How to Make the Photographic Most of Your Winter Sun Trip

Christmas is over, New Year has come and gone and the frenzy of gastronomic and financial excess has given way to the cold harsh reality of, well, a cold harsh January! It's time to get away for some of that southern summer sun. Here are my top tips for making the most of your winter vacation when hitting that bright sunshine.

For some, winter sun is an annual pilgrimage, others a rite of passage through our annual solar cycle and, for me, a requirement to survive the dark, cold, and rainy drear of a British January. Getting away for a week or long weekend is therefore the perfect antidote to stop being SAD (seasonal affective disorder). With that in mind, booking a low cost flight to somewhere a little nearer the equator seems like a good idea and for many Europeans that will often mean around the Mediterranean in countries like Spain, Portugal, and Italy or, just a little further afield, Greece or Corfu. So, before you read any further, check your favorite flight comparison site and see where is in easy reach.

Types of Photography

When you travel to winter sun, it's easy to forget the types of conditions that you will shoot in. On a recent trip to Sicily that meant temperatures of 17C (63F) during the day and 3C (37F) overnight. Pleasantly warm when out and about, but once the night draws in it becomes decidedly chilly. Located at a latitude of 37 degrees (about the same as San Francisco or Richmond), daylight hours are between about 7am and 5pm, which makes for short warm days and longer, cooler, nights. These conditions are subtlety different to what many photographers are used to and so, in addition to the usual articles extolling different types of travel photography, it's worth playing to the strengths of winter sun:S

1. Harsh Sun: during the day the sun will be high in the sky creating strong light and harsh shadows. It's stark and unforgiving, but has a specific look that you can play to. In black and white it is particularly striking.

2. Golden Hour: this suddenly becomes so much more accessible as they are at sensible times! Shoot sunrises, sunsets, blue hour and magical, golden hour, portraits.

3. Light Trails: not only is the golden hour more accessible, but a nighttime that isn't freezing opens up a vista of low light photography. I never miss the opportunity to shoot light trails in a new location. They are fun, sometimes throw up some pleasing trails and occasionally can be astounding. Don't pass up the opportunity!

4. Night Sky: if you end up visiting anywhere remotely rural then you have a real opportunity to shoot in near darkness. Sicily has little light pollution and it was wonderful to see a night sky lit up with constellations of stars (here are some more tips and inspiration).

Gear to Remember

With the change in weather comes a subtle change in the type of gear you need to take. It's not that you won't necessarily already have most of the equipment, but rather the combination can be different.

Ultimately, winter sun is travel photography, which means making your camera system and lens selection. It goes without saying that if you are going to do long exposures then you will need a tripod and, if during the day, a range of ND and graduated filters. However this is pretty standard fare, so what is it that you might need over and above this? These are my top three:

1. Lens Hood: destinations for winter sun tend to be sunny! I tend to forget the importance of a lens hood both for protecting the front element and controlling lens flare. They are invaluable photographic accessories and easily overlooked. Your long lenses may already come with one, possibly reversing over the barrel, however you'll likely find that anything 50mm and shorter won't. As the example below shows, lens flare can affect any focal length lens so it's worth investing in some hoods. I have a preference for the metal screw-on variety, as I'm forever losing clip-ons however they both work equally well. Don't forget that they are sized for different fields of view so it pays to get one designed for your focal length lens (or simply test it).

2. Polarizer: light travels as particles (or photons) in a straight line, oscillating like a wave. Under light conditions with lots of reflections, these become oriented in a number of directions and can cause fogging, or haze, in an image. A polarizer allows you to filter out all but the direct light from the sun. You can therefore remove reflections and haze, and create more naturally saturated deep blue skies.

3. Calibrate Your Camera: color calibrating your camera is a matter choice. Ultimately how the colors look is a personal thing which is why we end up color grading. That said, it is good practice to start from a calibrated image and work from there, which makes it easy when you do need to accurately represent color (e.g. for logos). I've used X-Rite's ColorChecker Passport and normally you only need to do it for the lighting conditions you are working under. If you shoot using natural light, that means once only and then automatically apply the calibration profile when you import in to Lightroom. What's easy to forget is how much the environment impacts the color of natural light. If you travel from an urban city like London to the limestone clad towns of Sicily then the colors subtly change. Take your calibration target with you and don't forget to take one shot.

BONUS: you can remote trigger your camera in a number of ways, including smartphone apps, wireless remotes, and self-timers. The most reliable, and usually the cheapest, is the wired remote. A useful bit of kit to always have at the bottom of the camera bag.

Winter sun trips provide an excellent opportunity for some photography, whether they are photographic breaks, business trips or family get always. It's a timely reminder that conditions can be slightly different, so being prepared can allow you to make the most of your visit. Have you got any great shots that result from a winter break?

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