Having recently been to Norway, well north of the Arctic Polar Circle during winter, when hours of daylight are short and temperatures are low, I became quite aware of the fact that those conditions are far from ideal, both for our bodies and for our equipment. Before leaving on that trip, I made a list of precautions to take so that long hours spent out in the dark and cold would not make me feel miserable, or worse be wasted by equipment failure.
With this article, I want to share some tips I’ve learned shooting at night in cold climates that have helped me make the most of the experience.
Keep your Batteries Warm
Cold temperatures can reduce the capacity of batteries. Keep your spare batteries on yourself, such as inside an inner jacket pocket, in order to keep them warmer.
Use a Headlamp (with a Red Light)
A headlamp is a very useful accessory because it keeps both of your hands free to do whatever you want. Current LED headlamps can be very powerful though, which can sometimes be a problem. If your eyes are getting used to the darkness, shining a bright light on the back of your camera or on the snow-covered ground will blind you for a few seconds.
Many headlamps come with a red, dim light that can be used instead of the bright, white one. This light allows you to still see clearly at a short distance, but it does not impact your night vision.
Use Fingerless Gloves
Keeping your hands warm is essential to surviving cold temperatures, but thick gloves make it impossible to operate most camera controls. The solution is to use gloves with removable fingertips, like these ones from Vallerret. For added protection and to avoid touching metallic and cold camera parts, you can wear thin lycra or silk gloves underneath.
Learn to Operate your Camera in the Dark
You can use a headlamp as suggested above, a flashlight, or even your smartphone to illuminate the back of your camera. However, sometimes constantly turning the light on and off can be a chore and having a light constantly on may be a nuisance for nearby photographers.
Being able to quickly and confidently operate your camera in pitch black darkness can alleviate much of this. Can you switch the camera to playback mode, zoom in, and pan in order to check focus accuracy?
Train yourself to access and change the most common settings without looking at the camera. Go to a dark room or put the camera under a blanket and regularly exercise your finger memory.
Watch Out for Condensation on the Front Element
I’ve had more than one shot ruined because, in humid climates, condensation was forming on the front element of my lens. Even if condensation is hard to see through the viewfinder, it has the potential to make a whole night of shooting go to waste. Check the lens frequently and wipe it with a soft, dry cloth from time to time.
Avoid Condensation with Zip-able Bags (such as Ziploc)
Whenever you are transitioning from a cold environment to a warm, moist one (such as coming in from outside), moisture can condense quickly on cold items such as the camera body or lenses. This moisture can take a lot of time to evaporate, especially when it is inside a lens.
To avoid this, put your cameras and lenses inside zip-able bags before going inside, then let them warm up gradually before taking them out again.
Some of my best images were taken during winter nights, as I just love the kind of atmosphere that can be created by blue, starry skies and snow on the ground. There is no reason to miss those opportunities for creating great photographs just because you are not well prepared and equipped. I hope that, by using the suggestions I have shared in this article, you too will be able to do the same.