Shooting photos during the winter months can be an extremely rewarding experience, but only if you are prepared to handle the elements. Here are my tips on shooting photos in cold weather.
For me living in the Northeast (Princetown, NY) doesn’t afford me the ability to shoot in perfect conditions, like where the temps are ideal because the sun is abundant about 62 days a year, give or take. The remaining days are typically cold and wet. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most beautiful areas of the country. That being said, when the spring and summer seasons come to a close many photographers put their cameras on the shelf and hibernate, awaiting the sweet glory of warmer air.
Understandably, the cold winter months are a great time to catch up on your photo editing and learning new techniques via blogs (lol) and videos. However, when you abandon shooting for the winter months you are giving up a tremendous opportunity to capture some stunning imagery which expands your portfolio in addition to becoming more in tune with your camera gear.
I have this article broken into 3 sections
If you’re cold, your photography will suffer
First things first, keeping warm. The first problem that many people face when they calculate what to wear on their photo adventures is underestimating the amount of time that you are standing still. Cold weather photography is typically, in my experience, a little slower paced than traditional weather photography. Sometimes icy or snowy conditions make it harder to maneuver. With that being said, don’t anticipate that the winter clothing that you wear on a quick day hike will be the same that you need for shooting photos in these cold conditions. If your body is feeling the cold, you’re probably not looking for the composition that will give you that drop dead image.
As your parents may have told you when you were little, dress in layers. Depending on the various conditions, I tend to have a set standard of clothes when I go out shooting. All of these are available in men’s and women’s sizes.
Critical for survival – well that’s a little extreme, how about critical to being comfortable.
I recommend a set of thermals like Duofold Mid Weight Wicking Bottom and the Duofold Mid Weight Wicking Crew Neck Top. Having this base is the main defense in keeping your core warm and safe.
This layer should be thinner to help you absorb the sweat but retain the heat like a Dri Power Crewneck Sweatshirt. I find that my legs are okay with the thermal layer and a good pair of hiking pants like these Mountain Khakis Men’s Alpine Utility Pants, but any good quality pants should work. When you’re moving your legs are generating a lot of heat and when you’re still they are less likely to go cold first. Please do me a favor and don’t wear jeans; they are horrible for flexibility and breath ability.
This would be your winter jacket. I recommend a weather-proof version such as a Heavy Insulated Parka Coat.
Additionally, if you are planning on being out for a long time I would recommend that you bring a pair of polarized sunglasses. The glasses will help with the reflection of the sun on the snow and help you overcome squinting, which can lead to headaches.
For your Hands :
I recommend you have a pair of open fingered gloves which make adjusting your camera’s controls extremely easy. However, make sure that your exposed fingers can be covered again. Fingerless gloves are convenient but unless they cover back up they are useless. I recommend a pair like these unisex Alki’i Thermal Insulation Fingerless Work Gloves.
For your Feet :
Boots: I use a pair of Thinsulate boots and I can’t tell you how much it makes a difference in my warmth. I recommend the Columbia Bugaboot Snow Boot (I have the black/charcoal version) and of course a good pair of SmartWool Mountaineering Extra Heavy Crew Socks.
I also recommend that you bring a backpack with some extra food and water just in case. Furthermore, you can use the pack to hold your gear if it gets too warm. It’s easy enough to take your jacket off or hats and gloves but you don’t want them dangling around your waist.
Keeping your camera and gear going is the next challenge.
Rain and Snow:
Don’t let the snow and the rain keep you from shooting. Most quality DSLR cameras can hold up to some minor drizzle or snow. However, if you find that you want that perfect shot when it’s raining or snowing (sleeting) I recommend that you use a Rainsleeve. They are so cheap and they work so well. It’s a great investment at $6.50.
Be aware that your tripod is going to get cold, so make sure you don’t carry it in your hands. The metal or carbon fiber will only make your hands ache. I’ve seen people wrap their sticks in foam or some other material but I have an easy solution. Strap it to your bag or use one of the bags that you get with a folding chair (like for sporting events). Those work great as an over-the-shoulder tripod holder and most people have one laying around.
As you may know, batteries are not a big fan of the cold so they “WILL” deplete faster if they get colder and will not be as reliable. But you can rewarm them and bring them back if you ever encounter cold drain. Also certain battery types drain faster than others, but all batteries are good to at least -10 degrees.
What I have found to work really well is to get a Small Watertight Box to hold your batteries (including the battery in your camera before you shoot) and use “hand warmers”. These inexpensive little guys will do magic for your batteries. While they do get warm, they are never hot enough to cause any issues with your batteries. I like to put them in the box with a piece of cardboard or foam separating the hand warmers from the batteries.
If you are going to be in really cold weather (under 20 degrees) or capturing long exposure/time-lapse shots or for that matter, you find yourself with your camera on a tripod for a long time, you may want to keep your lens warm by attaching a simple hand warmer to your lens with a rubber-band. This helps not only the glass in the lens but the mirror in your DSLR from fogging up.
You may also want to include a lens hood as the bright sun on the snow has a tendency to make unwanted lens flares. This will wash out your image.
Some photographers like to have a polarizing lens on their camera shooting photos in the winter. But I think while it will give you a sky with enhanced blue tones, it tends to remove the reflections on snow and ice.
Bringing your cold gear in from the shoot:
When you have decided that the cold is too much or that you’ve got the best shots of the day, it’s about time to come in or get back in the warm car. BUT before you do, I recommend that you put your camera (while you are out in the cold weather) in a very large freezer bag and seal it up. This way you create a small micro-climate for your camera to acclimate to the change in temp. This also eliminates the condensation that would normally fog up your camera including the lens and the LCD in addition to your internal components. While you will get condensation on the outside of the bag, the inside will be perfect. You can leave your camera in there until the outside of the bag dries up.
Capturing terrific winter photography
Taking winter scene shots is not as easy as it seems. In some situations, your camera is blinded by the intense white, which in turn causes your photos to be underexposed. Then you have the problem of shooting landscapes and the sky gets blown out. The fact is, you can’t trust your camera’s metering. You need to harness the manual mode and become one with your camera.
I would recommend that you adjust your exposure compensation by +0.3 or +0.6. This will even out the snow and the white.
Paying some attention to your on-camera histogram may help alleviate this problem. If you’re not familiar with analyzing your histogram, search Google and catch up.
For the sake of all things holy, shoot in “RAW Mode”- you obtain the most flexibility and the absolute control over your imagery this way. Adjusting your white balance and tonal adjustments are a breeze when you shoot in RAW Mode. I can’t even think of why you would consider anything different.
Be aware of your frozen breath clouding up your imagery. I like to breathe into my shirt when I’m shooting to avoid the ghosting of your breath in your imagery.
Don’t allow your footsteps to ruin the shot, or should I say, don’t let it give you a ton of editing in Photoshop when you get home.
Remember that a white cat sitting on a white fence in a snowstorm is boring. Search out the contrast, and find elements that will bring your photo to life. A simple branch in the foreground or a tree stump poking out from the snow will do it.
In my cold conclusion
There is nothing like being out in the winter taking amazing photos. With a little prep and some minor tweaks to your typical outing, you will find that it’s almost as rewarding as getting sunburn, bit by mosquitoes, and dealing with spiders and snakes during the humid summer. Hmm, I think I hear my next blog post calling.
If you have any addition tips to add I welcome you to comment below!