What Remains: The Beauty of Winter in the Garden

Originally published at: https://www.naturephotographers.network/what-remains/

As a nature photographer specializing in flower and botanical photography, the winter can be a challenging time to find subjects. As the flowers die and winter extends its icy hold on us, I normally seek the warmth of the indoors to photograph in conservatories and greenhouses in the Chicago area where I live. These lush indoor settings are filled with interesting subjects – ferns, desert plants, tropical flowers and seasonal flower shows. This is not a normal year, however, and all those indoor spaces are closed due to the pandemic. Many of us have had to dig a little deeper and use our creativity to keep photographing during this challenging year, and particularly during the cold months of winter. I knew that if I was going to continue to photograph during the winter, I had to rearrange my thinking, learn to embrace winter and begin to see my subjects a little differently. I was totally unprepared for the transformation to come – that I would grow to see this season in a completely new way.

Until now, I have been someone who disliked winter. I don’t like to be cold and I had little desire to be outdoors photographing in the frigid winter of the Chicago area. Let’s face it, to me there was nothing fun about facing the sub-zero temperatures and the stinging wind of winter in the Midwest. I viewed winter as the unfortunate but necessary bridge from the last flowers of October to the emergence of spring in April. I always waited it out and sought my indoor spaces to continue photographing. This year I was determined to change that attitude.

After a little research on how to layer more effectively to stay warm during my outings, I decided to dedicate myself to daily walks with my camera at Chicago Botanic Garden, a place only a few miles from my home where I do most of my flower and botanical photography during the growing season. I also found a woodland area a short walk from my home that was full of interesting subjects. I wasn’t convinced I would persevere, but I was willing to give it a good hardy try. I learned quickly that limiting my gear to one or two lenses made my walks more enjoyable and pushed me to use what I had more creatively. It also eliminated a lot of lens changing in frigid temperatures.

Most of my work is photographed with Lensbaby lenses and I find that the artistic effects and blur of these manual focus lenses helps me to see and capture my subjects in the way they feel to me. A variety of Lensbaby lenses comprise my work during this winter project – the Velvet 56mm, Velvet 85mm, Sol 45mm and the Spark 2.0. These lenses are perfect for photographing using selective focus, employing a shallow depth of field to lead the eye to interesting details and letting the surrounding area go to a beautiful blur.

Rather than looking for the vibrant colors and freshly opened flowers of a spring, summer or fall garden, I was on a mission to discover the more subdued hues of winter, the grace and unique beauty of dying flowers, curling leaves, seed pods, and other interesting remains of the garden. Almost immediately, I was stunned at the beauty I was finding and the way it deeply resonated with me. I began to change my way of thinking about winter and embraced the unique beauty of the garden and woodlands in winter.

Many of the garden areas at Chicago Botanic Garden are left intact during the winter – woodland gardens, the prairie areas, native plant gardens and others – so my subjects have been rich and varied. This focus on capturing the beauty of what remains in the garden in winter unexpectedly became exhilarating, and I couldn’t wait to get out the door each day for these peaceful, reflective winter walks. I have stayed warm and comfortable. I finally learned to invite the winter in and embrace it.

During this time I have been increasingly reflective about the concept of wintering, how we can use this time of winter to rest and also to gain new insights and wisdom. I became captivated by a book I stumbled upon – Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. Just as plants and animals winter and rest, we as humans have a need to slow down, to reflect and to “hibernate.” After the stresses and challenges of this very different and difficult year, I found myself in mid-December feeling exhausted and depleted and needing to rest and refuel. Normally I would plow through that feeling and keep moving, but this year I listened and took my cue from the plants I was increasingly fascinated in capturing. It was time to rest, to reflect, to slow down and give myself the chance to be new again. I allowed myself to sleep more, to dig into books again, to cook hearty meals, to nest, to write, and to enjoy my personal photography. I put aside my “to-do” list for the time and increasingly learned how to say “no, not now.”

No matter the season, I am drawn to capturing the details of nature, the interesting details that are often missed by those walking quickly through a garden or in nature. I look for the unique personality and characteristics reflected in the flowers and subjects I photograph, and I often see stories and emotions in the images I capture, a result of my background as an art therapist. Photographing is my therapy, it is my way of further understanding myself and the feelings that emerge through my subjects.

Employing a slow and mindful approach in the garden, I spend time exploring my subject in-depth and allowing those stories and emotions to emerge. Winter subjects I found to be no different. In fact, I found those stories and emotions emerging in a powerful, raw way. It was as if these subjects were just waiting to be known and appreciated for their unique beauty. I found myself drawn to the graceful curves of a leaf as it dries and curls, the grace of a flower as it does its last dance, and the fascinating transformation of flowers and plants that take on very different appearances in winter. We are a culture that values youth and vitality, but we must also embrace the beauty and wisdom of age. Photographing in winter helps me to see that more clearly. There is such incredible beauty and grace in the garden in winter.

Winter can be a time of clarity and renewal. I have found that the crispness of the air makes the senses more alert and creative thinking flows. There is a quietness, as if nature is resting. The gardens are far quieter and draw fewer visitors than the other seasons, which adds to the sense of peace. Even in winter, however, the cycle of life and hints of renewal are present.

In the fall, as days grow shorter and the temperatures fall, the chlorophyll of the leaves breaks down and fall colors begin to emerge. The cells holding the leaf to the branch begin to break down and weaken, and most leaves eventually dry and fall off. If you observe trees carefully in fall and winter, you will see that even as they drop their leaves, the buds of next year’s leaves are already in place, quietly waiting to emerge in spring. This is part of the cycle of growth, maturity and renewal. Wintering can allow us all to rest, reflect and re-emerge with a sense of renewal, too.

 I look to spring with anticipation and joy, knowing that new growth and color will return to the earth as the snowdrops and crocuses poke their sleepy heads out of the ground. Yet, I will never see winter quite the same again. I will no longer push it away as something to be ignored or complained about, but I will embrace it as a time of rest and renewal, a time to see the earth in a different but equally beautiful part of the growth cycle. Will I feel the need to winter and rest in future years? This year, no doubt, has been like no other for so many of us – a year filled with anxiety, fear, loss and uncertainty. Perhaps the need to pull back will not be as strong as this year, but if the need is there, I know to listen and embrace it. From this year forward I do know that my exploration of the beauty of winter will continue.


Ann, welcome to the NPN community. Thank you so very much for your thoughtful insights and reflections on winter. Your images are a joy to look at again and again, I keep going back and looking again. Your perseverance to “get out there” is an inspiration and I thank you for that also. I am looking forward to more of your photos as the spring thaw nears. Thank you for sharing this amazing portfolio.

Gorgeous images Ann. All your work has such a great sense for shape, texture, line, light… These images show that those sensibilities can be seen and photographed in all sorts of subjects.

Hi, Anne. I LOVE your work, and am pleased to see that you are not letting the pandemic slow you down AT ALL!

This is a wonderful article, giving us macro photographers some hope for the upcoming winter months. I would love to include your article in my photo club’s digital newsletter for February. We are the Schenectady Photographic Society in New York, You can check us (and past newsletters) out at www.spsphoto.org.

I will, of course, give you credit and include your website and the link to the article on the Nature Photographers Network. Thank you for your consideration. And Happy New Year! The best is yet to come.


Thank you so much, Linda, for this lovely comment. I’m so glad the work resonates with you. It is so different from my work during other parts of the year, but this project has definitely been transformative in how I experience winter and the beauty I am finding in the garden. I still have months to go until spring, but I’m looking forward to keeping this up until those first buds poke out of the ground!

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Wow, Anne your photos and words are just beautiful. Great article!

Thank you, Sean! Your comment means a lot to me. It’s crazy that it takes a pandemic to rearrange our thinking about all sorts of things. As difficult a year as it has been and will continue to be, I am grateful for the bits of joy and growth I have found this year. Embracing winter has been a big one!


Welcome to the NPN Anne. Your timing was perfect and this article helped a lot, I live in a desert so everything is kind of dead expect at the gardens. I have been wanting to enter this world of photography and thinking about getting a Lens Baby went back and forth. I am so glad I got on board by getting a Lens Baby Velvet 56. I am learning now the best way to use this lens because I wanted to really get into In Focus photography to get a painterly look. I am looking for backgrounds now to carry with me because even out of focus the background is too complex sometime. I use a tripod and so far it seems like the Lens Baby does all the work because I am not doing much if any post process. Again, thanks much for the post.

Linda, thank you for your wonderful comment! Yes, it’s fine with me to share it - I’d be honored. I’m glad the article gave you hope for the winter months. It’s such a long season here in the Midwest to dismiss it or see it as a time of waiting. I’m so glad to have embraced a new way of looking at winter, and learned how to stay warm!

Thank you, Barbara! It’s been a transformative project for someone who used to hate winter. For those who know my work, these images are very different than my images during other times of the year, but I’m finding it a welcome change and fitting for the season.

Some wonderful images, Anne. You have captured the fine details of Winter’s firm grip on the plants. The detail is beautifully presented. I enjoyed your essay ,also. Thanks !

Thank you so much, Anne. I appreciate it. Spring will be here before you know it . Stay safe and well.

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Thanks for sharing, Ann. I have been shooting a couple of local gardens for the past 3-4 years. Preference for colorful blooms, finding some in the late fall through winter months. But your work here inspired me to go back and look for textures and shapes in place of the “vibrant colors” of spring and summer. I play with DOF - sometimes shallow but most of the time trying to get the whole bloom in focus - sometimes with closing the apperture, sometimes with opening it and using focus stacking. Occassionally I will allow parts of the bloom to be out of the focal area to emphasize a part of the subject as you have done using the Lensbaby lenses, but in my case it is by DOF and not area selective focus. Your eye for directing the eye of the viewer to a specific target area in the image is well-matched with the characteristics of the Lensbaby system. Welcome to NPN!

Thank you, Dean! I’m happy to hear you have begun a love affair with Lensbaby. The Velvet 56mm is the lens that made me fall in love with Lensbaby. Please reach out to me via my website if you ever need guidance with the lens. One of many reasons I love the lenses is that I don’t have to do much post processing. You are right - the lenses do all the work!

Thank you, Stephen! I appreciate your comment and I am glad the article and images resonated with you. Pushing myself to explore photographing in the winter has certainly been transformative.

Anne, I just loved your words in this article. You’ve put on a totally new attitude (and layers of warmth!) towards winter, and your discoveries are beautifully captured in your images. I like the notion of resting, hibernating, saying “no”, and regeneration during the winter. Your photos are so beautiful. Thanks for your super article and beautiful images.

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Greg! I’m glad that my article inspired you to think about capturing the more subdued hues of winter. This body of work is very different from most of my previous work, but I have found this both soothing for the time we are in and eye-opening in embracing the beauty of plants at this stage of their life cycle. I’m not sure it would have happened had it not been for the pandemic. I hope you’ll give it a try and experiment with lots of different ways to capture flowers and plant life.

Mark, so wonderful to see you here! Thank you for your wonderful comment. I’m so glad the article resonated with you. I hope our paths will cross at a conference in 2021. I know I’m ready to travel again!

Loved your shots, Anne. You have peaked my interest in the 56 lensbaby. Haven’t used it for a while. Welcome to NPN and I look forward to more of your work.

Thank you, John! I’m always happy to hear I peaked someone’s interest in using a Lensbaby. Makes my day!