February in the UK can be a bit like Bunyan’s slough of despond, I think, all ‘fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions.’
It’s a particularly glum sort of limbo: a flat white is acceptable (arguably) when it’s a coffee, but quite dispiriting when it’s what passes for daylight, every day. This means that a lot of photography lovers find themselves stuck in a rut, waiting for sunshine-and-lollipops times to reappear before they venture out with their cameras again.
But I say they’d be missing an opportunity. There are postcards you can buy, and websites you can browse if what you want is pretty pictures. So I’ve just had a little look at some of my February photos from recent years, and it turns out late winter has quite a bit to offer, photographically, both outdoors and in the house. Here are just a few ideas.
Snap the snowdrops – a classic February crowd-pleaser, and for this Frank Turner fan it’s ‘the opening act of spring’ even when the ‘season’s acting strange.’ An impromptu dash to the snowdrops at Ankerwycke, improvising with the equipment in my bag gave me this. (You can go for a gentler, prettier look than this by using the ambient light and a wider angle.) I used a tripod at ground level, and bounced on-camera flash off a giant lens cloth I was holding to the side.
Use the sky as a giant softbox. Those thick white clouds – how beautifully they diffuse the light. Use it for portraits, and if the sky’s too bleak, then don’t include the sky. The absence of direct sunlight means you can shoot throughout the day without harsh, tricksy shadows interfering. But to my mind you can’t beat early morning, and happily, dawn is not too early in February.
Pretend you can paint. Here I’ve used intentional camera movement to make abstract and ghostly images of trees. Use a long exposure, and pan upwards while the shutter is open. Be prepared for a high failure rate with this trick, but remember there’s no right or wrong and you only have to please yourself.
Seek out the shadows. The sun will come out, and when it does, you’ll get some fantastic stretched-out shadows. You can try trees, architecture, or shadow selfies like this one.
Go for moody monochrome – that February feeling, to the power of ten.
Pay attention to details. Stay close to home and examine carefully the things you’d normally pass by without a second glance. Doesn’t matter whether it’s streets, fields or woods like these – map out a small area and seek out patterns and textures. If you’ve got a macro lens, or a macro setting on your camera, use that. Your phone will do a nice job on this too.
Get steamy in the hothouse – actually, no, don’t do that, you’ll get condensation on your lens and that only ever ends in frustration. Engage your patience, and let your camera warm up for a good twenty minutes before you remove the lens cap. I always look forward to the butterflies at Wisley for a bit of crazy February colour. I generally use a macro lens and get as close as I can – be aware though, that plays havoc with your depth of field, so choose carefully what you want to be in focus. If the insect is very still, and the glasshouse is not too crowded, you can always take several shots: focus manually on different points and combine them later for absolute sharpness. To me that’s a bit joyless, so I just go for colour and texture.
Support your local florist. If it’s too cold for you outside, cut flowers and a camera can occupy you very nicely. And if you know me well you’ll know that I like them wilting just as much as when they are fresh.
Play with surfactants to combine chemistry and art. You will need: a flat glass dish, water, oil, washing-up liquid, coloured paper, and, preferably, an off-camera flash. If you don’t have the flash, you can always bump up your ISO instead, and while that won’t give you the same sharpness, you can still have fun playing with colour and shape.
Hang out with a friend. Lure them to a nice big window with your best coffee, and keep a look out for the light falling on their face. Especially if it’s a lovely north light. And of course you’ve always got a camera to hand, haven’t you!
Feeling solitary? Make a portrait of someone who’s not there. This one’s for you Ruby, for the bag of bananas always hidden in your bed, and all your favourite old songs.
Invite other photographers round, and mess about. It’s quite good when it also involves camembert and confectionery.
I could go on, but I’m sure you have ideas of your own. Chinese New Year, with its colours and its celebrations, is a visual joy. Valentine’s Day too – resist the overpriced cards in the shops and make your own, with images that actually mean something to you, because you made them. And finally, contrary to received wisdom, you’ll get good results working with small children and animals.
If you’d like to learn more, you can book a place one of my beginners’ digital photography workshops. No worries if you don’t have a camera – we can lend you one for the day. I also offer individually tailored, one-to-one photography courses, designed around your existing skills and interests. Visit katecarpenter.com/tuition for more details.