Contrary to what many people believe winter is a great time to get out and enjoy photography. Winter brings unique landscapes frequently covered with fresh snow, frost and rising steam. Winter birds arrive and often congregate at bird feeders offering the opportunity for close shots. Ice begins to form on streams and waterfalls creating dramatic photos. On cloudless evening you have the opportunity for star shots. I was initially prompted to write down some of my experiences by a question regarding winter photography on Nature Photographers Midwest Discussion Forum. These tips are based on years of winter photography and the many mistakes I’ve made over those years.
You need to dress for the weather you expect to encounter during your outing. Dress in layers so you can add or remove clothing as conditions change. A couple of years ago I walked out to the Apostle Islands Ice Caves when it was minus 10 degrees outside. I decided to wear my heavy winter coat but on the mile hike out to the caves the sun came out and walking though heavy snow I found I was way overdressed. By the time I reached the caves I was tired and wet with sweat. I didn’t make that mistake again. I now wear several layers of cloths that I can take off or put on depending on conditions. On really cold days I usually start with long johns as a base layer followed by wool pants and flannel shirt. I then add a fleece vest or jacket followed by a windbreaker. On the bottom I usually wear rain pants to protect against the wind and to keep me dry because I usually spend a lot of time on the ground or ice shooting.
I like to wear pop top gloves that convert from mittens to fingerless gloves. The top of the mittens fold back exposing the tips of my fingers so I can work the camera. This allows me to operate the camera without removing the gloves. When I close the top of the mitten it just takes a short time for my fingers to warm back up. I also have a larger pair of the same type of mittens so I can wear gloves under them if it is really cold out.
I wear outer clothing that is waterproof in case I encounter wet snow. This type of clothing also keeps me dry when I kneel or lie down in the snow to take photographs.
Shooting waterfalls and the Apostle Islands Ice Caves on Lake Super requires spending a lot of time walking on ice. I always carry STABILicers traction devices for the bottom of my boots. They have steel cleats that provide excellent traction even on steep icy slopes and Velcro straps that make them easy to put on and remove. There are a variety of such devices on the market that work well on ice and hard packed snow.
I’m an avid cross country skier but carrying a 35mm SLR while skiing is a challenge. Using a traditional backpack works but I find that the effort to stop and remove the pack to access the camera results in far fewer photos. I finally turned to a sling pack that I can carry in front. This is much more comfortable and allows easy access to the camera. An added benefit is that when I fall I can protect the camera easier that I can when carrying it on my back.
The Camera and lens
Understand your camera. The last thing you want to be doing is trying to figure out where the camera settings are when you are out in the cold. You might want to do a trial run with your gloves or mittens on so you can see how it will feel when you are out in the field and determine if your gloves or mittens will work for you.
Your camera should work well in cold weather but you should be aware of that plastic parts can become brittle in very cold weather so act accordingly when installing or removing batteries and memory cards.
My Battery is dead is one of the most common complaints I hear when doing winter photography. Folks get ready to take the picture of the day only to find their battery is dead. Batteries don’t do well in cold weather! Always charge your batteries the night before you will be shooting and always carry spare batteries. It is best to keep the spares in a warm place such as an inside pocket where they will stay warm. Another option is to use a chemical hand warmer to keep batteries warm. As a side note, I also keep my cell phone in the same place so it is ready if needed. If you don’t have spare batteries you may be able to get some additional life from the one you have if you remove it and put it in a warm place between shots.
Frost can be one of your worst enemies. You need to be aware that breathing on your camera or lens in cold weather will result in frost and you may not be able to see the image on your LCD or see through the viewfinder. Also don’t blow on the lens that is a disaster. I had a bad habit of blowing dust offthe lens and forgot for a second and tried to blow some snow off the lens at lens at minus 10. It was a while before I was able to do any shooting that day. Try not to exhale onto the camera. A face mask helps divert the hot breath from the camera. This is particularly a problem if you stop to take a photo while are hiking or skiing.
Don’t try to keep your camera warm you could end up causing condensation problems. Snow melts on a warm camera and will cause ice when it freezes. It is much easier to remove snow from a cold camera. Don’t put your camera under your jacket to keep it warm particularly if you have been sweating a lot. This can lead to moisture buildup.
Even in winter you equipment can become wet. I do a lot of winter waterfall and icefall photography and it is not unusual for water to splatter onto my equipment. Snow, particularly wet snow can be a real problem. I was shooting in the UP this year and had a day where it rained, followed by heavy wet snow and the worst part was the heavy wet snow dropping from trees as it started to warm up. Prevention it the best option in dealing with moisture problems. Always use a lens hood to protect the lens from falling snow or water. A plastic sleeve that covers the lens and camera to help keep it dry is handy to have. I always carry a plastic grocery bag with me so I can pull it out quickly and slip it over the equipment. Always keep a lens cloth handy to wipe the lens. A handkerchief comes in handy to wipe the camera and lens down. I also use it to cover the camera and lens if there is not a lot of moisture. A small piece of ShamWow is even better because it absorbs more water.
If you are using a telephoto lend it will also likely become a little sluggish if exposed to prolonged cold weather. I borrowed a tip from a recent experience with my son’s cell phone. The phone dropped out of his pocket in the front lawn just as we were taking him back to college. When we returned three days later I started looking for it and due to a heavy frost found a white spot in the lawn. It was the cell phone. I wiped it off and put it in a Ziploc bag with some Uncle Bens rice. After a couple of days it was good to go. I now place my lens in a Ziploc bag with some rice before any extended winter trip to remove any moisture that may have gotten into it.
When moving camera gear from a cold environment you need to protect it so it doesn’t collect moisture. When I’m done shooting outside I usually put my camera and lens in a pack and zip the pack shut before bring the gear into a warm environment such as the car or house. If I will need to get into the pack for some reason I will put the gear in a gallon or two gallon Ziploc bag. If you will need access to your batteries and memory cards remove them before you store your camera and store them in a separate bag. Keep in mind that it can take hours for the gear to warm up. You also need to be careful if you are shooting from the car. If you leave the car for a while and then bring the camera into a warm car it can fog up. I usually don’t heat the car when I’m shooting from the car or getting in and out frequently. I also find that keeping my outdoor clothing on makes it easier for me to rationalize stopping for a photo.
Treat your tripod with care. At below zero temperatures equipment can become a little more prone to breakage so treat it accordingly. Carrying a tripod around in cold weather can be brutal. If your tripod legs aren’t already wrapped with insulation you can buy some pipe insulation and wrap that around the legs. If you have small hands and need less bulk you can use bike handlebar tape or Vetrap Bandaging Tape
When setting up the tripod in snow be careful with the legs. If you open the legs and push them into deep or crusted snow you will end up at best with an unstable tripod and might hyperextend the legs. I usually open the legs and then pack the snow down where they will rest. If you don’t do that you should partially open the legs then place them in the snow. They will open as the tripod is pushed down.
Your tripod head can become sluggish in cold weather. Sometimes this is caused by moisture getting into the head. You need to be careful not to exhale onto the head in cold weather. This can cause the head to ice up and result in moisture getting into the head. The manufacturer for my head recommends treating the head with wd-40 several times before a cold weather trip. This lubricates the head and removes any moisture that may have gotten into it. Please check with your manufacture before you try something like this.
I’ve lost quite a few rubber tips on my tripod during winter photography. They get caught on crusted snow or ice and fall off. This problem was resolved with a little electrical tape. I taped the rubber tips to the tripod legs and haven’t lost one since.
Under exposure is a common problem when shooting in snowy conditions and usually results in grey snow. The cameras exposure meter sees all of the light coming off of the snow and reduces the exposure to compensate. You usually need to compensate by over exposing the image. I usually take a shot and then look at the histogram. You want the histogram to be as close to the right as possible without spilling over. Usually a one or two stop overexposure will work but let the histogram determine the appropriate setting.
Winter often brings grey skies. A graduated neutral density filter or the use of multiple shots taken at different exposures can bring out some of the character in the sky and still retain the foreground. In the case of multiple exposures you want to blend the photos to create character in the sky and still retain the foreground. Using a High Dynamic Range (HDR) computer program can also be effective. Another option is to eliminate the gray sky from the photo altogether.
As with most photography the best time of day to shoot is the early morning and late in the afternoon to capture the warm colors. Winter is no exception although the sun is lower in the sky in the winter and offers a longer period for peak shooting. The low sun adds contrast to your photos that might not be there at noon.
It’s fun to shoot when it’s snowing out but in order to capture the falling snow you must shoot against a dark background. You can vary the shooting speed to created different effects. I particularly like to take bird photos while it is snowing.
You can enjoy some of my winter photos at my website.