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Winter Photography Tips


Click to enlarge Winter is my favorite time of year, where gorgeous frozen photographic opportunities meet you around every corner. Early morning fog lifting off the frozen and open waterways, glistening icicles on the tree branches and water falls, snow covered wildlife, all are just a few of the countless reasons to take photos during the winter months. When I say winter I'm talking about areas that get snow and ice. Like my backyard which is Yellowstone National Park.

If you are convinced that winter photography will only leave you cold and miserable I hope that I can help to change your mind with some key winter photography tips. Winter can be one of the best times to shoot outdoors, and the key to a successful shoot is being properly prepared.

Snow makes traveling more difficult. I prefer to use snowshoes when snow is deep. Why? Because it is easier to maneuver in them, especially when setting up a tripod. In fact you can use two tripod legs on each snowshoe tip and then hope to find a third steady anchor for the last tripod leg using a rock, or tree. Why do I mention this? Because if the snow is deep your tripod will sink out of sight and believe me it is difficult to try photographing from your belly with snowshoes on! The more snow, the longer it will take you to move from one location to another and skies do not work well in really deep snow. If you walk, keep in mind it will take you twice or three times longer to cover the distance depending on snow depth or ice conditions.

Click to enlargeA travel partner makes it easier to move around, because you can each help break trail, and in case of an accident, you have help at hand. Always tell someone where you will be going and when you expect to return. You may never be in a dangerous situation, but if something should happen, you will be thankful that someone knows where you are. Don't be too overconfident with your outdoor skills in the winter. In winter, the sun is much lower in the sky. Thus, the light is good for photography all day long. However, dawn and dusk are still the most spectacular times of the day. Winter can provide as much breathtaking photography as any other time of year. Snow can change the appearance of a landscape or area dramatically, I suggest you go back to your favorite scenic summer spots to document the change. Snow and ice also offer many opportunities for close up and abstract images.

There are a host of complications when taking photos in the winter for not only the photographer, but also the equipment and the resulting images. Before even thinking about gear, memory cards or anything else to do with photography, prepare yourself first, especially if you are unfamiliar with snow. What may start out as a sunny day can quickly turn to blizzard conditions. The temperature will often drop drastically especially once the sun goes down.

It is vital to stay warm and dry, especially if you plan long periods out of doors. Use extreme care when traveling off roads or trails into unmarked open areas. Snow can often build into high drifts. These can cover uneven ground, even deep gorges, making them look like level areas. I once fell into a stream up to my waist not knowing water was flowing below the flat snow surface. Thankfully I was able to pull myself out using my tripod as support. It was below zero and my pants were frozen stiff by the time I got back to my vehicle. Thankfully I had spare clothing to change into and I was back to photographing after warming up in the truck! I could easily have been injured or trapped to say the least. I have seen bison and moose on more than one occasion fall through river ice and eventually drown. Get advice from local officials if you aren't familiar with the area.

Click to enlarge On sunny days it can become quite warm, despite the snow on the ground. It may sound odd but a facial sun block and sunglasses are also a consideration if you plan long periods outdoors. Getting sunburned is a real possibility. Snow blindness is also a major factor as the sun reflects strongly off the white surface of the snow.

The average tone of a snow-covered landscape is far lighter than a medium gray. So, the photograph taken off the snow is often underexposed. Most of your photographs will probably turn out too dark, if you let your meter be your guide. If you photograph snow on an overcast flat day, all you will get is a dull, light-gray photograph... no matter what you do, so strive to keep the sky out of your images. Photography during the winter is a challenge, even for the most experienced photographer. So, don't get discouraged, keep learning from your mistakes and keep practicing.

I'd like to cover three main topics: Clothing, Camera Gear and Camera Techniques:

Clothing

First things first, if you plan to take spectacular winter images, you will need to get yourself ready for the cold. Here is a list of items I recommend you bring:

  • chap stick, sunscreen
  • face mask (Balaclava) with nose protector
  • good hat with ear coverings
  • sunglasses
  • polypropylene glove liners, wind stopping gloves
  • long underwear
  • fleece jacket and pants
  • winter parka
  • insulated pants
  • liner socks
  • heavy socks
  • warm winter boots
  • gaiters
  • ice cleats (Yak Trax with Velcro straps)
  • chemical warmers for hands, feet

The two most important things to bear in mind for winter photography are comfort and safety. You can't work well if you are cold or wet. The secret of winter comfort is layering of clothing, and paying attention to the extremities. It is important to keep your ears, nose, toes, and fingers covered and warm. Many photographers use chemical heat packs for toes and fingers.

Click to enlargeDon't scrimp on clothing. I recently purchased an ICEARMOR (can purchase at Cabela's) cold weather coat and bibs meant for ice fisherman that have padded knees and a padded butt. They work great! Get good boots and make sure you have room in them to wiggle your toes; if you can't wiggle your toes, the boots are too tight and you will have frozen feet. Find good head gear and wear it. The bulk of the heat you lose from your body is through the head and neck region. Your core body temperature will drop without covering your head. Bring several pairs of good gloves or mittens. It's easy to get frostbite if you handle your tripod or camera without protection on your hands. After being out in the cold for awhile, have someone look over your face for signs of frostbite. In the excitement of the moment, photographers tend to think about the image first and their bodies second. And remember to drink plenty of fluids all day long.

As with dressing for any other winter outing, it is best to put on layers, as opposed to one bulky piece of clothing, wear fabrics that will wick moisture away from the body. The concept of layering is that you can dress on the light side when you are hiking into a location but, have more layers to add once you are standing around waiting for the perfect light or action. Remember, you can always take off or add layers as the weather dictates. I generally start with a long underwear shirt, a jacket or pullover on top of that, and then a parka over that. Bottoms are again layered, first with fleece long underwear, pants, then a bib coverall. I purchase pants one size too large so wearing long underwear is comfortable. Venting zippers on the jacket and pants are valuable for regulating body temperature.

Waterproof and windproof outer layers are vital.

The real key to staying warm is to make sure your feet stay warm. Depending on the temperature and depth of snow, I would at least wear a pair of waterproof hiking boots with heavy socks. In colder weather wear boots that have wool or synthetic liners. At night make sure to pull out and dry the liner. There is nothing worse than putting on a pair of wet or damp boots in the morning! In deep snow wear boots with gaiters to keep the snow from getting in between the boots and pants. Boots should grip the snow and ice and not slide on it. Consider using ice cleats for better grip, not "crampons" but "ice cleats".

Gloves, preferably waterproof, are also essential even though they can often hamper the use of photographic equipment. Numb fingers will prove useless in handling a camera! You should wear a thin pair of polypropylene glove liners with sticky lines or dots that allow you to set all the controls on the camera. Consider gloves sold in backpacking stores that have fingertips, or mittens that can be folded back so you can operate the camera with the lightweight liners you are wearing underneath. A waterproof mitten shell is helpful if it is snowing. Many outdoor photographers wear thin knit gloves inside heavy mittens and remove the outer mitts to operate their cameras. Hats are an important defense against losing body heat. I have several balaclava in different thicknesses suitable to all weather conditions.

Camera Gear

Click to enlargeNow that you are aware of the proper clothing, we can take a look at proper care of camera gear. The first thing that may happen when you step outside, will be fog forming on your lens. To overcome this, simply wait a couple of minutes and let the glass adjust to the temperature. The fog will disappear with time. Be patient. If you must, use lens tissue or an anti-fog cloth. The real trick is to have your camera at the outside temperature before using. I leave mine in the camera bag and allow bag and camera to adjust to the outside temperature. I'm also careful about leaving the lens cap on when I go outside.

Almost all the camera gear you would normally use throughout the year can be used in the winter, here is what I generally carry for camera gear in my packs:

  • long lens for wildlife (400-600mm)
  • medium telephoto (70-200mm) with separate carrying bag for camera and lens
  • wide angle (scenics) with separate carrying bag for camera and lens
  • 1.4 or 2x tele-converters
  • Tripod (Gitzo) carbon fiber
  • 16-32 gb of memory cards (I prefer Lexar)
  • 2 camera bodies
  • anti-fog cloth

Notice that I have separate camera bags for my smaller camera/lens combinations. These bags keep snow, rain, mist, etc off the camera when not in use, and I can get to these cameras fast without having to dig through the big pack. The less you have to stop and rummage through a big camera pack while it is snowing the better!

Any tripod will work, but those with plastic control knobs on the legs are prone to freezing and breaking in sub-zero temps. Tripods with heavy duty leg controls such as Gitzo seem to work best.

I also cover my tripod legs in pipe insulation - cold temperatures are easily retained in metal and the less you touch metal parts, the better. It is also more comfortable when carrying the tripod over your shoulder. In the winter I also use specially made tripod leg baskets on the bottom of each leg, just like the bottom of ski poles. This allows the tripod legs to rest on the snow surface.

There are few reports of memory cards having problems in low temperatures. Most users seem to find that even at the lowest temperatures memory cards perform well without problems. I personally use Lexar Professional memory cards.

LCDs (Liquid Crystal Displays) can be affected by low temperatures. Not much you can do about it except to warm the camera up.

Camera Techniques

Click to enlargeNow that you are dressed for winter, you have your camera ready and are set to brave the elements we can now discuss techniques for getting winter images: we will look at organization, batteries, condensation, cleaning cloth, and exposure.

Organization

Get prepared the night before and have everything at your fingertips. The smart photographer organizes their pack the same way for every photo shoot, that way you don't have to guess where items are in the pack. You become slower in cold weather and it is much harder to do the simplest movement with layers of clothing and gloves. Have spare memory cards on your person as well as batteries. If you are constantly messing around in your pack you are missing shots and probably scaring the wildlife.

Batteries

Winter photography requires equipment that will stand up to freezing temperatures. Photographers from more tropical climates might think freezing (32 degrees F or 0 degrees C) is cold, yet neither the photographer or their gear should really experience any problems at that mild temperature! Most cameras, lenses and batteries are rated for use down to freezing and will work perfectly well at much lower temperatures. The problems which may arise in very cold weather are usually mechanical, related to LCD displays or related to battery issues. The main problem is loss of battery power!

At very low temperatures all batteries lose power. This is a serious problem with today's digital cameras as they are totally dependent on battery power. There are two simple solutions to the cold weather battery problem. #1, keep the camera battery warm and #2, keep the spare backup batteries warm! I keep extra batteries in a pocket inside my coat where I can keep them warm. I change out batteries often during the day. Warming up batteries that appear dead will often restore much of their power.

Some photographers use a rubber band and attach a chemical hand warmer to the battery compartment. Others put a chemical hand warmer in their pocket with the battery to speed up the warming process. Another option is to put a chemical hand warmer (available at sporting goods stores) in the camera bag.

Some camera systems have an external battery pack available, which connects to the camera via a cable. This means you can keep the batteries warm under your coat, but the cable between the battery pack and the camera can be inconvenient. A friend of mine built me one years ago, but I found it hard to use with that wire going through my jacket sleeve. It did work though.

Condensation

When going in and out of vehicles, or buildings there is always the possibility of condensation forming on the camera and lens. I try to keep my lens cap on except when shooting. Keep your camera cold. Keep your vehicle cold. Although it is tempting, don't put your cold camera under your warm coat, especially if you've been sweating (that happens as you work to walk through deep snow) as the air trapped under your coat can be humid and the warming and cooling of your camera will cause condensation to form. It is also helpful to keep the camera in its case until you get outside - or better yet, keep the camera in a plastic bag. The condensation will then form on the outside of the bag rather than on your gear. One problem with plastic bags is the noise they make in cold weather. I've seen more than one animal run off after being scared by a flapping bag!

In extremely cold weather, avoid breathing directly on your camera. Otherwise, you may find your camera covered with thin ice. That fog on your eyepiece from your exhaled breath will turn to ice. The only way to clear off the ice is to warm up the camera. What a hassle! I try to either hold my breath or breath out of the side of mouth. Also don't try blowing off accumulated snow on your camera with your breath. Just lightly brush the snow off with your hand or brush. I recommend using a plastic bag or cloth towel to protect camera and lens from falling snow, a couple of rubber bands will help keep things in place. Some photographers cut an opening for the camera lens and viewfinder when using heavy duty Ziploc bags.

When you enter a heated room with cold gear, do not open your camera case immediately. Fogging occurs with sudden changes in temperature. When coming in from the cold, introduce your camera equipment gradually to the warmth. Leave gear in the camera bag for an hour or two so the temperature inside the bag will come up gradually to room temperature. The camera bag seems to be adequate for avoiding condensation. Be sure to remove memory cards from your camera before you bring it inside so you won't be tempted to open your bag prematurely. Remember that memory cards may not download properly if condensation has formed on them!

Cleaning Cloth

What about taking photographs when it's actually snowing or sleeting? If necessary, wipe your lens and camera body with a dry, lint-free absorbent cloth, chamois, or microfiber cleaning cloth. You can buy microfiber cleaning cloths in bulk in the automotive section of Costco. I often drape a microfiber cloth over my equipment while it is raining or snowing. I keep three of them in my pack at all times. There are many good rain hoods on the market, but you can also use garbage liners to keep things dry.

Exposure

The snow covered winter landscape, beautiful as it may be, can be tricky for getting the proper exposure. The camera's exposure meter will give you the wrong reading when the majority of the frame is white snow, thus resulting in an underexposed grey shot. In order to avoid this problem it is a good idea to use your camera's exposure compensation adjustment and add whatever exposure looks correct. Usually +1 works well. It is easy to check your digital camera histogram, or to look for flashing highlights and then readjust. Bracketing your shots is another way to ensure a properly exposed image or take a close up reading of a mid grey object. A spot meter can also be a lifesaver.

Closing

Winter offers exceptional opportunities for wonderful image making. With these simple precautions and camera tips, you'll be able to take great photographs outdoors in cold weather. So don't be daunted when the temperature drops, be brave, dress properly, and get out there and shoot, the world of winter photography awaits you!