It’s winter, and baby it’s cold outside. If you live where it’s warm, go with the flow. When it’s cold, it’s a perfect time to get out and photograph! “A perfect time, you say? The weather is COLD!” That’s right, it’s cold. Snow may cover the ground, ponds may be iced over, and carbon dioxide may permeate the air with every exhale. With this in mind, I want to provide a few cold weather photography tips to motivate you to get out in the field with your gear, test it out and hopefully come back with some great shots. One great photo will encourage you to return to the frost-filled environment in which you reside to go out again and again.
Keep What’s White, White: Camera meters are calibrated to reproduce 18% gray. It will unnecessarily darken bright snow. You don’t want to make it gray. Although today’s cameras are extremely intelligent, it doesn’t mean they’re always correct. All DSLRs have exposure compensation capability. When you dial in + compensation, you instruct the camera to brighten the exposure. When you dial in - compensation, you instruct the camera to darken the scene. In that the camera will try to darken white snow, enable exposure compensation and dial in + compensation. The amount will be dictated by each scene. Here’s where the histogram and highlight warning come in handy. If pixels on the right side of the histogram are lacking, which will be seen on the LCD as gray snow, dial in + compensation until the histogram moves more to the right. If no “blinkies” flash, dial in + compensation until they do and then back off slightly. More than likely, the best exposure will be the one just before you produce the “blinkies.” If for some reason you get blinkies from the start, dial in - compensation until they disappear.
Appropriate Clothing: Start with a breathable base layer that wicks moisture. Outer layers should have a zipper that allows you to moderate the temperature. Wear a hat with good insulating qualities. A base layer for your feet is very important. Fleece socks work well as do silk sock liners. Chemical packs for your hands or feet work well. With heavy gloves you won’t be able to operate the dials on your camera. Instead, start with a thin glove liner over which you layer a fold-back mitten. It gives you the ability to keep just your shutter finger exposed. When it gets cold, place it in the fold-back mitten pocket that also houses the chemical warming pack. Carry extra batteries for your camera and keep them close to your body to keep them warm. The more comfortable you are, the longer you’ll stay out in the field.
Tripod Prep: Make your tripod comfortable to handle. If you have a metal tripod, create a climate barrier. This can be done a number of ways. Fasten pipe insulation around the legs where it’s handled. It can be found in hardware stores and it’s cheap. It also provides a cushion when you rest the tripod on your shoulder. There are companies that make fancy pads that come in different camo patterns and are custom fit to specific tripods. Tape a hand warmer to the tripod to provide an additional climate barrier. Make sure all the handles and levers are in good working order as the cold makes working them more difficult. If there are any sand or dirt particles hanging them up in room temperature, they’re sure to wreak havoc in the cold. If you need to tune the tripod up, get cold weather grease recommended by the manufacturer. When you position your tripod in soft snow, stability and sinking leg issues arise. Some photographers force the legs into the snow, but this presents two problems. The depth at which the tripod sinks results in lost height. The photographer has to sit or kneel in the snow, which adds to the discomfort. The other issue is the legs of the tripod are now surrounded by snow, which transfers the cold. A solution comes in the form of tripod “snowshoes.” They strap to the foot and form a large surface area that makes it difficult for the legs to sink. The set I have is made by Manfrotto and they’re called All Weather Tripod Shoes.
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