For landscape photographers, and others who do most of their photography outdoors, creating great images can become more challenging when the mercury dips below freezing. Not only do frigid cold temperatures make it more difficult to get motivated to go outside, but it is just so much more cumbersome when you do get out. How can you get yourself out of the warm, cozy house and into nature when the weather isn't very conducive to doing so? When you do go out, what are some things you can do to increase the chances of creating successful images?
When the weather outside is frightfully cold, there are three primary variables to consider to ensure a successful outing. First, and most importantly, make sure you and your body are prepared for the elements. Secondly, make sure your gear is up to the task of performing in what may be more than typically demanding conditions. Finally, be aware of the specific challenges presented by wintry weather and how to compose and dial in your camera to create amazing images.
The fall color is gone, most of the leaves are off the trees, days are short, and temperatures are plummeting. However, with some careful preparation and a little bit of practice, you'll have no problem getting out there, no matter what the weather. And you will have fun!
Bottom line: if you are warm and comfortable, you will stay out longer, and your images will be much better. Nothing can cut a landscape shoot short faster than being under-dressed for the conditions. Proper dress will go a long way to make sure you get the images you want and get a whole lot more enjoyment out of the experience. Of course, there are other variables that are out of your control that could make or break a shoot. So take control of what you can to maximize potential. This means head to toe, inside and out.
Dress in layers
Everyone has probably heard this one, but it's worth a reminder here. It's also worth mentioning that not everyone has the same tolerance for cold. Some people may bundle up when it's 30 degrees while others may be fine with a light jacket. Get to know what works for you by experimenting with different materials and layering strategies. Once your wardrobe is dialed in, you will know just what to wear with a quick look at the weather forecast.
One important note is to avoid cotton at all costs in cold weather, especially as a base layer. The key is to wick moisture (i.e. perspiration) away from your skin and direct it outward to escape the outer layers. Cotton absorbs moisture, will stay wet, and eventually make you colder. Polypropylene works great for me as a base layer, but wool is another good option.
A pair of nylon or similar material pants and mid-weight fleece works well for me as a second layer. Depending on the temperature and wind, that may be enough. If it is really windy and/or snowy and wet, then a wind-proof and water proof shell will round out my layers. If it's really cold (for me, below 10 degrees F), a wind-proof vest may be added under the fleece or a down jacket under the shell.
Keep hands and feet warm
This is probably the biggest challenge, at least for me. Cold fingers and toes are no fun, and can definitely take you out of a shoot both mentally and physically. There are tons of options for gloves, some of them being photography-specific. Since you need to operate the camera, the gloves will need to provide enough dexterity to do that. I've had good results with a pair of Vallerret Markhof Pro photography gloves for temperatures down to about 20 degrees F. For colder temperatures, I use a liner glove with a thick over-mitt, and just remove the mitt briefly when operating the camera. Another good option is to keep chemically-activated hand warmers in the pocket of your shell and put your hands in on occasion to warm them up.
A good pair of boots is just as important, if not more so, than good gloves. There are tons of choices, but you'll want some that provide good support for hiking on uneven and rough terrain to get off the beaten path. Boots that are waterproof and have ample insulation for the temperatures are also important. When lots of hiking is in order and it's not too cold, I love my Asolo Fugitives. For more frigid temperatures or lots of snow, and if you're not hiking long distances, these Sorels are hard to beat.
Stay hydrated (and bring a snack)
Staying well hydrated and nourished will help you stay warm and keep you feeling good when it's cold outside. You may not feel thirsty, but be sure to drink plenty of fluids. Bring along a water bottle if you're going to be out for a while. Bring something to snack on, too. The old adage “drink before you're thirsty and eat before you're hungry” applies here. You'll feel a lot better for it.
Most DSLR and mirrorless cameras are very durable and will not likely have any issues performing in harsh winter conditions. The fact is, you are likely to give in long before your gear will. However, there are a few things to help keep everything functioning well and prevent possible damage.
Beware of condensation
You know how if you take a glass of ice water outside on a hot, humid, summer day, condensation forms on the outside of the glass? The same thing will happen to your camera and lenses when coming back into a warm house after being outside in the cold. That can be bad news for your gear. The trick is to prevent the condensation from forming in the first place. I've tried a couple of different techniques that worked well for this. One way is to place all the camera gear back in the bag before taking it back inside. Then leave it there for at least a half hour so that it warms up to room temperature slowly. Another way is to bring along a sealable plastic back. Make sure it is large enough to fit your camera and lens. After shooting, place the camera and lens in the bag, seal it, and bring it indoors. As the camera warms up, the condensation will form on the outside of the bag instead of on your gear.
Throw in a towel
Pack a towel or two in your camera bag before heading out into the elements. If snow is falling, a towel is useful to help protect the camera and wipe it down if it gets wet. For an added layer of protection, just keep the camera covered. Also, bring along a microfiber cloth to use in case you need to wipe off the lens element or filter.
Bring plenty of batteries
Guess what? Batteries really don't like the cold either. As a battery gets cold, the chemical processes inside that make it power your camera slow down. This happens at a much faster rate when it is cold, and batteries will lose their ability to power devices even when they aren't being used. When you head out for a long day of cold weather shooting, make sure your batteries are fully charged and bring plenty of extras. If you use a mirrorless camera, this goes double for you. Not only that, but keep the spare batteries as warm as possible. Placing them in an inside pocket close to your body will help immensely. Whatever you do, don't leave them in the cold camera bag. You may find that when it's time to switch, all the batteries are too cold to use. In a pinch, if you run out of batteries and are in need of a little more power, try warming up the battery in your pocket for a while. This may get the chemical processes going again and give you enough power to finish the shoot.
OK, so you've taken care of yourself and your gear is ready to go. Now is the time to focus (pun intended) on creating the images. Certain winter conditions can present challenges that you don't encounter when shooting summertime landscapes. Being familiar with your camera and how the winter scene affects the meter will help you to make the images you want.
Keep the scene “clean”
Picture this: a field of freshly fallen snow, a single tree to anchor the composition, and fantastic light. The last thing you want to do is to walk right through the scene and leave footprints to ruin the image. Plan ahead. Know your route before you go and make sure it won't ruin an otherwise perfect composition. After you get the image of the virgin landscape, then you could experiment with creating a trail for a leading line. Until then, keep a clean slate in front of your camera.
Keep the snow white
Shooting snowy landscapes can be tricky. The bright white blanket of snow will trick the camera's meter into thinking it needs to underexpose the image, and make the white snow look gray. This can be fixed to some degree in post-processing, but it's best to get the exposure right in camera. To accomplish this, you will likely need to use exposure compensation to brighten the scene and keep the snow looking like snow. Count on at least one full stop and go from there. Review the image on the LCD and check the histogram to make sure you are exposing the image to the right as much as possible without blowing out any highlights. Once you get it dialed in, you should be good unless the light changes dramatically.
Stay out longer
One of the great things about the winter season is the low angle of the sun. That means the light is less harsh, even in the middle of the day. Granted, the best light is still going to be in the early morning or right around sunset, but you may still be able to create some great images the rest of the day as well. Stay out longer and see what the day brings. Snow on the ground acts as a giant reflector that can work great for doing portraits or macro photography.