Taking Photographs: Getting Psyched For Winter Beaches

It’s 16 degrees this morning, and if that doesn’t feel cold enough, we’ve got 30mph gusts–winds that will be coming down on us out of the northwest like they finally mean business.

This is weather, in other words, which is sure to wake us up.

That being said, the sun is shining with an icy radiance, much like those January mornings back when we were kids. When I was in Sag Harbor earlier today, I re-discovered the satisfaction of stepping into a warm building. Bank, post office, or five-and-dime–we become more of a community when it’s freezing out. I say: bring it on. To hell with warm weather. The absurdly balmy climate we’ve been “blessed” with lately here in the middle latitudes has actually been depressing (my opinion). This is the argument:  The earth has a bit of a fever. Shouldn’t we be rooting for the planet? Shouldn’t we be wishing for it to be cold out when it’s supposed to be?

Winter is my favorite time to photograph beaches, but I’ll need to clarify that. In truth, I’ve taken pictures on days that are cold enough in November to feel like winter. Ditto for March and April, (months that have sent me home with popsicle fingers on more than one occasion).

Many of you live far enough south to never see snow on a beach. Others are trapped in ocean-deprived deserts or in situations where taking yourself to a frigid beach comes with very little appeal. I admit that it’s not easy to be out there taking pictures in a salt-soaked wind that’s cutting into your bones like a sushi knife.

But there’s tantalizing things going on–especially for photographers.

After a heavy snowfall, the slush that forms on the beach is beyond compare. A high tide can tease a beach full of snow into a distinctive foamy pulp. After getting gnawed at by the tides, it often refreezes. It can be crunchy (like walking on styrofoam)–or a whipped frozen froth speckled with sand and seaweed. It’s hard to tell what you’re walking on exactly. I once bought a set of “tripod snowshoes” which I’ve yet to try out, but I’m not sure if they’d work in the variable states of beach slush.

Up on the dunes, winter can come with ravishing views. It’s possible to find beachgrass encased in the ice of sea-spray (see my other post today). This is beautiful stuff–something rarely glimpsed. Several winters I’ve encountered large blocks of ice that dot the sand as far as you can see. In my rangering days on Fire Island I once rode on horseback into such a landscape. It was surreal–a blue and white polka dot beach with no one in sight in any direction. My horse trotted between the ice blocks while I took the pictures. Somewhere I have a photograph I took that day.

The beach in winter can be rewarding. My advice: dress warm, wear high boots (or snowshoes), and find some gloves that will permit you to use a digital camera. Keep in mind that microscopic buttons and dials are difficult to operate with fingers full of congealed blood. Beyond that, avoid changing lenses. Avoid using tripods without rubber grips. Make sure your camera batteries work in low temperatures. At all times, remember that you’re heading out into the absolute worse conditions for optics–salt, sand, dampness, ice and all the rest of it. Clean your camera when you get home…and whatever you do don’t drop it!

Footnote: I’ve included the picture up above in my Beach Days gallery. I admit that it was taken under conditions that almost no one would associate with a “beach” day.  Anyone I would have encountered out there would’ve been fully clothed and their umbrellas would’ve only come in dark colors. In other words, there were no stripes anywhere and no lotions.

I’m suggesting we expand the common view: some days should be considered beach days for reasons other than the ordinary ones. Indeed, maybe every day is a beach day of sorts.

Ask a duck– it’s not always about getting a tan.

8 thoughts on “Taking Photographs: Getting Psyched For Winter Beaches

  1. I agree with everything you say, John. But I can’t honestly say I’d like to be out there with you.

    BTW, do you remember Charlton Ogborn’s “The Winter Beach”? As I recall (I read it decades ago), it’s a natural history classic.


    1. Yes, I recall that book and I think we had one hanging around the Park Service checkpoint when I was stationed on Fire Island. Maybe it’s time for another look.


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