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TIPS for photographing in cold, snowy weather:

OUT-TAKES by Photographer Jack McConnell

TIPS for photographing in cold, snowy weather:

In winter I look forward to going out with my camera at dawn just after fresh snow has fallen, or at the tail end of a storm when snow is sticky and clings to trees. It seems like everything is a picture, and I’m a giddy kid in a candy store.

Winter scenes are monochromatic, letting you really concentrate on composition. Shooting photographs is a Zen-like process, for a photograph represents the smallest instant of time. Nothing that comes before it or after it matters at all. Anything just beyond the picture frame may as well be a million miles away. It’s a constant reminder to experience life in the moment. If you go out open-minded, with an empty hand, you can almost always find a photograph.

Going wide. It’s just me, I guess, the way I choose to see, but I find the most pleasing images are made with either a wide-angle or telephoto lens, and as I approach a scene I start to pick out the elements that will work best together. I like to emphasize foregrounds and increase the visual perspective between foreground and background, or to compress the perspective of a scene with a telephoto lens.

Timing is everything …the U-turn. Often, when a shot doesn’t work out the way I want it to, I try to return to the scene in different light. But it almost never works out. The weather, the light, my mood is different. Someone has plowed the roadside between visits. Highway workers have set out safety cones. Rarely do I get a second, better chance. So I try everything I can to get my shot the first time round.

It’s the little things in life that trip you up, like exposure: The first problem people have when shooting in snow conditions is getting the exposure right. Their tendency is to under-expose the scene, forgetting that the in-camera meter wants to see everything as 18% medium gray. Depending on what percentage of the scene is white snow, you have to open up 1 stop, or even more.

Approaching the scene: Be careful not to contaminate your scene with footprints as you make your decision about where to set up to shoot. If you’re in slippery conditions, consider using ice creepers over your shoes to give you a better grip. These are available in sports shops like Maine Sports.

Keep hands warm by using a pair of winter golf gloves, which will protect your hands from direct contact with cold metal. They are slightly sticky feeling on the surface, so your equipment  won’t slip out of your grasp. Put hand warmers in your pockets and put your gloved hands in there at every opportunity, and you’ll do just fine. Bare hands get too cold, mittens and winter driving gloves are bulky and awkward to use. Gloves with finger tips removed are useful, but hands can become very cold. Put foot warmers in your boots, outside of your socks. Always wear a hat, because you lose a lot of heat through your head. Dress in moisture-wicking layers as you are likely to have a few minutes of exertions, followed by a period of waiting around for conditions to change.

Use a tripod: 95% of the time I take the time to set up a tripod to insure sharpness. A carbon-fiber tripod is expensive, but doesn’t conduct cold as much as aluminum does. I use a wood tripod, but if you’re using aluminum, try wrapping plumbing pipe insulation around the legs to reduce hand contact with cold metal.

Condensation: The worst thing you can do in extreme cold conditions is to accidentally breathe on your viewfinder or lens as you’re leaning over your camera to set your f-stops and shutter speeds. This can cause frost, and even permanent damage. Likewise, if you’ve put your camera under your jacket to protect from falling snow, you can cause condensation when you bring it back out into the cold air. At the end of the day, I put my camera back into the camera bag, close it up, and let it warm up slowly for several hours inside the house, before I take the camera out. Otherwise put your gear in large plastic bags while still out in the cold before bringing into the warm house, so condensation forms on the bags rather than your camera.

Composition: I don’t particularly follow the historical “rules of composition”. If I do it in a composition, it’s generally by accident.  I try to shoot a lot. The more I shoot the better I get, even after all these years. I like close-ups and details. Hard to find, but worth the effort. I look for contrasts—big vs. small, light vs. dark, warm colors vs. cool, hard against soft. Barns, fences, trees, a group of people provide contrast to the snow.


OUT-TAKES by Jack McConnell; At Waters Edge

At Water’s Edge JackCartoon

In New England photographs are found underfoot and close at hand. Unlike shooting in the West where you tilt your lens upward toward magnificent expansive panoramas, when I take out my cameras in New England, it’s to take aim at details of the landscape.

I especially love the tidal zones where water laps the shore and the tide scours the beaches and rocks. There lurks interesting evidence of man’s presence among the ocean debris—coils of rope, broken skiffs, and lobster buoys. Because New England is monochromatic for much of the year, I often shoot in B&W, and sometimes paint my prints with vigorous hues of craypas and transparent oils.

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I agree with Ansel Adams that the negative is the score, and the print is the performance. Perhaps, because my involvement with the final print has always been such a hands-on affair, I like to play with various ways to extend my relationship to the surface of the print, using toning techniques and split development times. I sometimes  paint liquid emulsion onto watercolor papers; and I make polaroid image transfers, which I hand-color with pastels and oil Recently I’ve returned my attention to shooting with B&W infrared film and creating B&W prints which I paint with craypas and transparent oils. This old technique was made famous at the turn of the century by photographer Wallace Nutting, who organized cottage workshops of painters who applied color over his B&W prints. Nutting prints became wildly collectible, moving from flea market stalls and garage sales, to gallery boutiques and antique shops.

Historically, hand-painted photographs tended to be pastel tints and watery washes of color over dreamy landscapes delicately interpreted—ladies swathed in airy gauze or mordant flowers tumbling silently from a porcelain vase.  A hint of gesture, a wisp of color.

But, my preference is to use paint boldly from the tube, rather than diluting it with a thinning medium. So what you see in my prints is a deeper intensity of color. Instead of a lovely, delicate scene, I prefer to turn my eye on more gritty subject matter, wandering the backlots of marinas, and searching through shoreline detritus.

I print these scenes on fine art photographic papers that have old-fashioned “tooth” that facilitates the hand-painting process, such as Kodak Elite, Oriental Seagull, Luminos Pastel Silver, and Classic Tapestry. Each B&W print is painted with a quirky color intuition and gritty textural manipulation using craypas or Marshall’s transparent oils, applied with cotton swabs, sable brushes, and determined hand-rubbing techniques, and using painterly finishes like stippling, smudging, and layering of colors. This encourages me to straddle the line between paint and emulsion, playing with a print’s tactile surface and asking the question, “Is it a painting or a photograph?”

Taking things one step further, I create limited edition Digital Prints by rephotographing the hand-painted photograph with my digital camera so I can print onto fine art watercolor-type of papers such as Somerset Satin or Hahnemeule Classic.

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Two early editions are Rocks at Fort Pownal, and the Red Skiff at Grindle Point, which are part of the At Water’s Edge series. A subsequent collection titled Junkyard Dogs captures stored treasures located in marinas, Cliff Houle’s Up-Island junkyard, and in barns and storage sheds across the island. And a third collection takes you behind the scenes at Mystic Seaport Workshops.

Editor’s Note: Many of these hand-painted photographs can be seen on Jack’s website in two collections called At Water’s Edge and Junkyard Dogs. Small prints, posters and notecards are for sale in the Art of the Isles Gallery at the Islesboro Community Center, and large hand-painted prints can be ordered on the Purchase page of the website,

OUT-TAKES by Photographer Jack McConnell

Capturing the Elusive Native

When we first came to Islesboro in the summer of 1982, we stayed at the Aldrich House on Ferry Road. Each morning I’d awake to the sound of paint brush slapping against clapboards. I’d bring my cup of coffee outside and talk with Michael Durkee, who was busy painting the house. After sharing our life histories, I asked him if it would be okay if I took his photograph.

Looking me straight in the eye, Mike said, “Trying to capture the elusive native are ya!”

Well, I just about keeled over laughing, because that’s exactly what I was trying to do. I was seeing Mike as an iconic figure in the Maine landscape, almost a symbol of summer.  Years later, I drew a cartoon of a Maine lobsterman snoozing against a shed and surrounded by a dozen eager photographers hanging from helicopters or hiding behind tripods, all trying to “capture the elusive native.” (I ran this cartoon in last month’s Out-takes column by the way, or you can see it on my website: )

For the rest of my first summer, I grabbed folks in the few public spaces I could access—the two boat yards, coming in and out of the Post Office or grocery stores, Billy’s porch where children tipped their ice cream cones and the family pooch waited for a taste, Don Robert’s book barn where customers would come in to buy books by the inch for their visiting grandchildren, seven inches for the six-year old and fifteen inches for the teenager, and Sister Parrish’s Dog show.

I’d take my canoe out from the town dock and introduce myself to the lobster fleet. And of course the picnic tables at the Ferry Hot Dog stand. That’s where I met Mid Hale and Mrs. Owsley, when her plate of food flipped in the wind and landed smack on the front of my shirt. With ketchup and mustard dripping everywhere, she passed over a pile of napkins to clean me up, and we became fast friends.


After the first summer, I had an exhibit at the Islesboro Inn, and later the Historical Society and the Blue Heron Restaurant. By then people knew I was respectful of the people I photographed, and they were pretty much used to seeing me around the shoreline, hunched over my tripod, so I became welcome everywhere.

Moving about the island from one rental property to another each summer introduced me to an entirely new collection of islanders—Peggy’s Dow’s Red Cott, Uncle Harry Mills cottage in Ryder’s Cove, Mike and Betty’s red house on Meadow Pond, Roberta’s cabin on East Shore Drive.

And when I bought my boats, first the Boston Whaler, then a Seaway, and finally the Paula B tugboat, I got lots of help from Les Smith and his brother Al Smith and most of the lobstermen. They dived down to check my mooring, taught me how to approach and leave the dock in a strong wind, and how to tie-up from mid-ship rather than jumping off from the bow or stern.

For twenty-five years I gradually expanded my collection of islanders. By the time my wife Paula owned the Seven Knots Gallery in the old schoolhouse opposite the library, we had many shows of island faces. We even created an island quilt with 30-40 photographs of islanders which was later donated by Langhorne Smith to the Boardman Cottage.

As I think about the hundreds of faces in this collection of work, I realize that what made these photographs possible was my willingness to work slowly, to hang around and get to know my subjects, to wait for the right moment for magic to happen.

When friends ask me for advice, I suggest they always keep their camera handy—you never know when something will happen, the light will be just right, or an interesting person will pass by. If you’re doing candid portraits, you might use a long lens to photograph them unobtrusively. Then show them the photo in your camera and tell them you’re working on a special project, and is it OK to use their picture. Strangers are much more likely to say yes if you tell them why you want to include them. Be friendly, get into a conversation, interact.

If you’re shooting friends, try to include something from their environment so the photo becomes more story-telling. If you’ve already got samples from your project, bring a small 5×7 portfolio to show them work you’ve already done.

Going to an event is a great place to photograph—the Dog Show, the Ice Cream Race, Fourth of July parade or a country fair. For years I’d go to the Lancaster Fair in NH at the end of each summer. I’d sleep overnight in my van so in the morning I could see the concessionaires eat their breakfast and the farmers groom their animals. You can see five different portrait collections at my website:

Editor’s Note: Jack sent a collection of small portraits of islanders to the gift shop at Art of the Isles Gallery at the Islesboro Community Center or they can be ordered at larger sizes from the website: