The Real World – Cold Weather Shooting Tips


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3 years of cold weather shooting (down to -23F) has taught me a thing or two.  Here are a few rock solid tips – some you’ve probably read a few times, along with a few that will be unique!

Camera and Gear

  • Moving from cold to warm – and vise versa
    • Probably the most common topic addressed, my answer is very simple – pack your gear in a photo bag, and leave it there for a little while. For example, the pack will be warm when leaving your house and will allow the camera gear to gradually cool down in the car or field.  The same concept works when going back into the house – I take my memory cards out of my camera/bag (and anything else I want to get to immediately) and then let the bag sit for a few hours in the warm house.  The camera gear will gradually adjust to room temperature.
  • Keeping your breath in check on a really cold day (this is the really big one)
    • Use a lens hood  - the shorter the lens the more critical this tip is.  Your breath (even straight from your nose on a really really cold day) will roll around and frost up the front of your lens – and there is no easy way to get it off without warming up the lens.  This is a real killer just as the sun starts to crest above the horizon on a fantastic cold weather sunrise shoot (yea, ask me how I know about this!)
    • Use some “Scope Dope” to help keep your LCD clear.  This stuff does a pretty decent job on the LCD and an ok job on the view finder.
    • Use a Hoodman Eye Cup to keep your breath away from your view finder.  Actually turn it vertical like in the image below for the best results, it does a great job of keeping your view finder fog/frost free in all cool to cold weather.

MCT 01 2012 01 02 2012 2034

The Photographer

Feet

  • Keep your feet warm, dry – and on the ground where they belong
    • Don’t slip!  There are now plenty versions of the YaK Trax seen in the image below.  Get a pair, they work wonders on ice (including ice that is hidden below a layer of snow)  There are even versions now that have actual spikes.

  • Dry feet are happy feet!
    • If you’re in wet or snowy conditions, it goes without saying to at least have water-proof boots/shoes.  In light snowy conditions (1″ – 3″) consider a simple pair of elastic leg gaiters (as seen above) to keep the snow out of the top your boots.
    • In heavier snow (greater than 3 inches and up to 7 inches) try some of the Neos brand products.  The image below shows me using the Neos Trekkers in water but they do the job in snow as well.  Warmer versions are also available – to cover both the “dry” and “warm” requirements.  And yes, you CAN COMBINE the Neos product with Yak Trax.

Iphone blue herons 4 4 10 2010 04 04 55 original

Hands

  • My hands are the hardest body part to keep really warm.  Before I talk about gear, here is the most important tip I’ve learned over the years – once your hands (fingers) get cold, you’re in trouble.  Get out of the cold and get them plenty warmed up again.  So the best tip is to have your hands fully warmed up before you set foot outside – “gear up” in advance so you move into the cold with maximum advantage.
    • 1st layer of protection – liners with pockets for warmer packs.  The pockets locate the warmer packs on the back of your hand, above your blood vessels, enhancing the warming impact for your fingers.
    • 2nd layer of protection – primary winter gloves, water proof with thinsulate or other warming material.  How heavy this primary pair of gloves are is up to your personal needs.
    • 3rd layer of protection – Mega Size Hand Warmers. Depending on how cold it is, I’ll keep 2 or 4 of these in my coat pockets.  Hands go in the pockets when not in use and I’ll actually hold these mega warmers in my hands (between my hand and the camera) when I’m doing extending shooting in really cold weather.

Body

  • Keeping your core body temperature up helps you stay warm longer.  So similar to your hands, get toasty (without sweating) before you head outside.  Staying dry is a very critical component of staying warm, and layers are the other key.
    • 1st layer of protection:  Light duty long underwear made of water wicking material (not cotton) to help you stay dry
    • 2nd layer of protection: Medium duty long underwear is added as a layer to increase warmth
    • 3rd layer of protection: Heavy duty long underwear is added (depending on how cold it is)
    • 4th layer of protection:  Outer shell winter coat this is roomy (with your layers on) wind and water proof.  Collar protection and an insulated hood are a must as well

Head

  • Your head is one of the primary places heat escapes your body, so keep protection on and layer it as much as needed.  I’ll typically wear a full face mask and my winter coat’s insulated hood.  When it’s needed, I’ll add a neck gaiter or a warm cap.

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Staying warm is not only the safe and smart way to shoot in the winter, it’s also the path to great images.  When you’re warm and comfortable, you can place all your energy on the task at hand – getting some great shots!!

Stay in focus,

Mark

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10 comments so far

  1. Steve on

    Excellent tips! When the ground is damp, I’ve put my pack on matted down underbrush. Where do you put your gear when you’re in the snow?

    • imperfectphotog on

      If it’s cold enough, it’s not a problem at all! :)

      When is messy or slushy, especially in the spring, I’ll hang my backpack from my tripod hook. Keeps it dry and also adds stability to the tripod. Other times I’ll use thick brush and lay my bag on top of that rather than the ground. Even if the ground looks “dry” there’s a good chance water will wick up and get your gear wet (the same thing will happen around your feet if you’re standing still) – so that’s usually the last place my pack will go.

      Take care,
      Mark

  2. Lisa Cameron on

    A couple wks ago I climbed one of the Adirondack High peaks in UPstate NY about 22hundred feet. My Nikon d3000 did fine inside my coat all the way up the mnt. I stopped quite often to get the shot. When we reached the summet it was very cold and windy and my camera froze. As soon as we were off the summet and out of the wind my camera was fine again. Any tips on how to keep the camera from freezing up on the mnt summets as to get the awesome breathe catchin views? Thanks Lisa C. Upstate NY

    • imperfectphotog on

      Hi Lisa,
      Here’s my best guess if you mean that your focus, zoom adjust, knobs, etc are freezing up – You’re picking up a bit of moisture from your body and warming the D3000 up a inside your coat. When you take it out, the moisture freezes.

      How about taking your battery out and keeping it inside your coat (the one thing you really do want to keep warm) and let your camera hang out closer to ambient temperature on a strap or light duty backpack? I’ve had my Canons out in direct cold (-10ish F) for 5 to 6 hours at a time and have not had any issues.

      Good luck!
      Mark

  3. Terry Julien on

    Love the blog!

    Here in Alaska shooting the aurora at temps down to a painful 62°F below (2006, Harding Lake, Alaska) is a serious challenge so I appreciate your blog about what we go thru just to get that killer “money shot” of the night. Something that has helped me greatly in the digit department is utilizing a pair of Air Force flight gloves as a base layer then a pair of tactical gloves with a pair of Air Force flight mittens with a tiny hole in the tip of the right hand mitten for my IR remote. The last thing I wanna do take anything off. At those temps it’s almost impossible to warm the digits again. Another tip I learned thru aggravating trial and error and serious physical pain is If I’m set up for the shot and the aurora hunting is slow I will take out my battery and carefully put it in my pocket to keep it warm(er) than ambient temps. You must be careful that there isn’t any change or other metal items in your pocket. The battery can start to get really warm and burn you. I use the Nikon D5100 and they haven’t put out a Battery Grip as of yet but when they do I will be sure to purchase it. People have said I don’t need it due to new lithium battery capacity but I beg to differ. The battery hates the cold.

    • imperfectphotog on

      Ouch! That’s cold!!! Thanks for the tips on the Air Force Flight gloves and mitts, that’s a REALLY good idea! I agree on the batteries also – it’s a great solution.

      Thanks!
      Mark

  4. Tony Rice on

    If you can, get a pair of Mukluks for Steger’s (mukluk.com) They are the warmest footwear there is (are?). They also have excellent Artic mittens, and the Icelandic socks are the best. If the snow starts to melt. use the Neos cover boots or old-fashioned galoshes to keep them dry.

    For the hands I like using a pair of glove liners with the wool fingerless gloves the have fold over mittens. If it’s really cold, I use the liners with a pair of Artic mittens.

    For the head, I like a heavy wool balaclava.

    • imperfectphotog on

      Very nice site, Tony – thanks for passing it on! I think I have a few new combinations to try!

      Take care,
      Mark

  5. Bella Remy Photography on

    What a great article, and thank you so much for sharing your cold weather experience. I was wondering, where was the bald eagle shot taken? Super stuff !
    Bella Remy

    • imperfectphotog on

      Hi, thanks so much for the great comments! That Eagle is from one of the best places (in my opinion!) south of Alaska. As long as it’s a good and cold winter, the Eagles will congregate just south of the lock and dams in the Mississippi River. Lock and Dam 14 (Right by LeClaire, IA USA) is the best photo friendly site I’ve found.

      Take Care!
      Mark


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