Fall color has peaked and gone. Spring flowers are just an anticipation of things to come. Winter is upon us and many photographers have hung up their equipment for the frigid season of the year. And these photographers will miss out on the magical season. Why are so many photographers reticent to venture out into the cold? Well, one reason is that we are all creatures of comfort and being cold is not comfortable. Why do you think all the travel agencies market the warm weather destinations during the cold part of the year? With just a few tips and tricks of cold weather photography you can survive the elements and enjoy the wonders of ice and snow and frigid temperatures.
Fog or frost on your lens or camera– Most of the time this is not brought on by taking a warm camera into the cold. There is very little moisture in cold air to condense on your equipment EXCEPT if you blow on the lens or camera with your mouth. Our breath is very moisture laden, so blowing on to your lens (you know, like a pro is able to do without spitting on it) will force larges amounts of warm, moist air across your cold equipment. Do this when you lens has reach temperatures below freezing and it will cause instant frost on your lens. A friend did this when we were in Yellowstone shooting one winter. His lens was frosted all day until we took it inside and warmed it up and let it dry out. Lesson learned.Another friend iced his metal tripod to his beard by looking through the viewfinder for a long time in one place when the temperature was around 0°F. His breath mixed with is beard, which was long and touching the metal leg of his tripod. The moisture instantly froze his beard to the tripod. So, lesson one, don’t breath onto or around your cold metal equipment when the temperature is well below freezing. That is why I always use a bulb blower to blow of dust, snow, etc from my lenses and cameras.
Powering your equipment in the cold- In the digital age, we are extremely dependant on electrons to power our cameras. Electrons love the cold, but batteries via a chemical reaction supply electrons. Most chemical reactions DO NOT like the cold and become much slower. Meaning less time producing electrons (shorter battery life). How do you get around this? Have extra batteries and keep them warm. One way is to keep several extra batteries inside your coat next to your body. Some people even use warm packs in the same pocket. When your camera battery gets really low, swap it out with a fresh warm battery. You will find that putting the cold battery in your pocket and warming it up will many times revive it so you may just be able to keep switching out batteries as each one gets cold.
Equipment fogging up coming inside – Take a break for lunch to warm up and refuel and bring you camera inside with you and you may find that everything fogs up. That is because there is moisture in the warm air inside. And if your camera or lens is cold and then exposed to this warm, moist air, it will fog up. Choices, a. leave your equipment outside or b. bring your equipment inside BUT leave it in your camera bag. This includes tripods. Do NOT open your camera bag while inside. It takes several hours for the temperature to equilibrate. Once you are finished with lunch, take your bag outside and your equipment should be fine. When you come in for the evening, you have 2 choices. Put your equipment in a plastic bag outside and leave it in the bag for several hours after coming inside. Any condensation will be on the outside of the bag, not on your equipment. Wait at least several hours before you open the plastic bag. What if you forget to bring a plastic bag? Then keep your equipment in your camera bag and DO NOT open it for at least 2 hours as the temperature equalizes.
Keeping the human equipment warm and working– Hands and head are most important. Wearing some type of balaclava over your head that also covers your face and neck will keep you much warmer. Layering is the ideal way to keep your body warm, starting with a good pair of long underwear. Patagonia Capilene 3 is a good choice. Next layer may be a form of Polartec fleece pants and shirt or pullover. Follow this by a waterproof pair of pants and jacket and you should be good to go. Footwear is critical and winter boots by Sorel or Columbia should fit the bill. Make sure you have enough room in the boots, because cramped feet and toes get colder, faster. I usually wear a pair of large mitten shells that can come off easily and underneath I wear a pair of liner gloves. These are usually thin enough I can feel all the controls on my camera, but my fingers don’t freeze off from being exposed to the cold.
Using a tripod in snow – we all still want to use a tripod but sometimes the snow is so deep that it makes it difficult. If you are pushing your tripod down into the snow, caution. If the legs are fully extended and against the stops at the base and you push them into the snow, you can break the base or the legs. Instead, gently push the tripod down into the snow with the legs not completely open against the base. They extend outward as you push down. Also, if your tripod is metal, be careful of touching the metal. You can freeze your skin, beard, and tongue to the metal surfaces. AND, your hands get much colder holding the bare metal. Even with gloves on. Insulate the legs before venturing out into the elements.