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.
A fresh layer of snow adds a beautiful element to any landscape shot
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:
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.
A self-portrait in my full winter kit, on the frozen tundra of northern Manitoba
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.
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.
Moose, photographed from my car.
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!