For those of us in the northern hemisphere, it is that time of year again. The time when the earth’s axial tilt keeps the sun at a lower angle in the sky, the days are shorter, and the temptation to stay inside is greater. When the temperatures drop and the cold wind is blowing, it can be difficult to get motivated to go out shooting. However, there are a few things you can do to get your gear and yourself prepared and make cold weather photography a little more enjoyable.
1. Keep Batteries Warm
It’s probably no secret to anyone that batteries seem to discharge faster when temperatures are colder. I’ve especially noticed this with the smaller batteries in my mirrorless Fuji camera. The thing is, batteries don’t necessarily discharge faster when the temperature drops. Instead, the chemical reaction that keeps the juice flowing to our camera just doesn’t work as well when it is cold. Something about atoms and electrons and other scientific things that I won’t go into. The trick is to keep those batteries as warm as possible for as long as possible when you are out shooting.
First of all, make sure you have at least a couple of extra batteries and be sure that all the batteries are fully charged before venturing out into the elements. I realize that the big name brand batteries for your camera can be expensive, but you don’t have to use those. I’ve had great luck with third party battery brands for my Fuji X-T1 and Canon 5D Mark III, and they are a fraction of the cost. Don’t be suckered into thinking that all your camera accessories have to be from that camera’s manufacturer.
Once your batteries are charged, put the extras in a pocket that will be close to your body. The heat that you generate will keep the batteries relatively warm and ready for duty when you need them. On a long hike, you may even consider keeping your camera in a backpack or camera bag until you are ready to start shooting. Some folks use a rubber band to attach a hand warmer to their camera to keep the battery compartment warm. I’ve never tried that method, but think that just having plenty of extra batteries to swap out would be most convenient.
Finally, as you are swapping out batteries, place the exhausted batteries into a different pocket than the ones that are fully charged. I sometimes forget to do this and find myself wondering which battery is the one that is charged. A lot of times, a battery that is exhausted will still have charge. After it has had some time to warm up, you could put it back into the rotation.
2. Dress for Success
Let’s face it, the more comfortable you are, the more creative you will be, and the more fun you will have. Wearing the proper clothing for the weather conditions is essential, especially when the temperatures drop into the nether regions. Being cold, wet, and miserable is no fun, and will likely result is a shortened shoot and missed shots. Nick Page discussed this very topic on the November 17, 2016 Tripod Podcast.
There are a few basic guidelines to consider when dressing for cold weather photography. First, keep yourself dry; second, take care of your core; and third, cotton is killer. Let’s talk about the third one first, mainly because it ties the other two together. Avoid cotton clothing to the extent possible. From the layer next to your skin to the outer shell, look for clothing that has good insulating properties, wicks away moisture, and is comfortable to wear. Cotton is great for lounging around the house or a night out on the town, but is not what you want for cold outdoor adventures. The biggest problem with cotton is that once it gets wet, it stays wet. That means you are wet and will eventually get cold. For instance, you may be hiking in to a shoot and work up a sweat while walking. When you arrive and stop moving, you begin to get chilled because the cotton layer remains wet and no longer insulates you from the cold.
The key is to dress in layers. That makes it easy to shed a layer if you get too hot or add on when it really gets cold. The number and type of layers will vary with temperature and the person, so experiment to see what works well for you. As a general rule of thumb, the base layer for top and bottom should be something synthetic that wicks moisture and dries quickly. On my top half, I like to wear a light vest over the base layer to keep my core warm. Over the vest goes a waterproof/windproof shell to keep water out and ward off the cold wind. If it is really cold, I’ll add a layer of fleece over the vest. In order to regulate core temperature, it is nice to have an outer shell with “pit zips”. As the name implies, these are essentially zippers located in the armpit area. They can be opened to allow heat and perspiration to escape and keep your core dry and prevent overheating. On the bottom half, wear a good pair of shell pants over the base layer. The pants may be water/wind proof, depending on the climate you are in, but should not be made of cotton (i.e., jeans are a no-no).
Keeping the extremities warm can be a challenge and is very important. Wear a hat that is appropriate for the climate. Something windproof is usually a good idea. In really cold conditions, I will wear a wind-blocking face mask. You can always remove the hat to vent. For your feet, make sure to wear socks that adhere to the no-cotton rule as well. Merino wool works really well. Boots may need to be waterproof, again depending on where you are. Regardless, make sure the boots have enough insulation to keep your feet warm while you are standing around shooting. I’ll cover gloves in the next section.
3. Wear Good Gloves
This one is a biggie, which is why I decided to give gloves their own section in this article. For me, the fingers are the most challenging thing to keep warm while out shooting in extreme cold weather. Everything else may be fine, but if (or when) the fingers get cold, staying comfortable becomes much more difficult. It seems to be impossible to find gloves that have enough insulation to keep your hands warm while at the same time allowing enough dexterity to operate your camera’s controls. One thing that works pretty well is to use a thin liner glove made of synthetic or wool material, with a good insulated mitten on top. That way, you can keep the mittens on when not shooting and take one off when you need to manipulate the camera. It would still be nice to have a single glove that could do it all.
There are a few photography-specific gloves that have done a good job of providing a solution to this predicament. One of the more popular are the Aquatech Sensory Gloves. However, a newer player entered this game a couple of years ago. Vallerret, out of Norway, really hit the ground running with the introduction of their photography gloves via a successful Kickstarter campaign. Nick Page did reviews of both the Aquatech and Vallerret gloves.
Vallerret did just release some new glove models to their lineup. I have a pair of the new Markhof Pro Model gloves on the way. Watch for a full review of these gloves in a future article.
4. Let Your Gear Acclimate
Going from a warm house or car, out into to the cold, and back in again can be hard on your gear. The sudden temperature changes can cause condensation on the outside and inside of lenses and camera bodies. That can be a potentially bad thing. Try your best to plan ahead to avoid this from happening. If possible, at least 30 minutes before heading outside to shoot, set your camera bag with camera and lenses in it outside to get acclimated. Alternatively, do some hiking around first before taking the gear out of the bag. The key is to let it cool down slowly and to keep it covered to prevent the development of moisture. If you don’t allow time for the gear to acclimate, the lens is going to fog up and you won’t be able to start shooting anyway.
On the flip side, the same precautions should be taken when coming back inside after being out shooting in the cold for a while. I like to carry a gallon size zip-lock bag with me. Before coming in, I place the camera and lens in the bag and seal it. This will cause the condensation to form on the outside of the bag instead of on your gear. Another option is to just put everything into your camera bag. When you get inside, place the bag in a cooler place so everything inside can warm up slowly. Allow up to an hour or two for the gear inside to reach room temperature before removing from the bag.
Bonus Tip: Remove the memory card from your camera before placing it into the bag. That way, you will have the card to start downloading and editing images right away while the rest of your gear is stashed away.
5. Be a Snowtographer, But Watch Your Exposure
This tip is primarily geared toward when you are shooting outside when there is snow on the ground. A blanket of snow can really brighten up a landscape. In fact, it will fool the camera into thinking it is brighter than it really is. When this happens, the camera’s meter may indicate a correct exposure, when in fact the image will be underexposed. Snow in the underexposed image will look gray or dingy instead of white.
While you are out shooting, take time to check the images on the LCD and evaluate the histogram. You may need to add some exposure compensation or adjust one of the exposure triangle values to get a properly exposed image. In the image below, note that in the original on the left, the snow looks gray and the overall scene looks underexposed. In the corrected image on the right, I added one stop of exposure in Lightroom to make the snow and the scene look the way it did to my eye when the image was captured.
6. Protect Your Gear
Protecting your camera gear is never a bad idea. Even if you are using cameras and lenses that have weather sealing, it is still good to take some precautions. If snow, or some other wintery precipitation is falling on your gear, it could melt enough to get down into the cracks and crevices on the camera body and lens mount. It may not seem like much, and a little most likely won’t cause any issues, but over long periods of exposure, there could be enough accumulation to cause problems. Something like the Op/Tech Rain Sleeve works great to provide protection, and comes in different sizes to accommodate a variety of cameras and lenses. They are inexpensive, easy to use, and take up virtually no space in your camera bag. There aren’t many things in photography that fits that description.
7. Insulate Your Tripod
This one applies especially if you use an aluminum tripod. Aluminum is a great conductor of cold, and you’ll really notice it on a cold day out in the field. I won’t “triple-dog dare ya” to touch your tongue to a tripod leg to prove my point. When your tripod is cold and you are carrying or adjusting it, some of that cold is going to be transferred to your hands. One great way to combat this is to wrap the upper portion of each tripod leg with foam pipe insulation. It can be purchased at about any hardware store and cut to fit just right. Attach it to the tripod legs using duct tape or zip ties. Your hands will thank you.
8. Take Advantage of Great Light
During the winter, the sun stays much lower in the sky than during the summer months. The lower angle means less harsh and more pleasing light throughout the day. The best times to shoot landscapes will still be in the morning and late afternoon, but you might be able to get away with shooting later into the day.
9. Stay Hydrated
The need to stay hydrated is not as apparent in winter because the body’s thirst response is greatly diminished and we are tricked into thinking we aren’t losing fluids. However, we are still sweating under all that clothing. It just happens to be wicking away and drying quickly (assuming you aren’t wearing cotton!). If you are going to be out for some time, and especially if you are hiking, be sure to take along a water bottle or two. To keep the bottles from freezing carry them in a pack that is close to the body. Alternatively, carry a bottle in an insulated pouch on your belt for easy access. Place the bottle upside down in the pouch to prevent the top from freezing.
10. Wear Skin and Eye Protection
A clear, sunny day makes for some extremely bright conditions if there is snow on the ground. It can literally be blinding if you don’t take the necessary precautions. In fact, prolonged exposure of unprotected eyes to the sun can cause a condition known as photokeratitis, aka “snow blindness”. This condition is much the same as getting a sunburn on your skin, except the burn is to your cornea. There doesn’t have to be snow to cause this condition; however, snow does reflect about 80 percent of the UV rays from the sun, so it is a very real concern. I suffered a minor bout of snow blindness hiking in the Rocky Mountains this past summer, and it wasn’t fun. To prevent it, be sure to wear a pair of sunglasses that block 100 percent of the sun’s UV rays.
It is also quite possible to get a nasty sunburn while out shooting in the snow. It doesn’t necessarily have to be clear and sunny either. I know this from experience as well. Cover any exposed skin with a good sunblock and be sure to reapply every couple of hours, or as necessary.
11. BONUS: Winter is Great for Astrophotography
The Milky Way may not be visible during the winter, but it is still a great time to try out some star trails. On cold winter nights, the air is generally clearer and doesn’t have all the heat waves that are present during the warmer seasons. Assuming that you use good technique, you’ll notice your images look cleaner and more crisp. Snow on the ground will also help to brighten up your foreground. Another plus is that you won’t need to worry about those pesky mosquitoes or other bugs.
So there you have it. Don’t let the cold winter weather keep you from getting outside to do some shooting. As they say, sometimes the best images are made when the weather is at its worst. With some preparation and planning, you can get out there and shoot regardless of the weather. And have a great time doing it.