Cold Weather Photography How-to

Cold Weather Photography

Successful Cold Weather Photography

Winter comes every year, and despite the beauty of winter land- and cityscapes, there are surprisingly few cold weather photos. Of course warmer weather can be more comfortable, but with just a little bit of knowledge you will be surprised how good your winter photos can be. Let’s get started.

Empower Yourself

Yes, knowledge is power, but I’m talking about electricity. Cold weather photography can present special challenges for batteries and electro-mechanical equipment. The lubricants in modern cameras will perform adequately unless you are shooting in Arctic conditions for extended periods. Batteries are a different matter. Although there are differences in cold-sensitivity among the various battery types, all become less efficient as they get colder. An easy way to meet this challenge is to carry spare fully-charged batteries in a pocket close to your body so that they are kept warm, and start out with fully-charged batteries in your camera. Whenever you get a low battery warning simply exchange the cold batteries for warm ones, input cold ones back in your warm pocket to get them ready to go back in the camera. By the way, if you are planning an extended shoot in polar conditions, consider having a reputable photo repair shop make sure that your camera’s lubricants will be up to the challenge.

Control Your Camera’s Temperature

Your camera needs to “warm up” to the idea of cold weather photography. Actually, if your camera is in a warm place you will do well to allow it to cool to the outdoor temperature before exposing it to the elements. Otherwise, moisture inside the camera and lens might fog interior glass surfaces such as lens elements, the photosensor shield, and an SLR’s mirror and prism. Usually 10 or 15 minutes are sufficient. I prefer to keep compact cameras in a plastic zipper-bag in the trunk of my vehicle on my way to a cold weather shoot. I keep larger care in the trunk as well in a weatherproof case. Putting your camera bag in a trash bag and closing it with a twist-tie will work just as well. Just be sure you know what is inside any bags you decide to discard.

Temperature management is just as important when moving from the cold to warm areas. Plastic bats will help protect your gear from moisture until it has reached room temperature.

Cold Weather Photography Needs Cold Weather Photographers

Being human requires attention to the human element — you don’t want to be found frozen to your tripod a few days later, or lying beside it after the spring thaw! It’s best not to venture far by yourself, and even if you’re with a crowd, someone not with you should know where you are going and when to expect your return. Take a cell or smart phone if service is available, and whatever navigation aids are appropriate for the situation.

The need for adequate head gear increases as the amount of hair decreases and the size of the ears increases, and proper gloves are essential. They need to keep wind away from your skin and keep your fingers warm enough to work. They also need to allow you to firmly grip and operate your camera, so make sure they have enough texture not to slip on equipment surfaces. Sometimes I use gloves made without fingertips, but keep big mittens available and warm inside my coat. Hot liquids can help warm you and your hands, but remember that what goes in must eventually come out.
Winter Photography
Keep yourself dry! Being wet and having wet clothing will accelerate heat loss from your body and can be downright dangerous when shooting in the cold. Waterproof clothing is essential in rain or when the temperature is high enough for falling snow to melt, and that includes your boots. Oxfords and loafers are OK in the car, but not out in the cold.

Cold weather photography needs a cold weather tripod, too. I recommend one that has rubber grips near the tops of the legs. They’ll keep the tripod’s metal from pulling heat from your hands.

Snow and Snowy Days & Nights

If snow is white how come it turns out blue or gray in photos? It’s all about the way cameras estimate correct exposure — they assume that the scene is average and try to make it look average, so bright scenes will look dull and dark unless you intervene. Starting out with an exposure compensation of about +2/3 is a good place to start. Learn more about exposure compensation here.

Remember that you can’t trust your camera’s screen to judge exposure. The histogram is the only tool you can count on. A daytime scene with a lot of snow should have a histogram with many counts on the right side of the screen. You can keep warm and dry while practicing by taking pictures of white appliances or walls. Be careful to not expose so that the histogram has counts piled up against the right side. That is in indication of severe overexposure and your image will lack detail.

underexposed Snow Photography
snow photo
overexposed snow photograph

You’re all studied up on winter and snow photography…

Now Go Get Some Cold Weather Photographs of Your Own!

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