Cold Weather Photography and Camera Care
Cameras hate two things about the cold: the batteries don’t work well and when they’re cold and come into a nice warm home, condensation forms on the glass. Then there’s the photographer. Keeping warm and enjoying your shooting is ALMOST as important as “getting the shot!” I will talk about these things and some tips for subjects and getting the shot.
Batteries are a storage system for the electric blood that makes your camera work. Just like in the human body, when they get cold, the blood doesn’t want to flow. The cold isn’t hard on batteries like a lot of people think (mostly while they’re waiting for AAA to come and jump their car). The cold actually preserves the energy, but it makes it hard to get it out when you need it and batteries seem to go dead faster because of this.
Here are a few tips: First, go out with fully charged batteries and have at least one extra with you. Don’t keep it in your camera bag, but keep it on you where it can stay warm from your body heat. If I’m hiking into a location, I’ll often take the battery out of the camera and also keep it in my pocket with my spare battery.
Now, the camera itself: You want to keep it dry, warm, and safe. To start, I always have a few bags in my backpack, enough to put the cameras and lenses in just in case it really gets messy out. In winter, this is even more important. When you pack your equipment, it’s nice and warm, but as you run about, your equipment will get cold, and it will get cold fast. For the most part this won’t affect you when you’re out shooting, but you should consult your manual for guidance about the temperature limits of your camera, which differs between makes and models.
If you’ve ever worn glasses, you know what happens when you walk into a warm house from the cold: they fog up. This happens with cameras as well, but it takes a lot longer for your camera and lenses to warm back up due to their mass. You also really don’t want moisture on the glass or electronic parts of your camera so after you’re finished shooting and BEFORE you go inside, put your equipment into airtight bags and let them warm up, usually for about a half hour.
Keep yourself in good shape
When you’re out in the cold, the weather is often not perfect. There’s snow and slush on the ground, you’re often walking on slippery surfaces, and your kids just love to show off their snowball fighting skills… So protect your equipment. A good, water-tight backpack is my choice, but a camera bag also works well. The backpack keeps everything dry and a little warmer than being out in the elements. It also keeps your hands free in case you start to fall. A backpack will not swing around if you fall like a camera bag might.
Gloves are a MUST. Simple gloves or mittens work, but they can make it difficult to work the dials and buttons in your camera and you’ll take them on and off when shooting, leaving your hands cold. I have these cool hybrid fingerless gloves with mitten flaps that are attached. They can be flipped back so I can use my fingers while shooting, then flipped back over my exposed fingers keeping them warm while walking. I purchased these at my local running store, so they are high tech, slim, light weight, and perfect to work with.
I know you hear every winter to dress in layers, but when you’re out hiking and taking photos you will be standing while you set up and wait for the subject matter to cooperate. Be it the sunset or an animal, you’ll want to add some layers. Then when you get back to hiking, you’ll want to lose some layers because sweating leads to hypothermia. Last but not least, dry boots and warm socks are key to being happy in the weather.
One thing I keep with me from November through April is chemical hand warmers. These little packs slip into your gloves and are a blessing. You can pick them up at any sporting goods or camping store. I buy a box or two online at the beginning of the season. They’re also a great way to make friends when you are out with a group.
Shooting in winter when the air is clean and crisp has its benefits: the sky is bluer, there is less smog and other pollutants in the air, and if you are looking for wide landscapes of popular locations, there are fewer people hiking around. The sun is lower in the sky, giving you better quality of light for more hours of the day. The shadows are longer, giving more interest to landscapes, and if you’re photographing people, your light source is at a better angle for flattering portraits.
Snow, glorious snow…
This is often a favorite subject matter in winter. Snow can create some stunning possibilities, be it a bleak, almost monochromatic background to isolate your subject, or flowing drifts that seem to make a dreamscape. But the snow will confuse your camera and wash out even a properly exposed image if cautions are not taken.
Your camera is designed to expose for a neutral 18% grey. So when you press the shutter button, the camera tries to make white snow grey, and that does not look good. You want to shoot to get the snow to be bright but not blown out. Use the histogram and/or the highlight warning. This is the one instance when I recommend going with the shoot to the right (meaning to be slightly overexposed). You can pull the shadows out, but once you have gone above a 255 level, there is not getting it back. I set my highlight warning at 245.
Use your lens hood. I always recommend using the lens hood, especially with snow and bright sun. Light is bouncing around, so keep it off the front element. A UV filter is another good thing to always have on your lenses to protect them. In winter with the cold, snow, and sleet, it is a lot cheaper to replace a filter than a lens.
Once you’ve finished shooting and are about to pack it up and go home, pull your memory card and put it, your camera, and lenses inside a plastic bag to warm up. Electronics and moisture from condensation do not mix. Keep them in the airtight bags until they warm up. If you’re like me, you’ll want to hop right on the computer and start downloading the images, but take the time to let your equipment acclimate while you enjoy a nice hot cocoa.
Have fun, stay safe, and keep your equipment in good condition. Enjoy the winter shooting and share your photos. – by Tim Farmer