How to Make Great Abstract Photos of Wintery Scenes

by on Feb 23, 2013 in Free Articles | 12 Comments

Winter is the season of hibernation for photographers; the time of year when we hunker down at the computer and process images from the summer and fall; the season when dust collects on our camera gear and trips outdoors mostly involve shoveling the driveway or boosting our car battery. But for photographers willing to brave cold fingers and toes (not to mention dripping noses), winter is the single best season to create one of the highest forms of photographic art – the abstract.

©Darwin Wiggett - Abraham Lake Fish Scale Ice

©Darwin Wiggett – Abraham Lake Fish Scale Ice

What is an abstract photo? Abstraction is about getting to the essence or details of a subject, telling the truth about the subject in a non-contextual manner, and seeing the subject without definitions. In abstraction we are presenting the subject purely in terms of shape, line, texture, colour, or pattern. In fact, total abstraction bears no trace or reference to anything recognizable. Abstract photography doesn’t strive to portray something realistically but instead uses components of the subject (shapes, lines, textures or colours) to create visual design and emotional impact.

©Darwin Wiggett - Abraham Lake Snow and Ice

©Darwin Wiggett – Abraham Lake Snow and Ice

For nature photographers not used to seeing in the abstract, winter does all the heavy lifting for us covering and simplifying the world with a quiet blanket of white. Winter has smoothed nature’s complex, visual palette and presents to us graphic opportunities in the purist form possible. For us, winter is an exciting time to capture artful images. Below are a few tips and techniques to help you create winter abstracts.

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Wind Blown Grasses

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Wind Blown Grasses

Shoot with a telephoto zoom

One of the easiest ways to gather abstracts is to attach a telephoto zoom to your camera (e.g. a 70-300 or 100-400mm lens) and start hunting for shape, line and texture in snow drifts and ice formations. Remember, your goal is to frame up portions of your subject and not show the subject in a documentary manner. Telephoto lenses make isolating graphic sections of the subject easy.

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Painterly Hills

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Painterly Hills

Sunny, winter days with low light skimming across the landscape are perfect for capturing the detailed and crisp lines, shapes and textures in the snow. We like to go out to areas where the snow is not a uniform blanket but instead is undulating where it covers bushes or rocks. Here we hunt for patterns of shadow and light skimming across snowy mounds. We especially like side and back lighting because these qualities really highlight the shape of snow mounds. We use our telephoto zooms to pull in the alternating patterns of blue shadow and white light. Try to fill the frame with shape, line or texture that pleases the eye and creates a rhythmic pattern across the frame.

©Darwin Wiggett - Snow Bum

©Darwin Wiggett – Snow Bum

Use depth-of-field to define your subject

Aperture choice can really affect the final look and feel of your photograph. For example, if you want to focus your viewer’s attention on just a portion of your subject, then use a small number like f2.8 or f4. Small aperture numbers give you a small slice of focus and, when used in conjunction with a telephoto lens, you will get just a sliver of focus. Pick what you want to be sharply focused, get precise focus on that point, and then use a small aperture number to keep that thin slice of focus in your photo. Small aperture numbers often leave you with a dreamy ethereal look that works well with abstracts.

©Darwin Wiggett - Snow Falling

©Darwin Wiggett – Snow Falling –  Aperture f2.8

If you want a large slice of focus in your winter abstract, then pick a large aperture number like f22, focus 1/3rd of the way into the image frame and you will get the most depth of field (amount of apparent focus) possible so that your abstract is sharp from foreground to background. If you want to learn more details about how to use aperture for creative expression see our eBook, The Creative Use of Aperture.

©Darwin Wiggett - Snow Patterns - Aperture f16

©Darwin Wiggett – Snow Patterns – Aperture f16

Get close for more detail

Another easy way to get more abstract images is simply to get close to your subject. We like to make abstracts of ice patterns and to do this we use a macro lens or a telephoto zoom lens at its closest focus. To get close enough with a macro lens means getting down onto the ice. We wear padded snow pants so we can comfortably get down on the ice to make abstracts. We also use a tripod with legs that splay out so we can get our cameras close to the ground for low level abstraction. The shorter the focal length of the macro lens, the closer you will need to be to the ground to capture your detailed image. We prefer 100mm or longer macro lenses so we can shoot the ice patterns from a more comfortable position (kneeling or standing). With short macro lenses we had to lie on the ice (very cold!)

©Darwin Wiggett - Ice Feathers

©Darwin Wiggett – Ice Feathers

Turn your abstract into a black & white 

You can make your image even more abstract and less representational by eliminating all colour from the scene. Winter scenes are often mostly monochromatic to begin with so why not enhance what you are provided? We always shoot our images in raw format so that after the fact, even though we have a colour image captured, we can easily turn it to black & white in post-production. Our  favorite black & white conversion tool is to use Nik Silver Efex in either Lightroom or Photoshop. Silver Efex is an easy to use black & white conversion program that we recommend although there are many methods of converting an image to black & white.

©Samantha Chrysanthou

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Peak Portrait

Using live view for black & white abstraction

You can pre-visualize how your subject will look in black & white even before you press the shutter. First, you need to have a camera with live view. Go into the menu on your camera and find ‘picture styles’ (Canon) or ‘picture controls’ (Nikon) and set it to monochrome. Now, when you take a photo and playback the image on your LCD, the displayed image will be black & white. But wait – there’s more!

If you want to see the black & white effect before you take the photo, simply turn on live view and displayed on the LCD will be your scene in black & white! You can see everything you frame as a black & white even before you take the photo. Ansel Adams would love it! While in monochrome live view mode, simply see if the shapes and tones work well as a black & white and, if they do, then take a photo. If you set your camera to JPEG, then the resulting photo collected by your camera will end up being a finished black & white image. But if you shoot raw, the LCD will display a black & white image, but the actual image captured by your camera will be a colour photo (very useful to make creative monochrome conversions). So if you shoot raw you can visualize in black & white but have all the colour information available to you to make any kind of black & white conversion you want.  This is a very powerful creative tool.

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Tree Study

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Tree Study

Be brave

So get out and go hear the crunch of the snow beneath your winter boots. Snap a few frames and see how easily winter provides photographers with opportunities for abstraction. We are constantly thrilled with nature’s art and in particular with winter’s simple renditions. For us, winter is a time for internal expression and looking at the world with a painter’s eye. We may get frosted ears and rosy cheeks but that’s a small price to pay for the gift of winter abstracts. Happy shooting!

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Fence Lines

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Fence Lines

©Darwin Wiggett - Melting Snow in the City

©Darwin Wiggett – Melting Snow in the City

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.


  1. Linda
    February 23, 2013

    Thank you for this! I enjoy all your posts, I’m just sorry I live so far from you and can’t participate in your workshops. 🙁

  2. hiro
    February 23, 2013

    All photos are something we can find everyday in winter but I have missing. They make me feel going out with my camera.

  3. Dee Cresswell
    February 23, 2013

    Another fantastic and informative article, thank you. I have a love-hate relationship with Canadian winters, and the love comes from the fantastic photographic opportunities it affords us. This article may have given me the boost to make the most of the next couple of months, just when I was really starting to tire of this season, thank you.

  4. Tom Robbins
    February 23, 2013

    Thanks for the inspiration and the wonderful photos. Samantha’s Fence Lines is a gem.

  5. Leslie Degner
    February 25, 2013

    Sam – lovely fenceline shot

  6. Anna
    February 26, 2013

    You two are wonderful winter cheerleaders 🙂 Seriously though, great post with lots of helpful suggestions and inspiring images!!!! This comes at just the right time, as our long cold winters (n. WI) are starting to lose their charm for me….well, to be honest, I’ve been dreaming of spring.

  7. Alan Lillich
    February 28, 2013

    Thanks for the great writing and inspiring photos. Sam’s Painterly Hills is a gem!

  8. Gray Merriam
    March 2, 2013

    Sam and Darwin,
    It is great to find a combination of good, clear writing, together with tips that are neither obvious nor lost in a bed of assumptions. Thank you. I have been photographing winter for a few decades and can still learn from you.

  9. John
    March 2, 2013

    While reading and enjoying this post I became confused, don’t worry it’s happened before. I was under the impression that lower apperture setting gave a longer depth of field (in focus), while a larger apperature seting gave a shorter depth of field. If you can, set me straiht on this issue. I enjoy all the posts and photos.
    Thanks, John

    • Darwin Wiggett
      March 3, 2013

      Hi John, small numbers on the aperture dial (like f2.8) gives a small slice of apparent focus (depth-of-field) but are large aperture openings and let in a large amount of light. Large numbers on the aperture dial (like f22) give a large slice of apparent focus (depth-of-field) and are small aperture openings letting in a small amount of light. So your original impression is correct if what you mean by ‘lower aperture setting’ is that the aperture is a tiny opening and not a tiny number 😉

    • John
      March 4, 2013

      Yes, lower larger shorter, higher smaller longer. Thanks for the reinforcement; I do understand it. Greatly enjoy your works and your sharings. And I would probably benefit from using your lenses (download,I think) information too; to your credit for not mentioning it, I will.

      Also, perhpas you have a camera company affiliation that prohits you from sending your works into competiton, but/and I noted the Sony outdoor competion finalist/winners….so many of your works are far better in my opinion and could have easily been a contest winner.


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