Photograph in Cold Weather
It’s so cold you can see your breath…mostly in the form of thick frost covering your camera’s viewfinder and ice around the hood of your jacket. You’d scrape it away, but your gloves froze to your tripod a couple of hours ago and your bare hands are so numb they feel like they don’t exist. Worse, your jacket got wet after all that hiking, and now the cold is really starting to seep through and make you shiver.
Before you go home and make that extra-large mug of hot chocolate, realize that there are ways of making your foray into the wild a little more comfortable. After all, the cold temperatures of winter are what make it so beautiful!
Dressing for the occasion will keep you comfortable and allow you to focus on photography instead of your freezing fingers and toes. Long underwear and thick socks are a good start, keeping a layer of warm air close to your skin and wicking away moisture. Insulating layers go over the long underwear — sweaters, jackets, down clothing, and insulated pants, depending on the severity of the weather. Finally, add a wind breaking layer to keep your hard-won heat next to your body where it belongs. If it’s raining or snowing, (see below) make sure that the wind breaking layer is waterproof. Top it all off with a toque (an insulated hat), a scarf or balaclava, and warm gloves.
If you’re going to be outside for a long time, running or hiking quickly, (a great way to stay warm!) or getting even slightly wet, make sure than none of your layers are made of cotton. Layers of thinner clothing are better than one bulky layer, allowing you to strip and dress as needed. Fingerless gloves with a foldable over-mitt will let you keep your hands warm and still easily operate your camera’s controls.
Camera batteries suffer drastically decreased performance during very cold weather. Keep spare batteries in a pocket next to your body, swapping them often with the ones in the camera. In extremely cold weather, it may be necessary to keep all your batteries in your pocket, only loading them into the camera when you’re ready to make a photograph. If you work in the cold often, consider buying (or making) an external battery pack that holds the battery in your jacket and supplies power to your camera through a cord.
Be aware of other limitations of working in the cold too. Metal surfaces can cool skin or even freeze to it, so wrapping your tripod legs with insulating foam or tape is a good idea. Hold your breath while composing a photograph to avoid fogging up your viewfinder and lenses. At northern latitudes, winter days are very short, so get outside before the daylight disappears! If you’re using film, be aware that on very cold (and thusly very dry) days, film can break, or worse, build up static electricity from movement through the camera and create bright streaks through your photos. Wind film as slowly as is possible, (a nearly dead battery can be useful here) and don’t make more than one photograph per minute.
Bring calorie-rich food and a hot drink in an insulated flask, even if you’re only going out for a short time. Hot liquid warming your insides on a cold day is not to be missed! Hot drinks also help warm up frozen hands that spent too much time on tripod duty.
After your arctic adventure, when you bring your camera equipment inside, keep all camera bodies and lenses in their cases until they warm up to room temperature (about 3–4 hours) to prevent moisture from condensing on delicate electronics inside your camera. After your equipment has warmed up, open the cases and allow any accumulated moisture to fully evaporate before using the camera again.
Don’t let the unique challenges of cold-weather photography keep you inside! The world can look very different and beautiful on a cold day — ice, snow, and frozen mist have all been favourite subjects for me in the past. Keep your eyes open for hoar frost, patterns in frozen water, and icy steam coming from warm water or underground venting systems. Winter light, especially at northern latitudes, can be very pure and white. The sun sits low in the sky, and lends a very 3-dimensional look to most subjects. With a little foresight, cold-weather photography can provide you with great experiences and remarkable photographs!