Winter In Vermont

Winter can be a trying time for a photographer in Vermont, and most assuredly, for a motorcyclist in Vermont. So while my bike is in storage I take my “cage” out to explore and photograph scenes in Vermont.

I live in Burlington, Vermont’s largest “city.” I say “city” in quotes because, of course, Burlington is only a hair more than 43,000 in population. The surrounding towns make up the city’s overall urban area, just a hair under 109,000, in a metro area (Chittenden County) of around 215,000 residents. These numbers are significant because it accounts for more than a third of the state’s population. This is due to this being the main area of the Vermont economy, it’s where everything happens, and I suspect that began because of geography. We’re situated in a basin surrounded by mountains and a lake, and as such this seems to divert the majority of the bad weather and cold temperatures to the north and the south of us. So winters in Burlington are bitter and wet (and long), but compared to the rest of the state it’s almost mild. We’re less likely to have the heavy snowfalls that bring traffic and transportation to a virtual standstill, and less likely to have the kind of cold that freezes pipes and wells (yes many people in the state have wells) solid.

However, it’s still gray skies for many months of every year. I’d say between November and April the clear sunny days are more of a luxury, the rest of the days it’s that colorless gray. Film requires radiation from the sun to work best, color photography on a cloudy day is generally a waste of time. On the other hand, B&W photography can really shine in these conditions.

The cold will make shooting difficult, too, as film tends to freeze and become brittle in cold temperatures. The cold will also make the action stiff on many old cameras, as the lubrication inside will become less lubcricatey (not a real word). Even more important is the way condensation can form on a camera when it quickly goes from cold to warm, and you don’t want moisture in your camera. Definitely not in your lenses, that’s where fungus happens. Some photographers put their camera into a plastic bag before going from the cold to the warm, and letting the condensation build up on the surface of the bag, not the camera. Others warm their cameras more gradually, and most don’t bring their very best gear out in the cold at all. Use your back-up and less favorite cameras and lenses (unless, like normal people, you only have the one).

Shooting on a snowy landscape adds other complications, that of light metering. The reflection from a landscape covered in snow will create bright highlights in your camera’s light meter, causing the camera to under-expose the details in the darker areas, robbing them of their details, so stop up a little and over-expose your shots a bit more, probably two full stops. Speaking of light meters, you should pack spare batteries, because the cold weather will slow the batteries and deplete them faster.

Shooting with color isn’t impossible, but you’ll want a more neutral color profile. Kodak Portra seems to be the stock preferred by most I’ve talked to, while Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5 seem to be B&W favorites. There are a couple Fuji filmstocks that work well also, and I’ve heard that slide film works well, but I have little personal experience with them. I generally just grab Tri-X or Portra. I’m more of a Kodak man with some Ilford dalliances.

Activity drops tremendously in the winter. Sure you’ll have those who ski, snowboard, do cold weather hiking, ice fishing, ice climbing (yes that’s a thing), skating and hockey, but the rest of us stay indoors and avoid the weather much of the time. There are virtually no major events, with the exception of a few concert type activities (which for the most part is occurring in Chittenden County near exclusively). We have no major sports teams or arenas, Burlington has one large auditorium that would host a variety of events, however that location has been closed for years due to structural damage. Suffice it to say, anything that would put more than 300 people into one location would be an outside thing, and that’s unpleasant in winter. So aside from a few small individual outings here and there, it’s mostly about Netflix and box wine between mid-November and mid-April.

Of course, where normally we could go to an art opening in Burlington, or a theatrical play in Montpelier, or a drive up to Montreal for a concert, these past two winters, the Covid winters, this is not an option. The Canadian border is closed, and while much of the nation operated as though there was no pandemic at all, New York and New England was largely shut down. My cycle was stowed away under wraps, and I just put on extra layers and waited. Waited and took the occasional outing for the purpose of taking pictures of something. Anything. Use the snow and ice scapes to my advantage. It’s nearly half our year, so we might as well find something to do with it.