Cold, ice, snow, wind—these are just some of the challenging conditions presented to a nature photographer in winter. If you can endure and overcome these challenges, the rewards are many. To keep you and your gear protected and up to full creative potential, there's a variety of winter photography gear available. Here are some tips and suggestions that will enhance the success of your winter photography.
1) Plan Your Outing
It's always wise to plan a photo outing, but it's especially important when heading into harsh winter conditions. Search online for information about your intended location. Before you walk out the door, check the weather forecast and road conditions. A plan— don't leave home without it!
2) Non-Photo Essentials
When you head into the field—again, especially in harsh conditions—be sure to bring water, food, a first-aid kit, a flashlight or headlamp, and your fully charged cell phone. If you're venturing far from your car, area maps and a compass will be helpful. (Also see section #19 on GPS.) If you're staying in a motel, bring chargers for your gear; if working from your vehicle, car chargers can be invaluable.
3) Test Your Gear
Before going into the field, check all of your gear. Make sure everything works properly. If you live in a cold area, see how your camera and lenses handle that. Most DSLRs are rated for temperatures from 0º-40° C (32º-104° F), although current Pentax DSLRs (and some high-end mirrorless cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and Fujifilm X-T1) are rated down to -10° C (14° F), but many have been used successfully in colder temperatures. If you can test how your camera handles cold temperatures before going to your location, so much the better. Regardless of temperature, make sure the camera, lenses, flash unit and any other items operate properly before taking them afield.
4) Bring Backups
Nothing can ruin a location shoot more than having your only camera or lens break down. Take backup gear—a spare camera body (or a waterproof compact; see section #12), a spare lens, certainly spare batteries and memory cards.
Anyone who has shot in cold weather knows fingers are very vulnerable to the cold, and you've likely discovered that it's hard to control settings on a camera while wearing heavy gloves. Special photographers' gloves provide protection while being thin enough to allow you to operate your camera. Some have fingertip covers that can be opened briefly to allow you to open the battery-compartment door, change memory cards or make camera settings, then resealed to continue providing warmth. Freehands Stretch Thinsulate gloves are waterproof and windproof, with a silicon grip to prevent the camera from slipping, and thumb and index finger tips that can be opened and sealed, as needed. Arri Crew gloves, Isotoner smarTouch 3 Finger Matrix Nylon gloves and SetWear Cold Weather gloves are other options designed with the photographer in mind.
6) Prevent Condensation
If you move gear from a cold environment (outside) to a warm one (indoors), or vice versa, condensation can form on the surfaces, outer and internal. To prevent this, put your gear (camera and lens) in an appropriate-sized plastic bag like a Ziploc® type. Let the gear inside the bag warm or cool to the ambient temperature, and there should be no condensation problems. Silica gel packets in the bags will provide even more protection against condensation. You can recharge moist silica gel packs by placing them in a warm oven for a few minutes. Note: Keeping your camera warm under your coat, then bringing it out into the cold repeatedly, can also produce condensation.
7) Keep Batteries Warm
Batteries quickly become sluggish as the temperature drops. Lithium-ion types provide the best cold-weather performance, but even these quickly lose power when it's really cold. One solution is to carry fully charged spare batteries in an inner pocket, where your body heat keeps them warm. Switch to one of the warm batteries when the one in use becomes sluggish. There are also external battery packs, which provide more power than in-camera batteries and can be kept warm in a pocket while a cable connects them to the external camera or flash unit. Whatever power source(s) you use, bring fully charged spares. One note about spare batteries: Be sure to purchase genuine manufacturers' batteries. Cheap knockoffs can damage your camera, and in the cold, they won't perform like the genuine article.
When you really want to get off the beaten track for a special shot, a pair of snowshoes is an excellent tool to have. Hiking away from a trail can be a safety issue, and we always recommend traveling with a buddy. In addition to making it easier to walk in deep, heavy snow, snowshoes are safety tools because they keep you from sinking into a snowdrift. It's surprisingly easy to get stuck in such a drift.
9) Memory Cards
Like cameras, some memory cards can handle cold better than others. Check the specs to see what your cards can handle, and buy newer cards, if necessary, before going out into colder conditions. Some cards are waterproof and coldproof; these, of course, would be good choices for shooting in winter conditions. One staff member accidentally ran an SD card through the washer and dryer, and it worked just fine afterward.
10) Tripod Wraps
Aluminum tripod legs can be uncomfortable or even hazardous to touch when very cold (remember that classic scene in A Christmas Story, where a boy unfortunately takes a dare to touch his tongue to a frozen flagpole?). Wooden and carbon-fiber tripods reduce this problem (although carbon fiber can become brittle in very cold temperatures). But a simpler solution—especially if you don't have a wooden or carbon-fiber tripod—is a tripod leg warmer (three of them, if you want to be able to grab any leg of the tripod). These are available from many tripod manufacturers and third-party sources such as LensCoat and AquaTech.
11) Gear Covers
While pro and many higher-end "prosumer" DSLRs have weather sealing, none that we know of is warrantied against water damage. Many higher-end lenses also have some degree of weather sealing, but, again, aren't warrantied against water damage. When using such gear in rain or snow, it's wise to protect it with a plastic gear cover, such as those from ewa-marine, Kata and others. Op/Tech makes a variety of neoprene camera covers that help keep a DSLR warm and make it easier to handle on a cold day. LensCoat makes gear wraps that are also camouflaged, which is particularly nice if you're photographing wildlife.
12) Water/Coldproof Compacts
If you'll be shooting in harsh conditions, it's not a bad idea to take a waterproof/freezeproof/shockproof compact camera along as a backup. Such compacts actually are designed to be submerged in water to depths of 33 feet and beyond with many models and to handle very cold shooting conditions down to 14° F. They're also hardy, withstanding drops from five feet or higher. While they don't offer a DSLR's versatility, these cameras do offer worry-free shooting in harsh conditions. Current examples of this category include the Canon PowerShot D30, Fujifilm FinePix XP70, Nikon Coolpix AW120, Olympus Stylus Tough TG-3, Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT5, Ricoh WG-30W and Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX30.
A UV filter can provide protection for the front element of your lens. A polarizing filter can enhance snow shots, deepening a blue sky when used at right angles to the sun and reducing glare to bring out the snow texture. On a crisp, clear day at some altitudes, the polarizer will render a blue sky much darker than it does on warmer days, when there's more humidity in the air. That dark blue look is prized among many professional photographers.
14) Handheld Exposure Meters
Today's built-in TTL camera meters are excellent, but even they can be fooled by scenes containing large areas of snow in bright sunlight. There are a number of ways to deal with this. Simple: Use the standard multi-zone metering, and check the image on the LCD monitor (and its histogram) after shooting, and adjust exposure accordingly, if necessary. Simple: Use a spot meter, read an important sunlit snow area in the scene, increase exposure 2 to 3 stops from the metered exposure, and check the results on the LCD monitor/histogram. Simple: Use a handheld incident light meter, which reads the light falling on the scene and thus can't be fooled by particularly bright or dark subjects or backgrounds. Excellent, but complex and requiring testing: Use a spot meter (or the spot-metering mode of your camera's metering system) and the Zone System. The Sekonic L-478DR features touch-screen control, and it's ideal for still and motion shooting.
We've all heard that most body heat is lost through the top of the head in cold weather. While that may or may not be true, a broad-brimmed hat is an important piece of gear for shooting outdoors in the winter. It helps keep snow out of your eyes and off your head, and you can use it to shield the camera if you don't have a dedicated cover. A hat is also an excellent lens shade if you're shooting close to the direction of the sun. If you're wondering, Ansel Adams wore a Stetson Open Road hat. It's still a good choice for a nature photographer.
16) Gore-Tex® Outerwear
Gore-Tex® fabrics keep rain and water out while allowing moisture from perspiration to escape. A Gore-Tex® jacket, pants and boots will keep you dry and warm. Of course, you should dress in layers, so you can remove or add items as temperatures change. Long underwear, a normal layer, then the Gore-Tex® outerwear is a good system. A fleece or down vest can provide added warmth, when needed.
17) Camera Bags
A good cold weather camera bag will allow you to get to your gear without setting the bag down in the muck. See the Gadget Bag article in this issue of OP for a look at full-featured camera bags that don't have to be set down to access the contents.
18) Cleaning Cloths & Devices
In harsh conditions, your gear will attract snow, rain, dust and more—more so than in "normal" shooting conditions. So it's a good idea to carry a cleaning cloth and brush into the field with you. A small blower like the Giottos Rocket Blaster makes short work of unmelted snow. A microfiber towel can wipe off snow and rain, while a dedicated lens cloth is good for cleaning the front lens element and viewfinder eyepiece. A soft brush is also a good tool for brushing snow away without encouraging it to melt or otherwise smear on your gear.
It's easier than you might think to become lost when shooting in inclement weather, especially if you're in an area you don't know well. Reduced visibility—which can happen even if the weather is good when you start out—can make navigating tricky. One good safety device is a GPS unit, which lets you keep track of your travels and get back to your starting point. Standalone GPS units are great for navigation. You can also link GPS units to many cameras to record position information (latitude, longitude, elevation and even the direction the camera is pointed) in each image's metadata. There are GPS units designed specifically for this purpose, and a growing number of cameras even have GPS built in, including the Canon EOS 6D and 7D Mark II, Nikon D5300 and Sony SLT-A99 DSLRs.
20) Don't Breathe!
Don't breathe on a smudged viewfinder eyepiece or LCD monitor, and especially don't do it on your lens. You can destroy the coating, permanently damaging the lens. In very cold weather, the LCD monitor may act erratically or even stop functioning; it should return to normal when you bring it back to normal temperature.