Winter is a wonderful time for photography. I thought I would provide a few tips to make photography in the cold more successful.
1. Keep your camera cold. Although it is tempting, don’t put your camera under your jacket. Warming and cooling your camera will cause condensation and render your camera unusable. It is easier to brush falling snow off a cold camera as well. Falling snow on a warm camera makes for first a wet, then a frozen mess. But don’t don’t try to blow snow off your camera with your breath! This too can cause a frozen condensated mess. I have learned all these things the hard way.
2. Keep your batteries warm. Your camera will work fine in very cold temperatures as long as it has functioning batteries. The cold can quickly zap the energy out of any battery, but warming them up can restore much of their power. If I’m taking extended exposures where I can’t afford to have my camera quit such as photographing northern lights, I use a rubber band and attach a chemical hand warmer to the battery compartment. Otherwise I keep extra batteries in a pocket inside my jacket where I can keep them warm. Sometime I put a chemical hand warmer in that pocket to speed up the process. I then rotate the batteries between my camera and my warm pocket.
3. Warm your camera slowly when you return home or in your car. If you walk into the house with a cold camera, it will instantly become covered with condensation. Anyone who has worn glasses in the winter will know exactly what I’m talking about. Some photographers will put their camera gear in zip lock bags and that works fine. I just leave my gear in the camera bag and make sure I don’t open the bag for an hour of two. The camera bag seems to be adequate for avoiding condensation. Be sure to remove film or cards from your camera before you bring it inside so you won’t be tempted to open your bag prematurely.
4. Keep your car cold. This is a tip you will rarely read, but I think it is a good one. Having a cold car will prevent any condensation on your camera as you come and go while shooting. This is really helpful when you are in and out of your car a lot, like when you are driving around chasing northern lights. I have found that if I’m already dressed for the cold, like you need to be while driving a cold car, that I’m more likely to stop and explore photo opportunities. If I have to stop and put on jackets, boots and gloves, I’m more likely to convince myself it really isn’t a good photo opp.
5. Watch your breath. I’m not talking bad breath, but you should watch that too :) One exhale at the wrong time and the back of your camera, and more importantly your viewfinder will become instantly covered in a film of ice. Once your viewfinder is iced over, it is very difficult to clear without warming your camera. I can’t tell you how many times I have done this over the years once I get caught up in the excitement of shooting. I raise my head to look over the camera and boom, in one breath the back is covered in ice. Because I forget this so often, I will often cover my mouth with the collar of my jacket to help divert my breath so that it isn’t a problem. I know of some fellow Alaskan shooters who have used snorkels to help direct their moist breath away from camera gear while working in severe cold. That probably would work great, but may look pretty funny to anyone passing by. I could just hear them; “Dude, you aren’t in Hawaii anymore – just let it go!”
6. Keep your tripod legs together in snow. If you push your tripod into the snow with the legs sprayed, you can easily damage them. I start with the legs just slightly apart, and then I will push the tripod into the snow which slowly spreads the legs as the tripod sinks further into the snow. Having the legs spreed as the tripod sinks helps keep it a little more stable as well.
7. Use chemical hand warmers. These are one of the best inventions. As a kid, I used to use hand warmers powered by lighter fluid – they were really a pain. Today’s chemical hand warmers are easy to use, they start warming the instant you open the package, and can last 6 to 8 hours. Warm gloves are also important, but gloves alone are not enough. The problem with photography is it seems you are always taking your hands out of your gloves to change cards / film or something. Once your hands are cold, gloves can’t rewarm them. It is kind of like a well insulated Thermos that keeps warm things warm and cold things cold – gloves work the same way. So for gloves to work with cold hands, you need a heat source, and that is where the hand warmers come into play. I keep one stuffed in each glove or mitten, and this way my gloves are always warm and toasty when I go to put them back on.
8. Wrap you tripod legs with pipe insulation. This makes them easier on the hands in the cold, and a bit easier on the shoulder if you carry your camera and tripod this way.
Some of the most unique photo opportunities are during winter, don’t let the cold keep you inside!
Here are a few of our winter photos.