Beautiful winter photography

There is a reason I live in the warmth of the desert, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had to shovel a driveway or put on so many layers of clothes. Yet, there is something magical about the sight of fresh snow erasing all the landscape’s imperfections and coating everything with diamonds. For that reason, two years ago, we drove up to Jackson, Wyoming, for a photography outing.
Most photographers visualize the shots they want: the Tetons’ rugged monolith rising from a frozen valley. They dream of perfect morning light catching the tips of the peaks. Yet my photographic ambition centered around capturing a frozen soap bubble. Yes, a soap bubble. My singular photographic goal of that trip.
Frozen soap bubble close up

Frozen Soap Bubble Photography

I’d been to Wyoming, to Jackson, in fact, both in winter and summer. The mountains are majestic no matter the season. But the area offered something more to me. That something was the location of the mercury in the thermometer: well below zero.
Bitter cold is an understatement. That trip was the first time I recall having the inside of my nostrils freeze. Yes, it was disturbing! But that novelty meant I could finally create frozen soap bubbles.
My inspiration came a couple of months earlier, from seeing a close-up photo of one of these bubbles. The design that froze on its surface looked like an antique train. I was immediately mesmerized. Each bubble becomes a unique work of abstract art as the frigid air crystallizes the sphere of water before your eyes.
Frozen soap bubbles are only possible when the temperature gets well below freezing. So Jackson was the perfect place to begin.
I did my homework to get the mixture right. Following the Popular Science recipe, I packed up a couple of containers of bubble mixture for the trip.  Then I tracked down soap bubble containers with the wand inside that I recall from childhood.
If this is inspiring you, have a friend blow the bubbles and wear your warmest duds. You’ll be freezing your patootie off. This project takes some time to get right. It’s not as though you have a lot of movement to keep your blood flowing. If you want to photograph the bubbles, you’ve got to be quick. Frozen bubbles live a short life. And a quick reminder, you are working at -10 degrees.
All sorts of lessons I learned in this little project: focus, teamwork, and insulating gloves. Plus, magic. The distraction of watching the shapes forming on the surface as the water freezes in the layers of soap. Squirrel!
The bubble takes shape, and the pattern is emerging. Let me get that framed up. Bam! The bubble is gone. Ugh!
Soap bubble freezing with text

Another attempt. This time, captured on camera, but the background where the bubble landed is all wrong. Another ugh.

Frozen soap bubble and text

“Another bubble, please!” And another. And another. Many potential pieces of art bursting before finished, many misfires, wishing for warmer gloves.

Frozen soap bubble and text

What magic, though, when I saw the feather patterns and swirling colors dance on the surface. And even though I fixated on this shot, once I got a good photo, I was ready to drop the whole thing and get back inside!

Close up of a frozen soap bubble

Crazy white-out driving conditions

There is a saying in photography that the best conditions appear right before or after a storm. That implies you must pretty much be in the storm to be in the best position.
That’s how our trip started. We stayed close behind our Wyoming photography guide, Jay Goodrich. The ground blizzard wiped out the visibility of his SUV one moment, then revealed it in the next. As we continued down the road without any idea of what was around us, I wondered whether we’d ever find something to photograph that day.
We were on a one-day private workshop with him, and soon enough, we would have to turn back towards home. We’d spent two days driving to get from Arizona to Wyoming. Would the storm completely blow our day with him? My mind wandered, and I began to contemplate how he knew where the road was.
You can see the faint tracks his tires left in the road, the signs, and, if squinting, you can make out a power line across the road.
Ground blizzard driving with car in front.

Taking pictures while snowing

A little farther, the snow let up a little, but the wind suspended snow in the air as though holding up a tissue-like veil on the landscape. That veil hides the mountains in the distance.

Low visibility on a road with snow.

Bison photography

Like moments of doubt, the snow finally slowed. We gained some visibility, and Jay pulled over to park. In the distance was a herd of bison, huddled together. The setting was quiet, light snowflakes still floating down. Jay knew where the wild things were and seemed to read the storm in our favor.
We trudged in knee-deep snow out towards them, leaving a respectable distance as he requested. Even at that range, we could hear the snorts from some of the bison, and I swear I could see their breath. Perhaps it was my own? It was cold, but in the excitement of this moment, it didn’t register.
I will admit this is not a photo for a wildlife contest. I know I missed the focus point. In my defense, snow was falling, and it becomes — pun intended — challenging to freeze the motion. With the combination of cold, excitement, lack of experience, and enormous wild animals, I’m not too surprised about missing perfection in this shot.
Bison in snow, antique-like photo.
But I love this photo anyway. I look at it now, and I see how far I’ve come in my photography skills in two years. This photo also reminds me of other mistakes. How the army spreading west to claim land needed to feed the mass of troops. How they pushed the bison to the point of decimation. A small group’s hard work in the late 1800s advocated for a preservation area for some remaining bison. If not for them, I wouldn’t have this photo or memory, one of my favorites of the trip.
When processing this photo, I processed the image by tarnishing it to look like an antique. I imagine sifting through a trundle in an attic of an old cabin, finding a tattered, worn-leather book forgotten over the years. Out spills some yellowed, historic photos onto the rough plank wood floor.
I named this piece, “Salvaged.” First for the bison salvaged from the brink of extinction. Second, because I salvaged what would otherwise be a piece of digital trash in a file. To my surprise, when I posted this photo on social media, it was one of my most liked photos. And it was chosen for a juried art show at Shemer Art Center. Take that perfection!

Winter Wildlife Photography

Winter slams storms against the landscape but also throws wildlife a curveball. Bison spend enormous amounts of energy pushing through deep snow banks to get to grasses, giving them iconic, ice-crusted faces. Their work helps other species feed off these grasses as well. Without them, after fierce blizzards, antelope and other animals might starve.
This bison was close to the road when we drove up, and we stayed inside the vehicle, only rolling the windows down. Again, not an award-winning photo, but it tells the story of winter’s hardship and struggles.
Single bison with snow-crusted face.

Grand Teton winter wildlife

When the storm recedes, and a sense of peace and hush take over the Teton valley, it takes a sharp eye to find wildlife. It’s their time to rest. Another reason why we selected Jay to make our short time in Wyoming memorable: he knew where to look for wildlife and light.
He spied two moose like bookends with their backs to each other. The last rays of golden sun caught the tips of their antlers. You might think they’d be easy to pinpoint. But down low, they blended in with the underbrush. They are visible in this photo because Jay encouraged us to climb on top of his SUV for the shot. I won’t try that at home. Not on my car anyway.
Two moose laying in the brush in afternoon sun.

What does a trumpeter swan look like?

Trumpeter swans look like their winter landscape: white. What an example of camouflage.  From faraway, white on white gives a trumpeter swan on a snowy shoreline some cover.

That doesn’t always keep them safe, however. The wing on this swan tangled with something. Most likely, a predator. He may be a bit wounded, but he still looks proud and graceful to me. I know many people would rather see the pretty, perfect bird, but again, he tells a real story about living wild.

Snowflakes fall on a trumpeter swan.
The trumpeters first caught my attention in Yellowstone National Park on a summer trip in 2017. I sat watching two of them glide with the grace of accomplished ice skaters on Firehole River, even with rain pouring down. I went back to the same spot for the next two days. They were so spellbinding to watch.
Curious about them, I read that in 2009, the number of trumpeters in Yellowstone had dropped to four birds. All over North America, the numbers had been declining. Like the bison, dedicated conservationists are working hard at reintroductions.
The Tetons are just south of Yellowstone, and this area has also had a resurgence in the swan population. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to experience them a couple of times in a natural setting.

Abstract Nature Photography

Each time we go out shooting, I always wonder if there will be any abstract opportunities. Could this be the time they run out? But nature always offers unusual patterns and textures, and I need to remember that.
From afar, this hillside of trees seems pretty uniform. Up close, there is such detail and diversity. These branches carry heavy loads. Bare branches look like someone piped thick frosting on them. The pine boughs, heavy, relax with the weight. I recall the Christmas tree lots from years ago; how they sprayed on fake snow when you purchased a tree. “Flocking” was an extra charge, and then you lassoed the tree to the top of the car. Imagine the mess on the carpet, dragging them into the house. White chemical flakes tracked in, worse to clean up than the real stuff.
Pine trees covered in snow

Funny Mother Nature pics

Driving on down the road, we had gone as far north in Teton National Park as you can go during winter. We turned off the main road to get gas. As we were taking a break, I asked Jay if we could stop at the entrance before returning to the road. I had a potential subject in mind to shoot. I felt a little odd about asking to take a photo of a sign, but I am glad I did. When I need a smile, this is all I need to look at: nature’s subtle sense of humor.
There are times when you see a scene but capturing it on camera doesn’t do it justice. But for all the other times, you take home a piece of magic. For me, this was that photo: “S’more Snow.” The snow piled up on the entrance pillars looks like giant marshmallows on sticks ready for the campfire, right?
Snow is piled on pillars.

Forest after fire

Driving south after the “S’more Snow” shot, we came to an area where the Berry Fire took place, starting in July 2016. As a natural fire caused by a lightning strike that was not threatening structures or lives, the burn followed its course with some management intervention. The study of this fire has revealed a lot of information about how the world of wildfires is changing. I recommend this link for the pictures and the more in-depth discussion of how they managed the fire and the learnings that came forward
With an area of high contrast like the black from burned trees and the fresh white from the overnight and morning snowstorm, I had a lot of fun looking for abstract compositions.
In this photo, the snow’s white reminds me of long ramps switching back and forth at a football stadium. The trees form a fence line. Clumps of snow look caught in the chainlink.
Burned trees on snow-covered hills.

Beautiful black and white landscape photography

The storm clouds gave us a soft, diffused light, letting us shoot well into the day. The flurries came and went and came again. Nothing was threatening about the snow now, though. The forest was quiet and serene, perfect for getting lost in photography. Walking up and down the road searching for new vignettes, we only saw two other cars drive by. The Tetons in summer would be crawling with tourists. Braving the cold and the snow has its price, but the reward is solitude.
Then I saw a single tree that seemed to stand out. The whiteness of freshly-fallen snow frames the space around it. Surrounded by an army of smaller trees, it seemed as though they would not let the larger tree escape their circle.
Burned forest of trees in snow.

Wave patterns in nature

Within a few more steps, I saw this slope. I love looking at the graceful way the snow curves into waves on the hill. The trees lower down the hillside, burnt, creating an anchor. Higher up the hill, there are freshly-flocked pines untouched by the fire. The nature of fire is how one area chars and another remains untouched. The random selection of victims and survivors is a complicated algorithm. I try to find meaning. Then I recall someone telling me, “Asking ‘why’ is not spiritual.” We have to trust the process. I step back and see hope and renewal in this scene.


Hillside of burned trees and snow

Grand Teton Winter Photography

Winter provides a beautiful opportunity to see the contrast in nature. Black and white images are powerful. Appreciating a monochrome photo reduces what our eye focuses on. We contemplate the subject without evaluating the complexity color adds.


Close up in black and white of Mount Moran.
While this black and white nature landscape shows more scope than the previous scenes, it is still closer to the eye than other shots I took of Mount Moran, the prominent peak in the Tetons.
My eye wanders up and down the ridgelines, seeing where the rock juts out, where the trees stop. How insignificant a single tree appears, but how a forest holds the rock and soil on the steep incline. My impression of the Tetons is that they rise out of nothingness, abrupt, and unyielding. They look more imposing than their cousins to the south to me for that reason.

Tetons and Snake River photo

Mount Moran is the anchor to the Tetons. Close-up or far away, she is the common denominator and the influencer of how weather moves through the valley. Along the Snake River banks, looking towards Mount Moran, this photo begged to be in color. The dried grasses of summer hold a golden-brown bourbon warmth. The storm had moved out, yielding wispy clouds and a touch of blue sky. The rising morning sun touched the pine trees on either bank.
If you look out on the frozen surface of the river, you can see what seems like an ice hole. I zoomed in and believe this is an opening that an otter might be using to get access in and out of the water.
Snake river with snow.
I flashback to our coffee and breakfast at Persephone Bakery: a popular, small, crowded place in the winter or summer. But, in summer, you can stand outside to wait for a table. Subzero means you all cram in, table available or not, huddled in a human-humid environment (pre-Covid). You’d have to be a practiced Buddhist monk in a deep trance not to hear each other’s conversations.
That’s how we met Charlie Hamilton James, a NatGeo photographer who was on assignment in the area. We learned that Charlie obsesses about specific animals, photographs the heck out of them, and then gains a new obsession. But he never drops the old ones. I can see his best grin at that description. He heard us talking about our photography experience and leaned over to speak to us. Obsessed people like to kibitz with other obsessed people about their shared obsessions.
The otter is one of his favorite animals. Mine too, which is why I remember this conversation. He mentioned that he likes to go up on the river (I assumed the Snake) and get in the water to photograph them. Later, I considered whether he meant getting into the icy river this time of year, but having watched other things on his Instagram feed, he might be that crazy. (@chamiltonjames)

Teton sunset

Because of the cold, we hadn’t run into other photographers during our time out shooting, which is unusual in this world of Instagram-everything-all-the-time and throw-in-a-selfie.
Sunset didn’t attract a crowd either. Only our little group was enjoying this blanket of newly-laid snow and grandeur. In the summer months, Jackson Lake would be teaming with people. If they only knew what they were missing. Thank goodness they didn’t.
With mountains standing to the west, sunsets have a strong chance to get snubbed. You lose a fair amount of sun behind the mountains in the winter that you’d appreciate having that time of year. I recall this having lived in Denver. I made up for that lack of light by living in Phoenix, so it all evened out. I wasn’t expecting much for this sunset. But then, this happened.
Frozen Jackson Lake and Mount Moran in winter at sunset
We pulled up on the side of an ice-solid Jackson Lake. We had another view of Mount Moran, which is hard to miss. My eye immediately gravitated to the pine tree procession on the frozen shore. I love their curve, how the trees look like they are waiting for something to happen across the lake. With the snowstorm clouds now moving on, the sun’s last hint on the mountains’ jagged edges could beam in, and entertain them. I envisioned a Jedi lightsaber hitting the granite mountain tops, leaving the rock red and almost molten. I’ve been watching too much Mandolorian.

Winter photography inspiration

I hope you haven’t gotten too lost in television shows given our strange year of 2020. Even if we cannot travel as we did in the past, we can still enjoy memories. I hope you’ve enjoyed experiencing mine minus the cold. You didn’t have the discomfort of numb fingers and toes. You didn’t add extra pounds to your frame with all the insulating layers of bulk. Your nose didn’t run like a dripping faucet, and I bet your cheeks didn’t get all rosy red and chapped.
If these winterscapes and the stories behind the pictures diverted you for a bit — in a good way — consider joining my list to keep ’em coming. And by all means, please share this with anyone that needs a little winter magic. Soon enough, we will get turned loose and I hope you’ll visit someplace like Wyoming in a season you might not have considered.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This