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Monday, September 1, 2008

Dust & Snow: Shooting In Extreme Conditions


From the Arctic to the Serengeti, global nature photographer Daniel J. Cox shares his tips for taking images in extreme weather conditions

This Article Features Photo Zoom

dust & snow
Masai giraffe travel across Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve in the heat of Africa.
A Thomson’s gazelle herd waits out a pounding rain in the Masai Mara Game Reserve.
The wind is howling—not sure of the speed exactly, but the weather report suggested gusts of 30 mph or more with a wind chill in the area of -50º F. Wind chill is an understatement when the ambient temperature is already -30º F. The word “chill” seems a little underhyped. It has been two hours, and I’m still kneeling in the icy snow, my kneecaps starting to feel like frozen saucers. I’m bundled in a parka, wearing heavy goose-down pants, boots the size of orange crates and gloves stuffed with hand warmers.

Just days earlier it was a different story. A ball cap replaced my hood, a T-shirt took the place of my parka, shorts substituted for down outerwear, and the only wind I was worrying about was tropical in nature and most often considered a breeze. The temperature was in the low to mid-80s, and the subjects were more plentiful. I was on an African safari, and my biggest concern was the Kenyan government’s problems with their recent election.

Working as a traveling natural-history journalist, I often move from one extreme to the next. I’ve been asked more than once, how does your body adapt? Equally as important is how I prepare my photography equipment for such incredibly extreme climate changes. The answer? Knowledge. Know the conditions in which you’ll be shooting. It sounds simple, but I’ve been on more than one trip where I’ve talked to people who had no idea how cold it might get and how difficult photography was when they were freezing.

Equipment Considerations

Let’s start with cold weather. It doesn’t have to be Canada. In fact, much of the information I plan to share here was originally put together for our workshop participants who joined us in Yellowstone this past winter. Yellowstone can get just as cold as my recent trip to Hudson Bay, Canada, and much of the gear I had in Canada I also brought to Yellowstone.

When shooting on snow, I’m constantly referring to my histogram. Exposing for snow in the days of film was always a bit tricky. It shouldn’t be any longer. Make sure the right side of your histogram isn’t climbing and moving out of the right side of the histogram graph. If there’s lots of snow in the photo, the peak of your histogram should be weighted heavily to the right, but not off the chart. This will give you true whites with detail.

Cold temperatures kill batteries fast. I tested my Nikon D300 battery by placing it in my home freezer. The inside freezer temp was -20º F. I placed a completely charged battery in the freezer, bringing it out and inserting it into a camera every 15 minutes. Within 45 minutes, the battery registered dead even without use. However, once I warmed the battery, it registered full. When I’m in the field photographing subjects such as the Northern Lights, I carry two to three extra batteries in my inside pants pocket, keeping them warm. When the camera battery starts to fail, I swap it out with a warm one from my pocket.

Shooting in cold temperatures causes serious problems if the camera and lenses are brought into a warm environment, like a lodge, without protection. The issue is condensation. I use large plastic garbage bags for my larger telephotos and smaller Ziploc® bags for the shorter lenses. I make sure the lenses and cameras are placed in the bags while I’m still outside.

Then I place them in my Lowepro backpack, which acts somewhat like a cooler, allowing the equipment to warm slowly. The gradual warming, along with the plastic bags, saves the equipment from the ravages of condensation inside and out. Additionally, I carry a small one-inch-wide paintbrush for dusting snow off lenses and bodies before I put them back in the gear bag.

Many shooters who work in the cold suggest changing the lubrication on a tripod’s leg locks. My Gitzo doesn’t use any grease, and the leg locks are designed to operate properly in the cold without lubricants. Check with your manufacturer before you delve into lubrication.

dust & snow
dust & snow
Photographer Daniel J. Cox shoots in the extreme cold of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. A mother polar bear and her cubs play near Cape Churchill in winter.

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