Get Ready For The Cold

Tips, tricks and gear for shooting when the mercury drops
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Think about all of your equipment and be sure it’s ready for the cold. For outer garments, consider what looks good in a photograph in case you want to show a person in the shot. Winter photography is multitasking at its best.


Over the past two decades, I’ve accumulated three years’ worth of time in an unheated tent in the Arctic, including about six months at temperatures from -40° F to -65° F. Cold is no stranger. I’ve fared pretty well—I still have 10 fingers and 10 toes, and I’ve only suffered one mild case of frostbite, when I squeezed a peanut butter sandwich too tightly while eating it. The reduced circulation caused some frostbite in my index finger, but it soon healed. My gear has fared well in the cold, too.

There’s no magic bullet to successful cold-weather photography. It’s about the right equipment and attention to detail. If you’re just going out for a winter walk or day hike, you can keep your camera warm in your jacket or switch batteries to keep them warm. But if you’re living in the cold for weeks at a time, your equipment has to endure the conditions. Not every piece of gear can.


Energizer Lithium Batteries

Batteries. The secret of portable power in winter is lithium batteries, but not just any lithium batteries. Most rechargeable lithium-ion batteries die in the cold. Fortunately, non-rechargeable Energizer lithium AAs work even when the mercury freezes. They power all my accessories: Nikon Speedlight SB-800 flashes, the PocketWizards I use for self-timed expedition imagery, even my Petzl DUO LED 14 headlamp and the supplementary power pack for my iPod.

In a pinch, they also can run cameras like the Nikon D300S and D700, using the optional winder. In general, I avoid electronics that can’t run off AAs.


Nikon EN-EL4a

Canon LP-E4

The standard lithium-ion battery for my D300S and D700, the EN-EL3e, doesn’t work when cold, but the Nikon EN-EL4a pro battery handles even arctic temperatures. (Canon makes a similar all-season battery, the LP-E4, for the Canon EOS-1DS Mark III.) I bring enough EN-EL4as so I don’t have to worry about recharging—nine or 10 of them for a two-month expedition. If I drain them through heavier-than-usual shooting, I dip into my ample stock of lithium AAs.

Why not, you may ask, recharge a single EN-EL4a directly off a car charger that plugs into a solar panel? The 11.1-volt EN-EL4a has too much voltage for a 12-volt car-charger system. That’s why they don’t make car chargers for the EN-EL4a.


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GOALØ Nomad 27M Solar Panel

Recharging these high-voltage puppies in winter can be done, but it’s complicated. Begin with a strong solar panel, such as the GOALØ Nomad 27M Solar Panel, Brunton 14-volt SolarRoll or Solar Blazt Feather 20 or Feather 30 from HumanEdgeTech, a company specializing in expedition electronics. Then you need HumanEdgeTech’s battery, the HET Power 50. The third ingredient is a good inverter, like the Tripp Lite 150. You connect the inverter to the HET battery, plug the standard EN-EL4a charger into the inverter, then charge the EN-EL4a off the HET battery. When the HET battery runs out of power, you can recharge it with the solar panel, as long as the sun isn’t too low. But unless you’re also using the solar panel to charge a lot of other electronics, it’s easier (and weighs less) just to bring enough EN-EL4as.


Gitzo GT2331

Tripods. Many nature photographers prefer a carbon-fiber tripod in the cold, but the legs of my carbon-fiber tripods stick in the cold, so while I love them in summer, for winter use I revert to an aluminum model, the Gitzo GT2331. In subzero temperatures, the hard plastic insulation on the upper legs of my aluminum Gitzo feels almost as cold as bare metal, so I further insulate them with pipe foam.


Really Right Stuff L-Bracket

Ballheads. Below about -20° F, even a good ballhead becomes stiff. With patience it can be moved, but it’s easier to adjust the tripod legs or lens collar. My camera also wears a Really Right Stuff L-Bracket, so I don’t have to wrestle the ballhead to compose vertically.

Storage. I don’t bring storage drives on winter expeditions, but I do carry lots of SanDisk Extreme flash cards; 100 GB of flash cards costs about $700, lasts for years and usually is enough for several weeks. Kingston, Lexar and PNY also make durable memory cards that will last you for years.


San Disk Extreme Pro

Bright Colors. When photographing people in a winter environment, avoid blue or green jackets. Red and yellow are the only way to go. (Trendy colors, like neon green, go out of fashion quickly; in a few years, they look as dated as striped bell-bottoms and four-inch sideburns.) Red works better in sunny weather; yellow pops on overcast days. I have jackets that I give or loan to the people I travel with. I also carry colorful fleece and even a red undershirt so bright clothing is available on warmer days.


Mountain Hardwear Swift Jacket

Wristlets. I used to wear wool wristlets, like those used by the British Army in World War II, under my gloves. (Google British Army wristlets to see what they look like.) They allow me to use thinner gloves and protect the bare wrist area. Eventually, I converted to 300-weight fleece instead of wool. Fleece lasts longer and doesn’t shrink. Just sew a rectangle of fleece into a tube that extends halfway up your forearm and covers the back of your hand, but not your palm. Cut a hole for the thumb and sew two small loops for your index and little fingers. Wristlets add about half a layer of warmth and can fit under any glove.

Glove Choice. Whenever I go into an outdoor store, I try on gloves like my wife tries on shoes in shoe stores—for the fun of it. If one seems promising, I buy a pair to test in the cold. The fingers have to be exactly the right length: Too long, and they flop like clown shoes when you try to press the shutter or work the controls; too short, and the fingers get cold. The gloves can’t be downhill ski gloves—they’re too thick. Ideal is a fleece model, like The North Face Denali glove or Auclair Sport Fleece gloves, that resists wind without actually being Windstopper®. Windstopper® fabric gets boardy in the cold.


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Giottos Q.ball

I use 100-weight stretch liner gloves whenever I can. I also have a pair of custom-made overmitts with a zipper down the side, so I can quickly slip my lightly gloved hands out to take a picture without removing the overmitts. Finally, I snip off the elastic that tightens the wrists on many gloves. As I learned while eating that peanut butter sandwich, even the slightest restriction of circulation has a big effect in winter.

Moleskin Insulation. It’s easier to handle today’s plastic cameras in winter than metal bodies, but cold plastic still bites through thin gloves. Before a long trip, I insulate my cameras by covering the areas I touch with moleskin. Apply the moleskin before going into the cold: Moleskin glue freezes and doesn’t stick. If you want something similar that adheres in the cold, use Spenco’s Adhesive Knit; its medical-quality glue works even at -40° F. My metal thermos and the back of my watch are also upholstered with moleskin.


Giottos Rocket Blower

Hold Your Breath. Shooting in the cold requires breath control. If you breathe when looking through the viewfinder, you’ll fog the eyepiece and LCD screen. When you exhale, exhale downwind.

Store Outside. When winter camping, the air in the tent gets humid from breathing, and it’s always at least 10° F warmer in a tent. To avoid condensation, I leave my gear in the vestibule or outside by the door, in the camera bag. Where I travel, theft isn’t an issue. Polar bears are more interested in the food in my sled than in my camera bag.

White Dust. When it’s very cold, snow doesn’t behave like water. It’s simply white dust, so no need to rub snow off your lens with a cloth or tissue. The warmth of rubbing and even your gloved fingers holding the cloth will melt the snow and cause it to streak. Just carry a soft brush and whisk away the flakes. Always hold your breath when working near the camera.

Hot Air Rising. When screwing on or removing a filter, never hold it from underneath; the warm air from even a gloved hand rises and can frost up a cold filter. Instead, position the camera with the lens pointing up and screw the filter on from above.

Jerry Kobalenko’s latest book is Arctic Eden. Visit www.kobalenko.com.

3 Comments

    I’ll definitely 2nd the Energizer Lithiums as the go to battery in the cold. But I’ve also used my EN-EL3e with the D300 down to negative degrees with no problem. It’s also a cinch to charge them back up again with the Brunton Solar Roll even on overcast days.

    Thank you, my AA Battery Brother!

    I have taken a lot of flak from other photogs who scoff at my “non-brand-proprietary” batteries.

    This article echos exactly why I have steered toward cameras that take AA batteries (I shoot almost exclusively Pentax equipment), and the 8x Lithium Energizers are the best that I have found. I promise I’m not a product rep, but they REALLY are superior.

    Great article!

    Chris

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