Cold Weather Photography Tips

By Jonathan Huyer

Winter - call me crazy - is my favourite time of year for photography. This is fortunate, because in my mountain home of Canmore, Canada, winter can last for half the year. The snow and ice make for terrific landscape shots, and the short winter days also mean that you can sleep in and still catch a nice sunrise shot. Wildlife photography is also readily available in the mountain parks, with the exception of the hibernating bears. But winter photography brings with it a host of challenges that don’t exist at all in the warmer months, and being properly prepared can make all the difference. This article is an attempt to summarize the things I’ve learned over the years, mostly by trial and error, that have allowed me to survive and even thrive in the harsh weather.

Jonathan Huyer - Train in Snow

A fresh layer of snow adds a beautiful element to any landscape shot

Clothing

It’s fairly obvious that the most important item for successful winter photography is your choice of outerwear. The goal is to find clothing that protects you from the wind and cold, and yet also allows you to move around freely and operate the camera. I work on a layer system, and adjust according to the conditions of the day. Here is the complete kit:

  • Boots: NEOS overshoes (for temperatures above -15 C), or thermal lined winter boots for colder days. In areas where I will need extra traction (on ice, for example), I add traction spikes to the boots. I have found that Kahtoola Microspikes work very well for this.
  • Pants: Long underwear, lined blue jeans, waterproof shell pants, or insulated ski pants for colder days
  • Top: Merino wool layers (two or three), plus a big fleece hoodie
  • Jacket: Canada Goose Expedition Parka
  • Head: Wool toque (that’s a Canadian word, eh)
  • Hands: Thin windproof gloves inside big insulated overmitts
  • Face: For the coldest days, I add a face mask and ski goggles

On top of this, I always make use of chemical heat packs. They are easily the best solution for cold fingers, which is the greatest challenge in winter photography. I use four at a time and stuff them inside my thin gloves as well as the overmitts. If I’m only going to use them for a short period of time, then I will seal them in a zip top bag to stop the reaction and enable them to be reused later.

If you are standing outdoors in extreme wind or cold and need to use ski goggles, then your biggest difficulty will be keeping them free of fog and ice. I have heard that Smith goggles with a battery-powered fan are excellent at this, and I’m going to try them out next season.

Jonathan Huyer Self-Portrait

A self-portrait in my full winter kit, on the frozen tundra of northern Manitoba

Photography Gear

  • Tripod – In cold weather, simple tasks like setting up your tripod can become painstaking and arduous. A tripod with big locking knobs that you can tighten with your mitts on is a huge asset. When you set your tripod down in the snow, test it to be sure that it is stable. The snow may seem steady, but the tripod might still sink when you add the camera. If you are going to be on ice, you can often find spiked points for your tripod legs that can replace the standard rubber pads. I’m a big fan of using the centre hook on the tripod to attach a weighted object (I hang my camera bag from it). The stability improves dramatically with this trick. I’ve seen tripods blow over in winter gales... don’t let that happen to you.
  • Camera – It’s really quite amazing how well digital cameras work in cold temperatures. I have never had a mechanical problem with my SLRs, in temperatures down to -37 C. The battery will always be the weakest link in the system, and you will need to keep a close watch on the power meter. When it gets low, swap the battery for a warm one (I carry two spares inside my jacket). Once you’ve reheated the cold battery, it will regain most of its charge and will be good to use again. In very low temperatures, the LCD screen on the top of the camera will become sluggish and eventually fade out completely. Fortunately the rear display screen is immune to this issue, so you can use it to monitor and adjust your settings (Canon has the ‘Q’ button for this purpose). If you are taking aurora photos at night, use a headlamp with a red filter on it to help navigate your buttons. One of the best tricks I learned is to use a cable release, and stuff it inside my left mitt. That way I can operate the camera shutter with toasty warm fingers. Composing your shot can be very challenging if you are using the viewfinder. If you accidentally breathe on it, your beautiful scene will be replaced with a cloud of fog or ice. I carry some Q-tips in a plastic bag in case I have to deal with that problem.
  • Lenses – Perhaps the biggest challenge with lenses in cold weather is making use of filters. I love using polarizers and neutral density filters, but they are all fiddly and can never be manipulated with mitts on. My only solution is to use the thin gloves and work as quickly as possible. Practicing ahead of time is helpful. I carry a rocket blower in a pocket to remove any snow that might fall on the filters. A blower is also handy for getting rid of snow that might accumulate inside a lens hood.

Jonathan Huyer - Winter Sunrise

A winter sunrise shot, taken with a tilt-shift lens and a graduated neutral-density filter.

After the shoot

When packing up, I remove the lens and attach the caps to both the lens and camera body. Then I seal the camera in a zip-top bag before bringing it indoors. I leave the lenses and other gear inside my camera bag, and when I bring them indoors I am careful not to open the bag for several hours until it has warmed up to room temperature. This will avoid condensation or ice formation on your equipment. The camera will warm up faster in the separate plastic bag. Once it is at room temperature you can remove it from the plastic bag and open the compartments to access the memory card and battery. If you are in a hurry to access your memory card, then remove it from the camera outdoors before you put it in the plastic bag. But seal the card in a case, to warm it up separately and prevent condensation from affecting the contacts.

Milder days

If the temperature outdoors is mild (-10 C or warmer) then the camera will have no trouble being outdoors all day long. If you are photographing from one location (such as on a wildlife shoot), keep the camera outside until the end of the day. The battery should experience very little power loss at that temperature.

Photographing from a vehicle

When taking wildlife photos in the winter, it is often beneficial (and more comfortable) to stay inside the car. Your car is a portable blind, and animals are usually a lot more likely to stick around if you shoot from the window. However an unexpected issue can arise, due to warm air flowing out of the window when you open it. Your backgrounds will appear noticeably mottled, and your subject might also lose some sharpness from the refraction. The solution is to turn off your heater fan, and open all the windows when you are shooting. Yes this will make the inside of the car a lot colder, so be prepared by dressing appropriately and wearing thin gloves. Don’t forget to shut off your car engine as well. You’ll eliminate vibrations, and the silence will enhance the experience you are having with the wild animal.

Jonathan Huyer - Moose

Moose, photographed from my car.

Summary

Winter can be a fantastic time for photography, and being properly prepared can make it all the more enjoyable. As always with photography, practice helps immensely, so don’t hesitate to get out there and make the most of a cold-weather day.

You can check out http://www.huyerperspectives.com/ for many more images captured in cold weather!

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