The solitude and beauty of nature is what brought me to landscape photography. The joy of hearing the snow crunch beneath your feet as you find the pristine location blanketed in white is magical. As you stand motionless, you can feel the quiet stillness from that blanket of snow covering the land. For me, these moments release all stress and breaths life back into my soul. However, winter photography gives its own set of harsh challenges. If unprepared, it can be detrimental to your gear. With that said, these are my 5 indispensable tips for cold weather photography to protect your camera gear from extreme cold during the winter photography season.
Give Your Camera a Coat
My unspoken rule is that if I’m wearing multiple layers, then my camera deserves at least 1 layer. While most digital cameras provide some weather protection, I don’t advise testing them to their limits. The longer your gear sits out naked in the cold, the probably increases that you will run into an issue based on the temperature, wind, snow, and/or ice.
When the camera will be sitting on the tripod, I prefer to keep either a rain cover or wrap a scarf or balaclava around it. When possible, I use a lens hood as well. In reality, I’ll use whatever is available to protect it from the elements, particularly it there is any type of snow falling or blowing around. To be clear, when I’m actively shooting in clear conditions, the camera is naked. If I’m waiting for short periods of time, then I cover it.
If I will be waiting for a long time, then I’ll take the camera off the tripod. Instead, I’ll put it in my camera bag or keep it close to my body. Sometimes, I’ll put it under my outer most layer. My goal is to not let the camera’s temperature drop too low unnecessarily by sitting out in the cold for long periods of time. For example, snowflakes can melt and then refreeze in little cracks or around your filters. A filter frozen to your lens in the field is frustrating! Plus, all that cold puts a drain on the battery.
Have the Back-up Power
While this may be the simplest piece of advice, I feel it is the most critical. Batteries discharge quicker in cold weather. Therefore, I recommend having a few batteries with you as well as being diligent about recharging them in your downtime. Last, I keep my batteries in a case or bag and normally keep the bag in one of my interior coat pockets.
Expose for Snow
In scenes with a lot of white snow, the overwhelming amount of white can fool your meter into under or overexposure depending on the conditions. My approach is to expose for the brightest part of the scene and ensure none of those highlights are being blown out or overexposed. Shadows detail is easier to pull out in post-production than recovering highlights. If I’m shooting in bright sun, then I will be cautious if the snow is acting like a giant reflector causing some lens flare. Normally, this is a simple issue to solve by using your lens hood.
Gradually Warm-Up Your Gear
After shooting and when you are still outside, pack your gear into your camera bag and zip it. Once you get back home or at your hotel, let your still-zipped bag gradually come up to temperature. Avoid putting your bag next to the crackling fire or any heat source. Normally, I drop my bag by the entrance area or a windowsill and let it sit for an hour or two. That’s my time to grab a coffee or hot chocolate, warm up by the fire, or crash and get a few hours of sleep. If you need to see your photos immediately, then remove the card from the camera while outside. Put it in a bag in your pocket before packing the rest of your gear in the camera bag.
Some recommend putting the cold camera in the airtight plastic bag while still outside. This is done so any moisture will form on the outside of the bag and instead of on your gear as it comes up to temperature. It sounds like a viable tip to me, but honestly, I have never had the need to do it with my method of letting my zipped camera bag gradually come up to temperature. If I was returning to a place with increased humidity, such as a place using a humidifier to keep the house/hotel more comfortable, then I would use the plastic bag approach. That way the camera and lens will be surrounded only by the very dry air from outside. Pick your preferred method or even both.
Essential Winter Photography Accessories
Apart from winter clothing, I research and bring at least 2 pair of good gloves. The first pair are my good, insulated, and provide good dexterity so I can shoot without my fingers being exposed to conditions. The second pair is simply a back-up if something happens to my first pair.
I always make use for chemical heat packs also known as hand warmers. I’ll keep them in my pockets to keep my hands warm. Sometimes, I’ll tape them to parts of my tripod which may be subjected to freezing or even throw one or two in my camera bag while outside so the inside of my camera bag doesn’t get too cold while outside. They don’t get too hot so there is no need to worry.
In addition to the hand warmers, I always have a few desiccant or silica gel packets with me. Normally, I prefer to purchase the larger ones from a photo store or Amazon and leave these water and humidity absorbing packets in my camera bag pretty much all the time. No matter how careful or quick you are, as soon as you open your bag outside, a small amount of snow has a good chance of drifting into your bag. The desiccant packets will help soak up this moisture.
A rocket blower is great for removing snow that might fall on your camera or lens. Actually, I always have one of these with me no matter the season. For more on winter photography, check out my article on Effective Winter Photography Field Strategies.