colors, wildlife, spectacular sunsets, etc.

So much for planning. Mother Nature, it seems, had another idea.

Snow.

We had heavy precipitation every day that we were in the park, with five days in a winter weather advisory. Areas of the park accumulated over 10" of snow in one night, closing many roads and restricting travel through the park for a number of days.

In the midst of this surprise cold, there was still a great opportunity to capture some landscape images.... just not the ones I had planned on! With the sky hidden behind low, snow-filled clouds for days, I focused on more white landscapes to capture the essence of Yellowstone's first snowfall of 2017.

These photographs were all made with the Leica SL. Steam from active geothermal features and snow melt where warm ground met frozen tundra can be seen in a number of the finished prints.

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Winterland

I am just three days away from my around-the world move back to the United States, so I've been busy packing, sorting, organizing, and freaking out! But I'm going to surface from my moving-induced panic to share a few more photographs from our last trip to Finland.

As part of our overnight dogsled adventure, we trekked through deep Finnish forest, seeing a wilderness untouched except by winter. I could have spent hours photographing all the landscapes, but that wasn't an option.... I was riding on the back of a dog sled! So to take any photographs, I had to balance on the sled, take my hands off the steering, and hope to time up a good composition. And that's what I did.

I carried my Leica M240 under my heavy down jacket to keep it warm, retrieving it whenever I saw a photographic opportunity ahead. I used the 28mm f/5.6 Summaron lens, which was a great choice given it's small size to sit under my jacket, wide field of view, and large depth of field. Rattling off snaps as we whooshed past on the dogsled, I hoped there was something in focus and well composed in the mix!

Focusing a rangefinder is already a two handed task, and it's certainly complicated when a dogsled is involved, but I was able to zone focus and get sharp images--- much to my delight! 

Review: How Does the Leica SL Like the COLD?

When Leica announced the new SL (Type 601), they marketed the camera at landscape photographers. Features like the solid aluminum body, GPS, and extensive weather sealing all appeal to a clientele that is notoriously abusive of our cameras. The marketing worked, and I ditched my remaining Nikon equipment and went ‘all in’ on the Leica SL system.

In my review of the camera, I tested it in a variety of routine environments: light rain, sand, and some chilly weather. But for Leica to really compete with the Nikon and Canon market, they had to produce a camera that could keep up and tough it in the most extreme conditions.

For five days, I used the Leica SL in the far north of Sweden in conditions beyond what Leica recommends - that would be conditions of extreme cold. During this five day period, the outside temperature never rose above freezing - most days the daytime high was -30*C. That’s bitter cold. 

It's so cold that it's beyond the suggested working conditions of the Leica SL, as stated by Leica (approximately 0-40*C).

It was colder outside than my household freezer; I could have used a freezer to 'warm' the camera from being outside!

I have used a Nikon D610 and D800 in similar conditions, so I needed the Leica SL to perform equally (or better) than those cameras in the extreme cold. Hours of unprotected exposure to these type of temperatures is hard on anything, but the Leica SL handled the weather with the grace you’d expect from a company that prides itself on exceptional engineering and design. 

Overall, the Leica SL’s performance was outstanding. 

I carried the Leica SL on a heavy duty strap made from the same material as seat belts..... no reason for risks in this environment!

High Points

  • Batteries: The first thing someone shooting in extreme cold stresses about is the battery life of their camera. I carried two extra batteries in a coat pocket along my chest to keep them warm, and found that three batteries was more than enough for me to shoot all day without having to stress about having enough juice. Of course the battery performance in the cold was not as good as the battery is during the day; I easily got about two hours of continuous use. Once a battery started to get low, I would swap it with another and re-warm that battery, which extended the life of them significantly. For comparison sake, the battery in my GoPro Hero 4 lasted about 15 minutes in the cold before I had to replace it……

    It is worth noting that the Leica batteries will not charge if they are too cold. After bringing the Leica SL back indoors, it took about 45 minutes before the battery was warm enough to start to re-charge.

    Finally, I encountered one incident where I had some snow melt on the o-ring for the battery and then re-freeze when I took the camera back outside. I had to warm the battery hatch area a little for the battery to eject as it froze in place. Once I realized this was a potential issue, I was careful to make sure the battery didn’t have any moisture on the o-ring before inserting it into the body and I never had another issue.
     
  • Ergonomics: I wrote about the great ergonomics of the Leica SL in my complete review, but the controls feel very different when using them through thick mittens and glove liners. While it was possible to use the Leica SL with bulky gloves, it was cumbersome, so I normally just used glove liners when shooting.
     
  • Toughness: For a camera that costs as much as the Leica SL does, I wasn’t exactly gentle with it on this trip. The camera went dogsledding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, hiking, etc. It was dropped a few times and I tripped snowshoeing and landed on top of it, burying it several inches into the snow. It was accidentally banged and bumped. Yet for all this abuse, the Leica SL looks like it has spent the last few days relaxing on a shelf…. no scratches, chips, dents, etc. 

Weather sealing, one of the selling points of the Leica SL, was critical in this environment. I also was extra careful to turn off the camera during long periods between shots to preserve precious battery life. PS - that's the Really Right Stuff L-plate on the camera.

I might be crazy to subject a camera this expensive to conditions like this.... but the Leica SL proved it has a "don't give a damn" attitude about the cold!

Weak points

Using the Leica SL in these extreme conditions caused me to find a few points where improvements could have been made to improve the shooting experience in the extreme cold:

  • Disable touch screen: With bulky gloves, I kept accidentally hitting the touch screen, causing the camera to re-focus or otherwise do something I didn’t really want. It’s not fair to blame Leica for my clumsiness when I’m dressed in a billion layers, but I never had this problem with a Nikon because there wasn’t a touch screen! A software update where I could opt to disable the back LCD’s touch function would be appreciated.
     
  • Freezing to me: Solid metal construction can actually be a bit of a curse when it’s -30C! I would hold the Leica SL up to my eye and experienced a few times where the body of the camera was so cold that the condensation of my breath would cause the camera body to freeze to my face. HA! I’ve always joked that I have a camera glued to my face, but that really re-defined it! Solution: pack gaffers tape and lightly tape the metal areas along the bottom left as a temporary barrier against the cold.
     
  • Locking lens hood: The hood on the Leica 24-90mm lens is very good and clicks into place solidly in normal conditions, but the cold caused the lens hood to knock loose more often than in normal temperatures. Nikon has a metal latch on the 24-70mm, and that would have been very handy in these conditions as I frequently was having to check to ensure the lens hood hadn’t dislodged from the lens. 

The all metal body of the SL did get so cold that I had to be careful of it freezing to my face. The fix for this was easy - a little gaffers tape on the metal side protects the cheeks!

The Leica M7 joined the freezing party and, like the Leica SL, had no objections to the super cold temperatures.

Leica marketed this camera at photographers like me…. it worked, and I couldn’t be more glad that it did! The Leica SL performed exceptionally in an environment where most electronic devices just roll over and die. If you have been waiting to jump on the Leica SL train because of concerns with the camera’s performance in crazy environments, don’t hesitate. It would be a real challenge to subject the Leica SL to treatment more cruel than what I put it through this week, and I’m now even more confident in the incredible engineering and performance of this machine!

Confirmed - it was cold!

Winter Inspiration: Tulip Collage

In a blast of unwelcome suddenness, it got very cold in England. While I will still go out and take many photos in the winter, the dreary and grey days can sometimes be tough on creative expression. No worries, this is the best season to work on some indoor studio work!

This photograph was one of many large format film images I took this weekend in my home 'studio.' I put quotes around the word studio because I used the furthest thing from a formal studio to get this image. I really like the resulting photograph and hope that seeing how I did this will inspire your own creative outlet and expression this winter.

Before I get into the how of the photograph, lets look at the finished image (negative was scanned on an Epson V700 scanner)...

There is one thing that really makes this image unique and different. Study it closely and see if you can figure it out. 

Need a hint? Look at the lighting.

That's it! Most people would light this subject from the top - meaning they would light the top of the flowers rather than the stems. Instead, I have the light coming from the bottom, so the stems and base of the flower have all the texture and detail.

Now how'd I do this? First step, I bought some tulips. They are a great flower for photographers because they are relatively inexpensive. I paid $7 for 20 at a market in Cambridge. 

Onto the 'studio' - in this case, my studio was actually an outdoor patio table that I setup in the sunlight coming through the big french doors in our house. The background is standard white tissue paper. I used my large format 4x5 film camera and set it up on a tall tripod. It was so tall I actually pulled out a step stool to be tall enough to get the focus correct. I metered for f/22 and selected an exposure of 15 seconds. At that length of time I don't mind being a little inaccurate, so I counted the exposure in my head.

The very unsophisticated setup I used to get this photograph. You can see the natural light coming from the door was all I needed with a long exposure.

Voila! 

Ran the negative through a standard development and scanned it here. 

I love shooting 4x5 for my 'studio' work because of the size of the negative. It's HUGE. Here - this is next to my iPhone 6 plus. Yeah, it's a big phone, but it's the negative that we're looking at here!

The large format negative vs the iPhone 6 plus

Hopefully that helps you find some inspiration to make some artwork this winter. You don't need to use a big film setup - you can use any camera - but don't let the lack of a professional studio stop your creative expression. The sun is a wonderful light!