Preparing for Cold Weather Photography

Snow Covered Sunrise
Creative Commons License photo credit: nixter

If you’ve ever tried to take pictures when there’s a wind chill factor of minus 20 or more outside, you know this article is for you. Night cold weather photography is the worse because it’s dark, you barely see what you are doing, your fingers are numb trying to change camera settings with the utmost difficulty, and you are shivering your buns off. You are also probably not dressed as well as you thought you were to face the extreme cold temperatures (you thought you’d just be outside for a couple of minutes, eh?) and your camera is also showing signs of cold weather fatigue. So, how do you prepare for cold weather photography? Sip on that hot chocolate and read on.

Cold Weather Outfit

When you check the temperature before stepping outside, check if there’s a wind chill factor. Though the temperature may be only -5°C, the wind can make it feel like a bone chilling -15°C easily.

die Fotografin
Creative Commons License photo credit: qousqous

Dress in layers to keep warm. It is the air trapped between the layers of clothing that heat up and keep our body warm. Start with thermal underwear (“long johns”) and tug that long sleeved thermal shirt into the thermal pants. Roll up thick wool socks on top of the pants to keep it in place. All this tugging of clothing into each other ensures that you keep the heat from escaping your body. Extra pair of dry socks may also be useful in case you get yours wet.

Next, put a turtle neck on to protect your neck. Add a sweater, jacket or parka (waterproof). Depending on the weather, add a pair of your most comfortable pants (loose jeans are fine) or insulated pants (snow pants).

Most of the heat is lost through the head and feet, so wear a toque (the Russian version with ear protection is great) or even a ski mask.

Protecting the hands is the most problematic. Insulated mittens are the warmest and you should ensure you have a pair in the car if only to quickly warm your hands up should they get frozen. You want to avoid frost bite. You want to avoid frost bite. You want to avoid frost bite.

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OK, I think you got the message now: You want to avoid frost bite. Google it to learn the danger of frost bite.

I find the fingerless gloves with a foldable over-mitt the best: it allows you to operate your camera and still keep your hands comfortably warm. Your fingers will freeze, but that’s when you pull the mitt over to warm them up. In extreme weather, you may even want to use a hunter’s chemical heat pack to quickly warm your hands up.

Depending on where you’re going, wear warm boots: short ones are more comfortable but tall ones are necessary if you intend to trudge into deep snow. You want to avoid getting your clothing wet because then all that warm clothing is all for nothing. To avoid getting snow into your boots, cover them with your pants. Make sure your boots have a good tread to protect you from slipping on ice (especially the “black ice” variety that you can’t easily see).

Even though you may be wearing a toque and a turtle neck, make sure your jacket or parka has a thick hood that will keep the wind away. Some hoods have a slight projection up front (like it’s a cap) and that’s perfect to keep snow from falling onto your glasses. You also want a hood that can be tied or zipped or snapped in place: a strong wind will just keep blowing it away from your head and you’ll be dedicating one hand just keeping it in place.

Preparing Your Equipment

If the wind is strong, you want a sturdy tripod, preferably one that is easily opened and adjusted. You don’t want to be messing around twisting and screwing to get it to the right height. Put your camera on the tripod in the car (or house or warm building) before you venture out. Likewise, adjust as much of the camera settings as you can ahead of time. Know what settings you are going to be changing and make sure you are very familiar with how to change them (now is not the time to break open the User’s Manual).

The snowman and his camera
Creative Commons License photo credit: Pylon757

If you are going to be taking pictures at night, bring a flashlight (with fresh batteries).

Battery performance may suffer drastically in extreme cold weather, so make sure it is recharged fully and bring spares with you. Keep the spares warm in an inside pocket close to your body heat. If you are going to be out for an extended period of time, a remote battery pack may be necessary.

Forget about changing lenses outside; you’re asking for trouble. Snow and moisture inside your camera will surely cause damage to your camera.

Flesh sticks to cold metal, so be careful when you handle that tripod. If you are going to be shooting hand held, then put stick-on tape over the metal parts of your camera so cheek and nose skin don’t get stuck onto your camera.

It is always a good idea to have a clear filter on your lens to protect it. A chamois cloth can be used for wiping condensation or snow off the filter.

Before going back inside a warm place, place your camera in its camera bag and do not open your camera yet. Give it time to warm up to the ambient temperature first. It may take as long as 3 hours to allow moisture to fully evaporate and not condense on the delicate electronics inside your camera. Similarly, let the condensation on your lens evaporate naturally instead of trying to wipe it off; you may scratch the lens.


Vintage Thermos flask & wicker picnic basket
Creative Commons License photo credit: H is for Home

In spite of all the clothing protection, you will feel cold once it’s all over and you’re safely back into your car (or house). You’ll need to quickly warm up your body temperature and one way to do that is to eat calorie-rich food (power bars) and drink your favorite hot liquid (keep it hot in an insulated flask).

Scout Locations Ahead of Time

Hopefully, you already know what and where you are going to photograph before setting out. Scout out the places ahead of time when the weather is not bad or in the daytime if you intend to do night photography. This way, you’ll already have an idea how to get there, where to park, and where to set up your camera.

A GPS is a handy device to have and you can store promising locations into it and know how to come back to them later. If your camera has built-in (or accepts an external) GPS locator, you can save the exact locations in your pictures and perhaps come back later when the weather consitions is “worse” (i.e. “correct” for Winter Photography).

Victoria Park, Bedminster
Creative Commons License photo credit: nicksarebi

Winter photography can be fun and rewarding. Just follow these pointers to ensure it’s also safe.

Flickr Winter Scenes (for your inspiration)

Creative Commons License photo credit: adstream

Creative Commons License photo credit: Okinawa Soba

Creative Commons License photo credit: jayKayEss

First snow of winter #14
Creative Commons License photo credit: Victius

Creative Commons License photo credit: cj berry 2009

Frosty Trees
Creative Commons License photo credit: Glory Rumours Photos

Creative Commons License photo credit: Sherwood411

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