December light is hard to pin down. Gone are the golden intensity of the late summer sun, and the burnished glow of the half hour before an autumn sunset. A winter’s day in December can be clear and bright, or dull and dreary, according to the cloud cover – quite different conditions, leading to quite different moods. But the one unifying quality, whatever the prevailing weather conditions, is that December light is noticeably cold – a blue-white – and the sunshine, when it appears, pale yellow, deepening to a rich straw colour at its most intense. There is science behind this*, but there’s seasonal magic, too, and while I find my inability to grasp the intricacies of the former frustrating, I delight in an uncomprehending observation of the latter.
When it comes to recording a December scene, how should our awareness of the winter light influence the way we work with our cameras? I’d argue that it’s just as easy to get some cracking shots at this time of year as in the warmer, brighter months – whether in your garden, or moving through the wider landscape – but preparedness for the light conditions you’re likely to encounter when out and about will help you to make the most of any situation.
The golden hour – the hour or so just after sunrise and again before sunset – is so beloved of professional landscape and garden photographers because the diffuse light as the sun hovers around the horizon creates soft shadows and generally weak highlights that, together with an element of backlighting in a well framed shot, can create a dream-like quality. In summer you have to turn up early or hang around till late to make the most of this light, but the short winter days create far more sociable conditions. Golden hour lighting conditions are also maintained for a longer period at this time of year, so there’s really no reason not to be out making the most of them.
Bright days bring with them the opportunity to play with long shadows and backlighting and, as clear skies often go hand in hand with cold weather, to make the most of a glistening morning frost. The high contrast between the darkest areas of a scene (shadows) and the lightest (highlights) can be tricky for your camera’s meter to make sense of, so make sure you familiarise yourself with your exposure controls. On an iPhone, and even some of the newer touch-screen DSLRs, this can be as simple as jabbing your finger at the screen in the area you want the camera to expose for (so for a scene with strong sunlight, you may want to make sure the darker areas are lightened sufficiently to see the detail). On other cameras, there will be an exposure compensation control you can tweak until you’re happy, usually marked with EV +/- (where EV stands for Exposure Value).
On dull days, a blanket of cloud acts as a giant photographer’s soft box, producing a soft and diffuse light with no harsh edges to the shadows. These conditions are much easier for the camera to expose for, as the difference in lighting value between the darkest and lightest part of a scene is greatly reduced. Choice of subject is key here; wider scenes can look a little flat and lifeless without careful composition, so it’s often a good time to focus in on garden details. Water droplets gather in picturesque fashion in the crook of a bent twig, and, as an added bonus, the moisture in the air coats subjects with a reflective film of water, making leaves and berries glow against a textured, moodily lit background.
Throughout December, I find myself continually re-prioritising my day, telling myself that such-and-such can wait till after dark, devising increasingly inventive excuses to be out and about between the rising and the setting of the sun. It can get a bit tricky in the pre-Christmas rush, but in the lull between boxing day and new year, that’s where I’ll be.
*something to do with the winter sun being lower in the sky, the Rayleigh Effect, the distance light must travel through the atmosphere to reach us, and the amount of moisture in the air. Just don’t ask me to explain it.