Photographing in Cold Weather

If you live where I live you have no choice to embrace colder temperatures. As I write this today its -29C with the wind chill outside. And hey, let’s face it, there are opportunities for great images everywhere, from snowy landscapes to winter sports, migratory birds coming down from the arctic and frozen nature scenes.

Unfortunately for us though, our cameras aren’t always conducive to spending long periods of time outside in the cold temperatures. The manufacturers designed our cameras to work in moderate temperatures. They aren’t designed to withstand prolonged time, or even moderate time in the real cold days. Functions slow down, batteries die faster than an ice cube on a hot sidewalk and they can become susceptible to damage as the temperatures drop.

There are, however, a few simple things you can do to protect your camera from the cold weather. These tips will help keep it operating for as long as possible in the cold weather and help protect it from damage. (And you can trust me that these tips are field tested and worthy of taking note of. Each year we spend weeks in the chilling temperatures running workshops to photograph the snowy owls in temperatures that can exceed -40C with the wind chill)

But before we get to the camera. Let’s talk about keeping you warm and alert.

The cold temperatures effect you as well. In fact, the reality of it is that you are more likely to give up before your camera does, so it's important to go out properly prepared for the temperatures and the environment.

The easy answer is to wear plenty of layers to keep you warm. But with today’s technology entering winter clothing, that’s not always the prudent choice.  

When I go out to photograph owls, here is what I bring along:

My base layer includes thermal undergarments rated for medium activity and cold temperatures. This will allow you to move around and not sweat excessively and start the spiral down the bone chilling path.

My feet will have a pair of thermal socks. Try not to double up on socks. Your feet sweat, and when wearing two pairs of wool socks, the dogs won’t breathe and sweat will start. Makes for smelly, cold feet and a very uncomfortable outing.

My hands are covered by two pairs of gloves/mits. Under the heavy mits that I bring are a thin layer of gloves that are nimble and thin enough to allow you to operate the camera functions and keep the wind off your bare fingers.

The reason for mits on top of them is that it keeps your fingers together in a warm environment and will keep them much warmer than gloves.

I also bring hot shots, or chemical hand warmers that last for seven hours. They are a godsend.

On top of my thermal undergarments on my legs I wear flannel pajamas with pockets. They serve as a second layer and the pockets will keep spare batteries and my iphone warm,

On top I wear thermal sweater made by Columbia or Wind River. They keep the heat in.

My shell is made up of waterproof and wind proof snow pants and a jacket that is wind proof and waterproof.

On my feet I wear \marks Work Warehouse brand boots called WindRiver. They are rated for -60C and are waterproof and fit like a slipper.

Lastly, my head… and this is probably more important than anything. On my head I wear a skull cap under a good winter, wool hat that covers my ears. Keeping your head warm will really be the difference between freezing and comfort.

Take Spare Batteries

OK folks, on to the camera and accessories… Of all the parts of your camera, the battery is by far the one which is most affected by changes in a cold temperature. A simple drop by 10 °C can cause your battery life to deplete by as much as half of what you are used to. It isn’t fun to wander out into the landscape only to find that your battery drains long before you are done.

To help prolong your battery's life, turn off all unnecessary features of your camera. This includes the LCD screen, flash, image stabilization, and stop excessively peaking at your photos. ;-)  You should also turn your camera off completely whenever you're taking a break between shots.

No matter how careful you are with your battery, there's still a good chance it'll run out, so take at least one spare. Carry it in an inside pocket to keep it warm; this will help maximize its life once you start using it. Remember the pockets in my flannel pajamas? It’s a perfect spot to keep your batteries and your phone warm. I see lots or people throw their batteries and phones in their jacket pockets, and most of those people go for their spare battery and find it has died right in their pockets.

Remember this as well… When you do swap batteries, put the depleted one in the same pocket and warm it up again - after a while you'll find that it's regained some of its life and is ready to be used again if you deplete the second battery you used.

Protect Your Camera from Condensation

Moisture inside your camera can damage electrical components and leave watery marks on the inside of lenses, making it the number one thing to avoid when heading out for some cold weather photography.

Condensation is caused when you move from cold air to warm air or vice versa. When shooting outdoors in the winter, this typically happens when leaving your house, and when returning later, so you have to be particularly careful with your camera at both of these critical times.

The first thing to do is to ensure that any temperature changes happen as gradually as possible. A good way to do this is by leaving your camera in an intermediate environment such as a porch, garage, or car. Doing this for at least an hour in between environments will give your camera time to adjust to the conditions more gradually.

This reduces the chances of condensation forming on your lens or electronics. I either put my camera back in the camera bag that had been in the car when I take it inside, or put the camera and lens in a plastic bag to allow gradual temperature changes. A note that you may not know to remember. Remember those silicon packets you get in your boxes when you open up your camera when you bought it… throw one of those inside to help with the transition with minimal condensation formation.

Provide Some Padding

In cold weather, camera bodies and lenses become more brittle, meaning that they break more easily.

To protect your camera from being dropped, keep it in a padded bag or case as much as possible when not taking photos, and only remove it when you're standing still, on firm ground. When you do remove your camera, be sure to use the neck or wrist strap, as it can easily slip out of your hands, particularly if they're cold and wet or if you're wearing gloves with cold fingers.

I will lay my camera bag in the trunk and place the camera and lens in that bag when transporting it. To location or back and forth from my home or hotel room.

Winter photography can be a lot of fun, but it can take its toll on your equipment and body… but it can also be a rewarding experience that produces some exciting images.

I hope your next winter outing is warm and produces great winter images.

If you want to come to Canada and photograph all the great things we offer in the winter like Snowy Owls and Northern Lights, see our Canadian Workshops here...