Cold Weather Photography

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!

Arti­cle cour­tesy of Mark Ray­mond Mason photography